The Duchess by Wendy Holden: Richly detailed and page-turning drama - book review -
It started off as the most exciting adventure of her life… an open door to the top echelons of British society and an affair with the golden, glamorous Prince of Wales.
But for the American parvenu Wallis Simpson, the dream is about to become a nightmare because the old king has died, her lover is the new monarch, and now she feels trapped in a world she never wanted to be permanent.
The story of the scandalous relationship between the mercurial heir to the throne and his married Stateside mistress gets a new and compelling twist in the second book of bestselling author Wendy Holden’s historical fiction series about ‘difficult women’ in the House of Windsor.
The first book of this fascinating series, The Governess, fictionalised the long-buried story of Marion ‘Crawfie’ Crawford, childhood governess to the Queen, and the third, The Princess, will feature the lesser-known early years of Diana, Princess of Wales.
But here, Holden paints an intriguing portrait of the spirited, stylish woman who has been blamed for the abdication of King Edward VIII… and, daringly, imagines Wallis as an unwitting victim of a man who never wanted to be king and deliberately used their affair as an escape route from his royal destiny.
Set against the gilded backdrop of the aristocratic social scene in pre-war London – a place of wealth, wild parties, dining on foie gras, and drinking Pol Roger champagne at the Ritz – Holden’s enthralling story weaves between the early Thirties and the funeral of Edward, Duke of Windsor, in 1972 to bring this history-changing chapter of British royal history to vivid life.
When 34-year-old Wallis Simpson arrives in London with her new husband, Ernest, from New York, she is eager to start a new life after a tricky few years, including a divorce from her abusive first husband.
But to the lively American, eager for fun, London seems cold, dull and unfriendly, and although Ernest is a kind and honourable man who adores her, his family shipping firm is in trouble and money is tight.
Wallis longs for parties, the theatre, and glamorous, interesting friends, but the British have social codes that can’t be cracked and an impenetrable class system, and to them, she is just a middle-aged foreigner without looks, money or connections. Soon she is so lonely and miserable that she almost gives up and goes home.
By chance, on a ‘cultural’ visit into the city, she catches an unexpected glimpse of the Prince of Wales leaving St James’s Palace in a black limousine and is struck by the look of absolute ‘misery on the face of the idol of the Empire.’ Republican or not, her heart goes out to him.
And as Wallis inveigles herself into high society – thanks chiefly to eccentric design and fashion guru Cecil Beaton who recognises her as ‘a kindred soul’ – she finally gets to meet David, as the Prince of Wales is known to his friends and family, and he is captivated by her high spirits, lack of sycophancy and her encouragement of his efforts to modernise the monarchy.
As friendship becomes love, Wallis enters a glittering world of luxury and privilege. It’s all a glamorous dream but she knows it won’t last. None of the Prince’s affairs do and once it’s over, she will return to the understanding Ernest.
But when King George V dies suddenly and David succeeds to the throne, everything changes. Far from tiring of her, the new King Edward VIII becomes determined to marry her… and to make her his queen.
Caught in a dizzying sequence of events, which eventually threatens the Crown itself, Wallis realises too late that she is trapped and facing disaster. But has this been Edward’s intention all along?
Holden’s ‘what-if’ account of Edward and Mrs Simpson – with its uncanny parallels to a more contemporary American Duchess – is superbly researched and written, and brings with it a fresh and more sympathetic perspective on a scandal that is now over 90 years old.
In this richly detailed and page-turning drama, we see a very different woman to the ambitious schemer who was reputed by some to have entrapped the future king. Instead, Holden has her as a victim of a miserable childhood and a first husband who abused and beat her.
Forever seeking love, protection and safety, whether through a reliable, loving husband or through the cushion of wealth, this Wallis is naïve, impressionable, insecure and yet still sensitive to the suffering of others, constantly seeking refuge in furthering her prospects in a brittle and alien society about which she knows very little.
And the prince proves to be the weak, needy and vacillating character of repute… drawn to Wallis’ American candour and wit, in love with her lack of aristocratic wiles, and clinging to her as his safety net from the arduous royal responsibilities that he inherited at birth, his love for her becomes increasingly obsessive.
Intimate in its portrayal of a notorious love affair, and plausible in its imaginative power, The Duchess is biographical fiction at its entertaining best.
(Welbeck, paperback, £8.99)