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Book Review: The American Duchess: The real Wallis Simpson

Wallis Simpson aka the Duchess of Windsor – specifically her role in the 1936 abdication of Edward VIII – has always been presented in the same familiar way: the scheming twice-divorced American desired to be England’s queen and thus cast a spell over the playboy prince. That’s the official version of those long-ago events, albeit a rudimentary one. So it’s especially welcome that Anna Pasternak presents in The American Duchess a much more nuanced account of an affair that sent shockwaves through inter-war Britain.

In Ms Pasternak, Wallis certainly has a solid advocate. For what emerges from this absorbing biography is a woman of some resourcefulness, one whom very likely found herself in a situation from which extrication had become impossible. Indeed, in this book Wallis is charm personified, intelligent, considerate a lady whose qualities captured the heart of a flighty prince. While the heroine had ambition to spare, this narrative suggests that ultimately she got caught up in the eye of a storm over which she had no control.

Although Wallis’ (unremarkable) Baltimore childhood is examined, the book wisely soon arrives at the fateful meeting with Edward, the little ‘Peter Pan’ heir to the British and Commonwealth throne. Viewers of the superb Thames Television Edward and Mrs Simpson from 1978 will no doubt recall Edward Fox’s superb portrayal of Edward. Reading these pages Fox’s Edward bounds out of every page, an impetuous, rather selfish but one feels genuinely warm character yearning perhaps to escape the royal straightjacket. And along came Wallis Warfield Simpson.

Making judicious use of royal correspondence – much of it stinging in tone - Pasternak charts the intrigue which ensued. It seems there might have been an instant attraction from the moment Edward and Wallis were introduced by mutual society friends. At any rate, it didn’t take long for the rumour mill to start. This is always a problematical moment for those in the Wallis camp. For there is little doubt that in order to get her prince she had to somehow leave behind her husband, Ernest, the forgotten man in this great affair of the heart. What makes it all the more problematical is that while another man wooed his wife directly under his nose, Ernest behaved impeccably. It’s as if he sensed destiny calling. And yet he never really stopped loving his wife.

Hence the charges that Wallis was an opportunist. Despite the inevitable risk to her subject, to her credit Pasternak sets out the facts. Wallis was mesmerised by the prince, felt the honour of being his chosen one – acutely so; what sort of woman wouldn’t? After all this was not just any old cad, this was the future king of England who had become besotted with this slim, angular and rather odd-looking American. Wallis Simpson was different to anything Edward had ever encountered.

Reading about how Prime Minister Baldwin and parliament did everything possible to thwart the relationship – threatening to dissolve parliament – brings home the immense pressure the couple were under to separate. Pasternak makes it crystal clear that Wallis was prepared to sacrifice her man for the country. According to the author she begged the prince not to abdicate. Edward, strong-headed as ever, refused. At this crucial moment in history Wallis comes across as a woman torn apart. While her beau lived vey much in the here and now, the more mature, thoughtful Wallis understood how the fairy-tale would likely end.

It is certainly shocking to read how the royal family shunned the couple following the abdication. Edward and his bride thereafter lived a peripatetic life of indolence between rented villas in France and sorties in the Bahamas. Let’s just say that Queen Mary, George VI and especially Elizabeth, the Queen mother do not come out of this very well. Edward was effectively banished from the country he loved, an estrangement from which he never recovered and which his wife knew was a punishment for which, rightly or wrongly, history (if not her husband) would always hold her responsible.

Following the abdication Pasternak’s book picks up its pace. The Duke and Duchesses’ final years are related in such a way to make even the most anti-royal heart heave. Maybe it’s just as well that the author does not dwell upon those decades in the wilderness. According to this account the Windsor’s love endured. And yet one can’t help but feel that Wallis Simpson’s true love had really been the noble Ernest.

True to character, having snared the most eligible bachelor in the world this doughty lady took full responsibility for a decision that maybe, just maybe she regretted for the rest of her life. Maybe, but if that’s so Anna Pasternak isn’t saying . . .