Very tiring week and glad to have a few quiet days at home to catch up on the pile of books awaiting the Thoughts of Random. I am starting off with That Woman the latest biography of Mrs Simpson, by Anne Sebba ('That Woman' is how the Duchess of York referred to Mrs S).
The premise of this book is that the tide of vilification and hatred which Mrs S had to put up with all her life is not totally warranted and the author wishes to redress the balance somewhat. Now in order to do this the reader has to change his or her mindset that this was the Love Story of the Century and as very few people seem to think that way now after the number of biographies and letters re the Abdication and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor which have been published over the last thirty years, it is going to be hard to persuade me, not the DOW's greatest fan, that she is deserving of any sympathy at all.
I have always found the Abdication crisis a totally fascinating piece of history and have read everything I could lay my hands on about it. I remember very well reading an article in the Sunday Express when I was about ten which was illustrated with the photo of the Duke boarding a ship which was to take him away from England and feeling terribly sad for him. The article was pitched very much against the scheming American who had 'pinched our King' as it would in the 1950's, but I remember thinking at the time (I think I was born cynical I really do), that she had been divorced twice and why should anybody think the third marriage was going to be successful? And then the thought struck me how awful it would be if the marriage was unhappy as there was no way she could ever leave him - how do you leave a man who gave up the throne of England and being head of a great empire in order to be with you? Well, of course the answer was, you couldn't and therein lies Mrs Simpson's tragedy.
Anne Sebba has made much of the fact that she has discovered unpublished letters never before seen, written by Wallis to Edward Simpson during and after the divorce which showed how fond she was of him and how much she regretted the situation they found themselves in, mourning the loss of a partnership which they had both enjoyed and had been easy with each other. Channel Four produced an excruciatingly banal documentary based on these letters which was spread out over an hour when fifteen minutes would have done. It was the usual simplistic presentation: Wallis and Edward lived at Bryanston Court, cue blurry shots of period futnirute and desks with pics of Wallis; Wallis went to the South of France with the Prince of Wales, cue blurry shot of somebody swimming in the sea (probably filmed at Bognor or Southend); the Prince gave Wallis gifts of fabulous jewellery, cue blurry shots of emerald and sapphire ear-rings swinging and twinkling in the light. I could go on and on but will desist. I just wish producers of such documentaries would stop treating viewers as if they had the attention span of a newt.
It makes for a wonderful story, the discovery of these letters (shot of Anne Sebba opening the envelopes as if she had just discovered them), and yet when you come to the book is really only a small part of the narrative, the letters being a brilliantly used marketing tool to sell the book. Nothing wrong in that and I very much enjoyed reading That Woman, very readable and carries the reader along nicely, but it did not tell me anything I did not already know (though I appreciate that not every reader will feel the same as me and discover new things in in), once more the idea of Mrs S and her techniques learned in the brothels of Shanghai was raised, also the possibility that she might not have been a total woman (this is a theory which has been raised in other biographies and articles), the fact that the was very mannish and had a deep voice giving rise to this theory. It has been mentioned before and I have always found it slightly distasteful that this should still be discussed but that is the way of biographies now, nothing is sacred and, let's face it, sex sells. In my opinion, for what it is worth, I have always felt that the Duke and Duchess of Windsor's marriage was a pretty sexless affair, his need for her bordering on that of a child for its mother.
I do feel some sympathy for Wallis. She was hard nosed, she was greedy for money and the cachet of being part of the POW's circle, she was pretty clear eyed about the Prince, always thinking that he would find a new favourite in due course, and poor old Ernest just had to put up with it (though it didn't do him any harm in business it has to be said). Wallis had her moment and she was determined to milk it for all it was worth and to get as much fame, money and jewellery and influence she could grab. She wrote to Ernest describing the Prince as Peter Pan and clearly was not in love with him at all - it was what he could give her which was the raison d'etre. But, if ever the proverb 'You've made your bed and now you must lie on it' was apposite, it is here. Her bed was beautifully made up with the best sheets and pillows and it became her life long prison when the POW developed an obsessional love for her, the kind of obsessional love that only the weak and insecure can bear, he could not stand to have her out of his sight, he ran round after her, responded to her every whim and when she, belatedly, realised the fix she was in and tried to leave, threatened to kill himself if she left him. What was she to do? She was now swept up in events that she had no control over and it was in this period that these letters to Ernest were written. Wallis is clearly out of her depth and frightened, aware that for the rest of her life she would be vilified and traduced and was now bound to somebody she appeared to hold in contempt. It was a truly appalling situation and the fact that this came about because of her own behaviour would not have made it any easier to deal with.
I could write about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor for pages more, but I won't. If you have an interest in reading about the Abdication and the events surrounding it you can certainly read this book with enjoyment and interest, and I would then recommend more Simpson/Windsor reading from Frances Donaldson, Philip Ziegler and Michael Bloch, not forgetting the excruciatingly embarrassing and ghastly letters written between the couple - the Duke's infantile and childish character which comes though in these missives is really cringe making.
And at the end of That Woman, I decided I admired the Duchess and my sympathies were engaged. She seemed to have given the Duke hell many times throughout their marriage, but she made the best of it, keeping him happy and entertained, finding things for him to do through those long empty, shallow years of flitting from country to country, house to house, from couturier to dressmaker, to jewellers and parties. All so dreadfully sad. When he died and she was on her own there was nothing left for her, the Duke had been her life and now he was gone and she was left to moulder away, alone and neglected in her house in Paris and doomed to a truly dreadful slow and sad demise, bedridden and frail. It is quite heartbreaking and no matter how much one may dislike and blame her, it is impossible not to feel sorrow, she left no family behind, no friends and nobody to mourn her. How tragic.
And yet,while writing this post, I remember a programme about the Duchess on television shortly after her death. One of her long time servants was being interviewed by a BBC drone as she stood outside the French property where the Duchess had just died. With breath taking insensitivity the interviewer thrust a microphone under his nose and said 'Did you Like the Duchess?'
There was a silence and then came the answer, which I have never forgotten.
'No I did not like her ....(pause)... I loved her'
I was glad to remember this after reading this biography. Somebody had cared for her after all.....