The Duchess by Wendy Holden
The story of Wallis Simpson is probably well known. An ambitious woman sets out to win the affections of the Prince of Wales. When he wants to marry her there is such a wave of disapproval and uproar that he abdicates from his recently inherited throne, and their exile begins. This clever novel upsets the usual view of Wallis as an ice cold adventuress by simply making her human. This is subtly done by working in two time periods, one beginning in 1928 with Wallis’ marriage to Ernest Simpson, and the other in June, 1972 at the time of David’s, the Duke of Windsor’s, funeral. While one period runs from the last months of the 1920s to 1936, the other looks at the hours and days of a funeral in which Wallis cannot publicly grieve while surrounded by a royal family who have rejected her. This book concentrates on the progress of a woman who did have ambitions to belong, but who was perhaps too good at fulfilling that ambition. It is moving, fascinating which offers a revealing version of events propelled by people with their own agendas.
The Prologue sets the tone of the funeral journey that Wallis has to make after David’s death. She is broken by grief, by the struggle to accept the death, by the fact that he is only now being accepted back in Britain “In coffin of English oak”. The story then reverts to Wallis on her honeymoon in 1928, unable to fully embrace married life after the trauma of life with her first abusive husband
The research behind this novel is impressive; it describes the clothes that a woman like Wallis, wife of a not very successful businessman would have actually worn, how maybe she would have tried to improve them by subtle alterations. It also describes the clothes that she would have aspired to wear, believing that they would convey something of their social success. She is seen as a woman looking in on a life that she desperately wants to be part of, the later Bright Young Things whose seemingly charmed lives are in sharp contrast with her need to stretch every penny. An accidental meeting means an introduction to the glorious Fort, home to the rebellious and in her eyes, wonderful Prince of Wales. While Ernest is unhappily nervous about the whole situation, she revels in the luxurious surroundings and the chance to feel at the heart of an exclusive circle. As time progresses she knows that she is becoming embroiled in a tricky world where she walks a narrow line between acceptance and rejection.
This is a book which I found fascinating, presenting as it does an explanation for events which probably shaped some of the twentieth century in Britain through the point of view of a woman on the edge. The author has taken a particular view of a woman who became and to an extent still is a matter of debate, and this is a novelist’s version of her life. It flows well and presents the two men in Wallis’ life, Ernest and David, as people with their own agenda. This is historical fiction in relation to the Windsors just as many writers would tackle other dynasties such as the Tudors, though obviously with people who remember some of the events described still available for comment. It presents a picture of a woman as a real person caught up in dreams which suddenly become reality in the full view of the public and eventually history.