The Duchess by Wendy Holden – Wallis in Wonderland or a Love that changed history?

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.  

The Governess by Wendy Holden – the story of a woman trying to live her own life alongside a royal progress.

The Governess by Wendy Holden, 

Marion Crawford became governess to the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret in 1933. She was not an obvious choice; her background was unconnected to high society and she had left wing sympathies. In this fictionalised account of her life Marion is a strong willed young woman who wants to make difference, and probably did in an unexpected way. Marion, or “Crawfie, is apparently not mentioned much in the official accounts of the royal family’s life, as she was seen to have betrayed their privacy by writing her own story. This is how the author starts this intense novel, with an elderly woman waiting for a sign that she is important to the two women she devoted her life to for so many years. At one point she says to the young Margaret “I sacrificed my happy days for you, you see.”, and much of this book is about her choices being affected by others.

 The story is about national events from Marion’s perspective, an insider but never truly on the real inside when trouble arose. This is a well researched novel which takes a particular line of narrative which blends assumptions with objective history. It makes no claim to be a documentary, and some of the story may be inaccurate, but overall this is a novel which is secure in its settings and makes sense of some grey areas. It is the story of a strong woman who is determined to ensure that two girls would have contact with a world beyond the palace walls. Marion’s desire for her own life conflicts with what is perhaps the greater need of a girl destined to be queen, and the events which shaped her. This is a perceptive and intensely written novel of big events, human relationships and the reality of life in royal households at a significant time. 

At the beginning of Marion’s story she is an idealistic teaching student who finds a sharp contrast between the rarified atmosphere of a private boys’ school and the harsh nature of life in Scotland’s poorest slums. She is determined to make a difference, especially when she comes across Valentine, a student at Edinburgh university who has great ambitions to change the whole of society. She is seduced in several ways, as well trying to help Annie, a small girl in terrible poverty. Marion is persuaded to take a holiday job with the then Duchess of York’s sister, and is firmly persuaded to transfer to the Duke’s household. From there she is a witness to the inner workings of royalty, the personalities that led to an abdication and its effects. A time of war, the developing personalities of the girls and much else is explored in depth. 

There is another story of Marion’s own life and relationships alongside the royal progress, of a woman from a modest home, struggling to find the right clothes, the right words for dealing with unique situations. It is at once a personal story of daily life in an impractical world of protocol and tradition, as well as reflecting the remarkable people ranging from royal dressmakers to heads of state. There is loyalty, betrayal, affection and many different kinds of love. It is moving and powerful looking at a significant time from a specific point of view, a personal progress through an unusual life.I found it an enjoyable and intriguing  read.  I recommend it as a book with real depth for anyone interested in the life of a woman at the heart of affairs with an unusual perspective of the development of a queen.