David Cannadine

  • Duchess: The Story of Wallis Warfield Windsor by Stephen Birmingham
    Macmillan, 287 pp, £8.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 333 34265 8
  • The Duke of Windsor’s War by Michael Bloch
    Weidenfeld, 397 pp, £10.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 297 77947 8

‘The choice before ex-kings,’ Herbert Morrison remarked in 1937 on the occasion of the Windsors’ characteristically ill-advised visit to Nazi Germany, ‘is either to fade out of the public eye or be a nuisance.’ It has generally been assumed that the Duke came in the second of these categories and, since it is even easier to hit a man when he is dead than when he is down, tilting at Windsor has recently become a popular sport. Some of the jousting has been in dubious taste, with lances forged in malice, aimed in hatred and wielded in spite. But others, more interested in history than in hearsay, have landed some shrewd blows on their target. Chief among these Windsor-wallopers has been Frances Donaldson, whose much-acclaimed biography undermined many of the legends which lingered from his time as Prince of Wales, substantiated most of the criticisms levelled against him as King Edward VIII, and painted a pathetic picture of his later years as Duke of Windsor, the ‘weary, wayward, wandering ghost’, shuffling with rootless opulence from resort to resort, getting ‘more tanned and more tired’.

The latest contribution from the legion of dishonourers is Stephen Birmingham’s life of the Duchess. Macmillan assure us that the writer is ‘the well-known American popular historian’ (author of The Towers of Love, Heart Troubles and other classics), and that we are offered ‘a truly thoroughgoing biography’. But it is nothing of the kind. Most of the facts will be familiar to anyone conversant with Lady Donaldson’s study, and most of the gossip is merely being dished up again for the umpteenth time. The author seems unable to decide whether his story is a latterday version of Cinderella, Pygmalion, Gone with the Wind, Hamlet or Othelio. His understanding of the English social system, the English press and the English constitution seems almost as limited as was that of the Windsors themselves. His picture of the Duke is banal (‘for two years, with maniac intensity, he had played the bagpipes, having abandoned the ukelele’); his analysis of the Duchess’s psychology is excruciating (‘Wallis had always a certain affinity for homosexuals, and homosexuals had had an affinity for her’); there is much pointlessly prurient speculation as to whether they ever went to bed together (they had no children, the Duchess once explained, because the Duke was not ‘heir-conditioned’); and the concluding chapters dwell with tasteless exultation on the Duchess’s present ailing and enfeebled condition. With any luck, this book, out in good time for the festive season, will stock many a Christmas wastepaper bin.

Recently, the Duchess’s friend and lawyer Maître Blum, described by Birmingham as the Windsors’ ‘outspoken champion, the keeper of the flame’, has decided to launch a counter-offensive against these assailants, who have hit her clients both high and low. None of Windsor’s critics, the argument runs, has tried to see events from his point of view – not surprisingly, since none of them has been allowed access to his papers. Even Lady Donaldson wrote of Edward VIII from the outside, as others saw him, rather than from the inside, as he saw others. In order to put the record straight, as she sees it, Maître Blum has invited the lawyer-historian Michael Bloch to be the Duke’s champion, and has given him extensive access to the Windsor archive. His first essay in ducal defence – dedicated to Maître Blum, ‘guide, pupil-master and friend’, and pointedly describing the Windsors as ‘Their Royal Highnesses’ – is a riveting peep into the minds and feelings of the Windsors, a horrifying picture of misery and unhappiness, and an impassioned plea for the justice to be done to the Duke in death which has, Bloch feels, been so shamefully denied him in life.

Bloch’s thesis is as simple as his tactics: the best way to defend the Windsors is to prosecute their traducers – the Establishment in general and the Court in particular. Throughout the war, Bloch argues, Windsor only desired to serve his country: this was a magnanimous gesture made with all the sincerity of a loyal and royal citizen. But, he suggests, at a time when all men of talent and good will should have pulled together, and when the great perils of war should have banished interest in lesser matters, the Windsors were the object of a shabby and shameful vendetta conducted by ‘those at Court and in other high places’. An ‘unremitting campaign of ostracism, spite and calumny’ was directed against them, characterised by ‘secret instructions’, ‘punishment’, ‘intrigues’, ‘hostility’, ‘persecutions’, ‘madness’, ‘silence and ice’. The Establishment, he says, was ‘determined that, come what may, the Duke of Windsor should never return to live in England, or ever recover any work, influence or honour’.

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