Merry Wife of Windsor

Patricia Beer

  • The Duchess of Windsor by Diana Mosley
    Sidgwick, 219 pp, £8.95, June 1980, ISBN 0 283 98628 X

The most terrifying comment made on the Abdication may well be that of Lord Beaverbrook, writing twenty years after the events in which he played such a prominent part: if the British people, he said, had been less absorbed in the affair of Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson the energy thus saved might have been used to avert world war. Possibly the same remark might be made today, for popular, even best-selling, books and plays are still being written about the protagonists.

One of the first books about Mrs Simpson, as she still was, must have been Edwina H. Wilson’s Her name was Wallis Warfield, for it was published, in New York, in December 1936, before the issue was decided. (‘Suppose – just suppose – an American girl should become Queen of England!’) The volume is worth looking at, for it sets the style of much that has been written since, and the tone is of an unpretentious idiocy which is engaging rather than otherwise. Everything British is explained as if to educationally-subnormal Martians.

There is a great deal, of course, about following the dictates of one’s heart and people drawing other people to them like magnets, but that is only the background. What was irresistible to the readers (the book went into three printings in a fortnight) was the account of Mrs Simpson’s furs, nail varnish, jewellery and accomplishments – ‘she can complete a jigsaw puzzle in half the time the average person takes.’ The readers need not despair, however. ‘Those who envy Wallis Simpson her success’ are given hints to guide them, for example: ‘A wise hostess never entertains at the same time her bridge-playing friends and those who shun the game.’

All this is accurate and well-researched, no doubt, but in one respect Edwina H. Wilson is wrong. In spite of her assertions that whatever happens Mrs Simpson ‘IS queen – QUEEN OF ROMANCE’, her subordinate clauses give her away. A propos of their first meeting she writes: ‘It was – at least it may have been – a night to make history.’ Clearly if Mrs Simpson does not bring it off, the waters will close over her. In fact, they never have.

Writers concerned with the politics of the Abdication obviously do not indulge, at any length or at all, in revelations about Mrs Simpson’s favourite colour. Lord Beaverbrook, in The Abdication of Edward VIII (published in 1966 though written earlier, and arguably the best book on the subject), gives an account of his first meeting with Mrs Simpson which is not dismissive – in fact it is quite eloquent and certainly intriguing – but is appropriately succinct:

She appeared to me to be a simple woman. She was plainly dressed and I was not attracted to her style of hairdressing. Her smile was kindly and pleasing, and her conversation was interspersed with protestations of ignorance of politics and with declarations of simplicity of character and outlook, with a claim to inexperience in worldly affairs. Throughout the evening she only once engaged in political conversation, and then she showed a liberal outlook, well maintained in discussion, and based on a conception which was sound.

Whether the emphasis is on politics or on gossip, the body of literature about the Windsors is large, repetitious and with a few exceptions boring. (If one has occasion to study it, a good way of keeping oneself going is to, concentrate on how very variously a concept can be expressed provided the language is competently loaded: Stanley Baldwin said of Edward VIII, ‘He has the secret of youth in the prime of age,’ whereas Ernest Simpson just called him Peter Pan.) In contributing The Duchess of Windsor, Diana Mosley has set herself a harder task than most. Her aims are good or at least interesting; their realisation was impossible.

There is bound to be an element of moral judgment in any account of the Windsors, but the Duchess has had the worst of it. The Duke, after the first accusations of dereliction of duty wore off, has been blamed principally for silliness, which is commonly supposed not to be a moral quality. Geoffrey Bocca’s She might have been Queen (1955), for instance, bears out the title by recording the long series of fatal mistakes made by the King/Duke at the time of the Abdication; it reads like a nightmare school report to the effect that Windsor could have done better. The Duchess, on the other hand, has been saddled with all of the Seven Deadly Sins, except perhaps Sloth.

If people feel that the Duchess should be defended then it is obviously correct for them to make the attempt, and Lady Mosley would seem a natural for the task, possessing qualifications for both the political and the personal approach. She is connected with a long tradition of knight-errantry on the Windsors’ behalf: Sir Oswald led his Blackshirts through the East End in support of the King. And her own political views dispose her to a lenient interpretation of such incidents as the Windsors’ respectful visit to Nazi Germany. She has known the Duchess for many years in France and can supply all the details about table decorations, weight-watching and centre partings that readers are still assumed to need. But an apologia at book length tends to defeat its own ends, unless there is some new material or a powerful argument. A listing of good qualities is not enough, especially when some of the claims strain credulity: I cannot believe that Mrs Simpson divorced Mr Simpson for his own good. The best method, surely, is the one used by A.J.P. Taylor in his editorial foreword to Beaverbrook’s book: he feels that Mrs Simpson was unfairly blamed; he says so and says why, briefly.

Lady Mosley’s other aim is ‘to try and discover something about the woman who inspired such a deep and lasting love and the man who lavished it on her’. She clearly thinks that deep, lasting love, and especially this particular example of it, is a freak that calls for investigation, but it may be that, like the ability to dress well and serve good food (talents of the Duchess’s about which she is particularly repetitious), it is more common than she supposes. But if a deep, lasting love really has to be regarded not as natural but as some kind of infatuation or obsession then it is not much good examining the object of it. It certainly seems to have been a happy marriage; Lady Mosley, with a rare approach to shrewdness, points out that photographs in which the Duke looks sad were mostly taken at family funerals.

In any case, as some people defy photography, the Duchess seems to defy any description which is simultaneously favourable, interesting and convincing. In the early Fifties, both Windsors published memoirs, and neither the Duke’s account of his wife, in The King’s Story, nor hers of herself, in The heart has its reasons, makes her seem even tangible: but as both books were written by ghosts that may account for it.

The Duchess of Windsor is a curiously unworldly book. Lady Mosley really did have special knowledge of her subject: there is footnote after footnote saying ‘in conversation with the author’ and ‘in a letter to the author’. But her confidential informants seldom tell her anything very penetrating, and they are clearly a communicative set, for over the years they must also have told it to the women’s magazines, the popular press and most of the rival biographers. Some of her other informants are ‘ordinary people’ as in ‘Nothing that happened afterwards ever altered the love that ordinary people bore King Edward VIII.’ I suppose these ordinary people are the ones that British election manifestos address as being the objects of the candidate’s deepest concern; and I do not imagine that Lady Mosley knows many of them. I know several, and they tell me she is wrong, on this point and others.

She is on the wrong tack from the start – from the epigraph, in fact, which reads: ‘The more alive one is, the more one is attacked.’ She has apparently come to the conclusion that any form of criticism necessarily indicates that the criticised person has superior vitality and extraordinary talents. It is a comfortable belief, and would be a life-saver if the case was one’s own, but when applied generally it can lead to misinterpretation. Lady Mosley really seems to believe that the infrequency of the Duchess’s visits to England was masterminded by ‘those in the know’ who feared her, perhaps throne-toppling, popularity. ‘What if the Duchess, with her breezy, friendly manner, went down all too well?’

Lady Mosley is so vehement in her denunciation of spitefulness, as directed towards the Duchess, that it is no surprise at all to find her being spiteful herself: about George V, about George VI, and particularly about Queen Mary: ‘It is easy to understand why it was Queen Mary who most resented the Abdication. She was imbued with a sense of the importance of being royal, and she never recovered from having been a Serene Highness among Royal Highnesses.’ As an Englishwoman living in France, Lady Mosley is ready with a special set of sneers about the way the Royal Family dress: ‘The Duchess in her Paris clothes looked like the denizen of another planet among the flowery toques and pastel overcoats.’

I was quite startled to find how much these jibes annoyed me. I was at school at the time of the Abdication and we were unmoved by the event except as an occasion to exchange jokes at the back of the gymnasium. (Q. Why has the King bought a tin-opener? A. Because what he wants is in Cannes.) Nor have I been particularly concerned since. But Lady Mosley’s book makes me feel, after more than forty years and in the presence of infinitely more important controversies, that I ought to be taking sides.