Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, has been a much vilified character due to her role in the history of the British monarchy and like many, I had a rather negative opinion of her and was in no rush to change it. However, when Anna Pasternak’s new book, “Untitled: the real Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor’ was published, I was intrigued.
I have to admit that part of the draw of this book is Anna’s beautiful writing. Her previous book, ‘Lara: The Untold Love Story That Inspired Doctor Zhivago’ has left a huge imprint on my brain & soul, so I was intrigued by Anna’s brave tenacity to take on the subject of the Duchess of Windsor, especially considering the popularity of the Royal family. Anna had my attention from the moment I read the prologue, her words flowing like the river on a calm, sunny day.
‘The fault lay not in my stars but in my genes’ HRH The Duke of Windsor
Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David Windsor was considered the world’s most eligible bachelor. Women wanted to be courted by him and men were equally beguiled. Not only was he tall, blonde and blue-eyed, but he projected an aura of glamour. So much so was the strength of his charisma in his youth that even the senior Palace courtier Alan Lascelles (if you are a fan of ‘The Crown’ you will certainly remember his character) ‘gushed in 1921 that the heir to the throne was ‘the most attractive man I ever met’ – it didn’t prevent him from becoming HRH fierce critic in later years though.
When news broke of Prince of Wales having an affaire with a married Wallis Simpson (who was on her second marriage when she met the heir to the throne) from under a media blackout evoked in 1936, what many failed to grasp was why he became enchanted by a somewhat unconventional looking American woman, when he could have courted any society beauty he wanted. Within a short time she ‘became a caricature of villainous womanhood. Instead of welcoming or at least giving her a chance, her reputation was defamed and she was blamed for the things that she never had any true control over’.
‘The real tragedy for Wallis is that she could never have been prepared for what was to come, for the speed with which events spun so quickly out of her control. She certainly was no saint, but she was far from the sinister manipulator depicted in many accounts’
Anna has the most incredible gift for writing, particularly when it comes to historical biographies. She meticulously researches her subjects, yet they come across as human, living, breathing people whose lives still resonate in modern day and age. I drank every page in, pondering the facts and opinions expressed by those that actually knew both Edward and Wallis (and spending time with Nicholas Haslam as part of the research couldn’t have been anything, but fascinating to say the least – he also provided Anna with rare insights and a letter (I won’t spoil the surprise by saying which one and from who .)
With a recent addition of Meghan, The Duchess of Sussex, to the Royal family, I also tried to consider whether the archaic snobbery Wallis encountered when living in London – ‘ The British seemed to cherish a sentiment of settled disapproval towards things American’ – is still alive in our day and age. Did it give way to racism in modern times, as the other side of the coin? I was also surprised to learn that Wallis was burried at Frogmore, where she lies next to her husband, a place close to the house the current Duke and Duchess of Sussex now call home.
Wallis, born Bessie Wallis Warfield, was born into an old Southern stock family and tellingly, her parents got married without the approval of their respective families. Not endowed with ravishing looks, throughout her life Wallis cultivated in herself such qualities as wit and resilience, as well as charm – something that won her many fans later in life. Her sense of style and elegance is something that remains admirable to this day, as she understood the true sense of glamour. Sadly her father passed away when she was just five months old, but her mother rose to the challenge admirably, never allowing self-pity or despair to go on visible display. Wallis’s mother was supported by her brother until she remarried, but when Wallis’s first marriage came to an abrupt end, because she could no longer tolerate her husband’s drinking, her uncle and mother weren’t particularly understanding or supportive of her plight. Her second husband, Ernest Simpson, by all accounts was an exemplary man and husband. And it wasn’t easy for Wallis to leave him, in fact her hand was forced by Edward, yet Wallis and Ernest continued to hold each other in high regards for the rest of their lives.
Maybe because she was American, maybe because of her own personality, Wallis wasn’t intimidated by Edward and when she made an interesting comment to him after overhearing a conversation earlier the heir to the throne had with his uncle, he was startled and impressed, because ‘no British woman would have dreamed of speaking to him in such direct and provocative way’. The seed of his attraction to her was invisibly planted and its growth quickly gathered speed, strengthened by the events of national importance.
‘Edward described his life before marriage to Wallis as a ‘disconnected pattern – duty without decision, service without responsibility, pomp without power’. He worried about many things and she seemed to be able to sooth his brow and calm his frayed nerves. She steadied him, but his family didn’t want to see that and the events unfolded, as we know from history, quite dramatically. What might have seemed glamorous from the outside, was in fact full of pain, sadness and suffering for years to come.
Anna doesn’t paint flawless characters, instead she pieced an intricately large puzzle together meticulously, doing vast amount of research and sincerely trying to somewhat rehabilitate Wallis in the eyes of the public, which didn’t get to see an unbiased version of her until now. Edward didn’t abdicate easily and suffered gravely due to the separation from his homeland and his family. The main problem being the failure of his mother and brother to give Wallis the recognition he thought she deserved.
Its somewhat telling that the former King had many supporters (including Sir Winston Churchill), but that is not to say that he was an easy man to deal with, nor that he didn’t make grave mistakes, in part because of his emotional disposition. What Anna proves beyond doubt is that those two people did love each other and didn’t start, nor continue their relationship on a whim. Unable to have children together, they clung to each other in moments of despair and laughed when things were good.
‘It was easier for the Royal family to believe scurrilous rumours than to consider hard and constant evidence to the contrary.’
Reading this book can become a soulful experiencing, especially when many of us see the life of the Monarchy from the outside, when internal family conflicts and relationship are still fiercely protected from prying eyes, preserving the mystique. And yet this books offers an extraordinary insight and paints an unbiased picture of everyone involved. With the two leading characters long departed into the land of the dead, I think it’s only fair to lay unjust ghosts to rest and see Wallis Simpson in a true light. I know that reading it has certainly changed my initial opinion of a woman who never had a chance to put her side of the story into the world. Anna managed to do that with calm, meticulousness and grace. A truly extraordinary, eye-opening gem of a book!
Anna Pasternalk is a writer & journalist. She was educated at Christ Church, Oxford.
‘Untitled: the real Wallis Simpson Duchess of Windsor’ by Anna Pasternal, William Collins, 342 pp, £20
All images are from the book