The abdication of Edward VIII belongs to a class of events that can never be adequately treated by historians, since both the act and the actors transcend the conventional boundaries of the historian’s craft. All the evidence suggests that Edward was a mediocre character of limited intelligence and scant scruple, remarkable only for his gigantic powers of self-deception. But no amount of academic documentation is likely to dissuade people a hundred years hence from seeing him as the very mirror of a tragic prince – an ikon of modern royalty as exemplified by Sickert’s dazzling portrait painted, at the time of his accession, for the Welsh Guards. And, after a due lapse of time, nothing will stay historical novelists from elevating Wallis Simpson, née Warfield, to the fictional pantheon of romantic heroines. Like the tale of Tristan and Isolde, the shabby details of the Abdication may one day attract the magical and distilling art of some great maestro of human experience, a Shakespeare or a Wagner as yet unborn. It seems safe to predict that future generations will remember the King’s great matter of the Thirties, long after they have forgotten Appeasement, hunger marches and the unemployed.
All this makes it not merely difficult but irrelevant to assess the abdication and Edward’s relation with Mrs Simpson in any normal historical light. The historian who sets out to establish the facts of ‘what really passed between them’ is doomed to failure in advance. Neither Michael Bloch’s cautious scholarship nor Osbert Sitwell’s posthumous malice will erode posterity’s obstinate penchant for romantic love.
Having said that, it has to be admitted that both the volumes under review are full of historical insights of the most intriguing and unexpected kind. At the most humdrum level the Wallis and Edward letters are a fascinating source-book for certain strata of social history. That Mr and Mrs Simpson were professional social climbers is fairly well-known, but the detailed mechanics of social ascent are here revealed in unusual detail. The practice of ‘trading in futures’ common on 1930s securities markets is seen being systematically applied to the stock-exchange of social life. The whole enterprise was floated on borrowed capital (cash from Wallis’s Aunt Bessie, fragile expectations from Ernest’s miserly father). Beyond that initial precariousness, however, nothing was left to chance. The unerring taste in dress and interior decoration for which Wallis became famous as Duchess of Windsor proves to have been the product of a calculating professionalism and attention to detail that a field-marshal might admire. Jewels bought on credit adorned borrowed satin and court feathers: no effort was too great to track down cut-price sources of designer clothes. Ritual preservation of ‘hair, face and nails’ occupied the place in the social liturgy that prayer might play in the lives of the saints. Intimate dinner parties lit by flesh-coloured candles (specially imported from Washington) were carefully constructed to extract the maximum possible return in the form of connections at court and country-house weekends. Aristocratic intimacies were assiduously cultivated, and instantly dropped if they proved unproductive (the only foot that Wallis almost put wrong was to go on holiday to Cannes with a party of five titled lesbians). Professional genealogists were employed to reconstruct the Warfield family tree (‘all English families have that sort of thing’).
The Simpsons moved in circles in which it was almost deviant not to have been divorced, yet immensely complex stratagems were acted out to preserve the technicalities of wifely innocence. The ultimate goal was access, not to the British aristocracy pur sang, but to the new Anglo-American international plutocracy into which large sections of the old aristocracy had been absorbed. The lubricants of social intercourse were adultery, gin and bridge. It was among this ‘wise-cracking team’ of ‘racketty peeresses’ and ‘smartish, middle-aged semi-millionaire Americans’ that Edward VIII, like his grandfather, found his spiritual home. Wallis herself may or may not have aspired to be Queen of England, but she certainly coveted ‘the extra chic’ of being a royal princess. The whole charade of snobbery, status and carefully contrived style was played out against a background of social unease and mistrust: of servants ‘eating their heads off’ and cooks who refused to cook without the assistance of kitchen maids (‘though how we’ll afford the extra expense we can’t figure out’). ‘The Hunger Marchers arrive in London tomorrow so we are going to the country in time for dinner,’ wrote Mrs Simpson to Aunt Bessie in February 1934.
The social dimension of the abdication crisis is also brought out by Osbert Sitwell, for whom the whole affair centred on the question of whether the country was going to be run by the traditional ruling classes or by lounge lizards at the bar of the Ritz. Edward is portrayed as betraying an ancient monarchic tradition of high ideals and artistic patronage into the hands of a ‘nameless, faceless, raucous gang’ who were willing ‘to barter all England’s history for a drink’. The crisis awakened ‘that deep and ancient level in the public consciousness which is concerned with kingship and with patriarchal and religious sentiment: a level situated so far down in the English psyche that people can often be misled into omitting to take it into account’. It also united aristocrats and intellectuals, ‘tramps and tradesmen’, into a nation-wide popular front of moral and aesthetic indignation: Mrs Simpson proved to be second only to Adolf Hitler in providing the British nation with a focal point of unity and transcendence of social class.
On a rather different level, one of the most striking features about the Wallis and Edward letters is that – although neither of the main correspondents had the slightest pretension to literary art – the letters are the very stuff of which literature is made. Many reviewers have justly commented that the style of the letters is disappointingly banal, yet the overall effect is not one of banality: indeed, the reader frequently has the odd sensation that the letters were not written by Wallis and Edward at all but by a clever satiric novelist. Wallis, in particular, wrote the kind of letters that might have been written for her if she had been a character invented by Ivy Compton-Burnett. Throughout the volume one has an uncanny feeling of having been there before – not in history books nor in real life but in the pages of fiction. The whole ambience of shady dealing and social climbing is recognisably that of Lady Metroland alias Mrs Beste Chetwynd. The penniless, pleasure-loving, socially ambiguous American girl, launching herself on society with only her wits and her dress sense comes straight from Edith Wharton. The helpless, boneheaded, inarticulate Englishman, whose life is both redeemed and ruined by a single quixotic fixation, recurs again and again in the plots of Henry James. Events and situations continually arose which seem to cry out for fictional treatment: one example is the threatened arrival in the midst of it all of a ten-year-old stepdaughter whom Wallis had never met (‘You can imagine the discomfort it will cause in my flat to say nothing of added expense’). Bishop Blunt of Bradford, who blew the gaff on the Fleet Street conspiracy of silence, was not the symbolic creation of a modern satirist of morals, but certainly deserved to have been so. Osbert Sitwell explicitly compared the setting and dramatis personae of the abdication crisis to those of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. And the ultimate fate of Wallis and Edward – who spent the remaining forty years of their marriage in daily mental re-enactment of the abdication drama – seems worthy of a special circle in the Inferno. Quite how far the sense of irony and pathos conveyed by the letters has been subtly enhanced by Michael Bloch’s intelligent editing is difficult to say. But certainly nature imitates art in the most unlikely quarters and most unexpected ways.