When I first embarked on this inspired and impressive book, I knew little about Wallis Simpson beyond the fact she was, from all accounts, an unpleasant and almost universally hated woman. 283 revelatory pages later, I was made aware, through Anne Sebba's biographical skills and psychological perception, of all the early influences, including sexual and physiological abnormalities, that went to shape her character, and also of her complicated life-history, with its frequent changes of locale, friends, lovers and position. Sebba steers us through all the twists and turns with admirable expertise, bringing each place and person vividly to life, and never forgetting the wider national and international situation, which played so important a part in Wallis's life, if only by default.
Her depiction of the Prince of Wales, Wallis's lover and, later, husband is equally assured. Sebba goes beyond the outwardly insecure and self-willed man to reveal the reasons for his basic weakness and vulnerability, including childhood neglect and bullying by his father, King George V. And, as his love for Wallis grows into an all-consuming obsession, and his urgent need to marry her becomes more crucial than anything else, including kingship itself, Sebba draws us into the web of intrigue, gossip, scandal and political crisis that accompanied the legal and personal manoeuvering on each side. This was no mere personal drama. Not only did the fate of the nation hang in the balance, but the looming shadow of World War II made the heir to the throne's ultimate decision a matter of still greater import. One of the most fascinating of Sebba's conclusions is that his marriage to Wallis actually did the world a favour by removing from the throne a highly unstable man, and one with strong German sympathies. Indeed, had Hitler invaded and occupied Britain, there was a real possibility that the Duke would have agreed to become a puppet-king for the new regime, since he and Wallis had been favourably received on their trip to Nazi Germany in 1937, where he and Wallis were feted by the most prominent German leaders, including Goebbels, Himmler, Hess and Ribbentrop.
One of the great ironies of the book is that Wallis did not actually want marriage to the King, but longed to return to her `calm, congenial' life with her husband, Ernest Simpson. Right up to the last minute, she was hoping to escape and even wrote to Ernest on her honeymoon with Edward! She continued to keep in touch with Ernest for many years, and even asked him to co-operate when she came to write her Memoir in the 1950s. Ernest was very different from her first husband, Win Spencer, a jealous and angry man whose fondness for alcohol made the marriage extremely unhappy for Wallis. In contrast, her genuine bond with Ernest might have made her future far less traumatic, had she followed her heart and stayed with him. The Duke, however, refused to renounce her and even threatened to cut his throat should he lose the woman to whom he was enslaved. It was said that he saw through Wallis's eyes, heard through her ears, spoke through her mouth, and deferred to her in everything. Sebba makes the fascinating point that he made acceptable the `modern' craving for personal happiness and individual freedom, as against ideas of duty and responsibility, the latter championed so deeply by Queen Mary and, indeed, by the new King, George VI.
She also shows that, although outwardly very different, Wallis and Edward shared many characteristics; both were insecure and both sexually voracious in their youth (possibly to compensate for sexual inadequacies); both avaricious and intent on accumulating possessions, and both obsessed with dieting. At one point their typical breakfast consisted of grapefruit juice and black tea, while lunch would comprise a single egg or piece of fruit. And yet both shared a perilous penchant for booze, despite its calories! Both abandoned once trusted advisers and collided brutally with once loved friends; both were essentially lonely, and both had little interest in culture. The Duke could barely spell and rarely read. Indeed, there wasn't a single book in their otherwise sumptuously furnished mansion in France. After their marriage, they lived largely aimless lives; their main pursuits being entertaining, travel and extravagant shopping for Wallis's clothes and jewels.
It struck me that this biography could be read in one of two ways - although Sebba herself is too skilled a biographer to come down on either side, or to reduce a complex story to any black-or-white formulation. But throughout my reading, I was torn between seeing the story in psychological terms or, alternatively, as a morality tale. If the former, then it's the story of two inadequate, insecure and damaged people, driven by their desperate need of each other - a need prompted by very different but equally compelling reasons - to flout society and betray their nearest and dearest. If the latter, it shows two selfish, egocentric self-seekers reaping their own punishment by choosing personal happiness and self-advancement over any claims of duty and responsibility. Before the term was invented, Wallis could be accused of wanting to `have it all'. Not content with the love and security offered by her second husband, Ernest, she also craved the power, prestige and opulent lifestyle that a dalliance with the future King would bring. She assumed she could keep Ernest, whilst enjoying the rich rewards of her affair with Edward, which, in fact, she never expected to last more than a few years. But, trapped by Edward's all-consuming need of her, the inexorable process continued, with, first, the Abdication in December 1938 and, six months later, her third marriage to a man who had been King for a mere 325 days.
The wedding was a pitiful affair, with no official British presence and only a small gathering, and conducted by the one-and-only C of E clergyman who would agree to marry the couple. He was subsequently repudiated by his Church and went to live permanently in America, more or less banished from the UK. The couple themselves also paid heavily for this marriage, since they were forced to live as exiles ever afterwards; Wallis later describing her state as `rootless and homeless on the face of the earth.' She also became the target of deep loathing from the Church, the Empire, the Royal Family and most of the British public, and actually lived in fear of violence. Little wonder, perhaps, when she was seen, variously, as a witch, a whore, a Nazi spy, a bigamist and an amoral sexual schemer, who relied on exotic techniques in bed to entrap the King.
The book is packed with fascinating nuggets of information: Wallis chose her own `male' name; she was terrified of flying and once threatened to jump out of the plane; she weighed only seven stone by the 1950s, yet never relaxed her stringent dieting; the couple travelled with huge amounts of luggage - 80 separate pieces, according to some accounts; their sheets were ironed each night; their dogs were hand-fed from silver bowls and became the indulged and pampered children the couple were never able to have. Sebba points out that Wallis never mentioned the subject of procreation in either her diaries or her Memoir, and speculates that she may have been a pseudo-hermaphrodite; while Edward may have been sterile
It is hard to warm to so self-absorbed and shallow a couple, although there were many times in the course of the book that I did feelt genuine pity for `that woman', not least in her final years, when, bed-ridden, paralyzed, near-blind, senile and skeletally thin, living became as terrifying as dying. And it struck me as unutterably sad that, at her funeral, most of the flowers were sent not by friends but by the jewelers and couturiers she had patronized all her life. I was also touched by the fact that, both times she engaged in war-work, she seems to have found a rare and satisfying sense of purpose, especially when she personally served bacon and eggs in the RAF canteen in Nassau. In August 1940, the Duke had been sent as Governor of the Bahamas, and Wallis was appalled by her `banishment' to an island with an unbearable climate and to a house she saw as a dump. I found myself wishing that she had found a more permanent job to engage her there - and indeed in France - because, with an absorbing occupation, she might have achieved far more in life than her aimless round of shopping and entertaining. She certainly had energy, ambition and great organizational ability, surely wasted on merely furnishing her houses or titivating her person.
I finished Sebba's book with many conflicting emotions: sadness at the tragic mismatch between Wallis's public glamour and private anguish; fascination with her astounding collection of jewels, which fetched the phenomenal sum of $50, 281,887 when sold by Sotheby's within a year of her death; shock at the way she bossed, hurt and even humiliated the Duke; sympathy towards her overriding need for control, as the only way to keep her many fears and phobias at bay, and horror at her tragic end. Yet, ultimately, she remains an elusive figure, and indeed, Sebba ends her biography with a question rather than a conclusion: `How did a middle-aged, married woman, with large hands and a mole on her chin convince a troubled, boyish Prince that his life could have no meaning without her?'
Every individual reader may have his or her own answer to a question that has intrigued novelists, playwrights and biographers since her death, and will surely continue to exert a fascination over anyone interested in the human condition. Thus I strongly recommend this truly absorbing biography, which is both eminently readable and extremely well-researched. Read more ›