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Good first novel after two extraordinary works of non-fiction
on 25 May 2012
British author Juliet Nicholson's first novel, "Abdication", follows her two well-written snapshot histories of England right before and after WW1. Her non-fiction is written with seeming self-assuredness but her first work of fiction is not quite up to that level.
"Abdication", set in England in 1936, follows three interesting, somewhat off-beat characters. Barbados-native May Thomas, who has come to England with her brother, Sam. Their English mother had met and married a plantation owner from the island and had raised her two children with him there. May and Sam's parents' marriage was a difficult one, and both kids wanted to leave Barbados. They arrive in London, after docking in Liverpool, and go to live with their first cousin and his wife and her family in Bethnal Green, while they search for employment. Sam wants to go to sea, and May finds a job as a chauffeur/secretary of a noble family, the Blunts. The father, Sir Philip, is an MP who is engaged, like many other government officials, in dealing with the the new king, Edward VIII's, obsession with American divorcee, Wallis Simpson.
Also arriving in Liverpool at the same time as the Thomas siblings, is Miss Evangeline Nettlefold. A maiden lady of a certain age and figure, she was the girlhood friend of Wallis Simpson, from Baltimore. Wallis has asked Evangeline to come over to England to keep her company, but not to actually live with her. Wallis's Aunt Bessie Merriman, normally her companion-of-choice, is unable to travel, so Evangeline goes in her place. But, Evangeline actually is living with the very same Blunt family who has just employed May Thomas. She's "on-call" with Wallis, who summons her every now and again. Of course, part of dealing with Wallis Simpson in those days is also dealing with King Edward - known to intimates by his family name - David.
The third main character is recent-Oxford graduate Julian, who is a friend of the Blunt's son. All three characters - along with the others both above and below stairs - are thrown together as the year 1936 progresses. The king's "love crisis" is all-enveloping as Edward and Wallis march together to his abdication for "the woman I love". But other events in 1936 are brought into focus - the rise of Hitler's Germany and the problems it's beginning to cause, the Spanish Civil war, and, of course, England's own home-grown Fascist, Sir Oswald Mosely.
While all the characters are interesting, maybe the most bizarre is Miss Nettlefold. She is the glue that holds the book together because she knows most of the characters. Strange things happen when "Vangie" is around. The plot is actually quite simple - the ending is quite knowable long before it actually happens, but getting the reader there involves quite an enjoyable journey. Juliet Nicholson knows her history of the first half of the 20th century, as she proves in her works of non-fiction. In this book, "Abdication", she gives us a good fictional view of the times.