Love is a Gilded Cage
Despite my love of history, the British royal family is never something I have paid much attention to, until I started binging The Crown on Netflix. It was through this not entirely complimentary lens that I first encountered Wallis Simpson, the heroine of Wendy Holden’s new book, The Duchess. Holden has a flair for portraying women that were vilified by the royals in a more positive –or at least neutral– light, allowing readers to consider less popular perspectives. As Diana Cooper wisely observes to Wallis at one point in the book, perhaps the “bad” women of history have always been made to seem negative and disagreeable, to serve the larger agenda of those in power at the time. In other words, as I often have pointed out to my students, history is written by the victors. In the case of Wallis Simpson, you can’t get much more victorious than the royal family in terms of ability to shape and manipulate public opinion.
Wallis grew up poor in Maryland, with a mother who was obsessed with social connections and family history. Her first marriage dissolved because of the severe abuse she suffered at the hands of her alcoholic husband, leaving her with what we would likely diagnose as PTSD today. For this reason, her marriage to her second husband, the steadfast and kind Earnest Simpson, was mostly celibate. So, imagine her surprise when the Prince of Wales was able to ignite a fiery and insatiable passion in her! The love shared by the Prince and Wallis is legendary, since he did renounce his claim to the British crown in order to marry the person referred to as “that woman” and “the adventuress” by his family and some of his close friends. Wallis has most popularly been viewed as a gold digging social climber, due in no small part to the influence that the royal family exerted over the British press corps. But beyond that, the Prince was enormously popular, given his concern for the British poor, and his attempts to modernize the monarchy and its connection to the people, leading many of his subjects to view Wallis with disdain. But, Holden poses the question: what if Wallis had no desire to be queen, and actually tried to dissuade the Prince from abdication, but was ignored because of his own agenda? Could it be that the Prince saw falling in love with, and marrying, a completely unsuitable bride as a convenient way out of a role that he viewed himself as unfit to hold?
Holden did a great deal of research when writing this book, and it shows in the carefully explained timeline of events, and rendering of life in America, in Great Britain, and in the rest of Europe, during the time period that Wallis would have been alive. Although I am not quite sold on the interpretation of Wallis as a complete victim of her circumstances, I do appreciate the nuance that has been added to her story by this book. It is indeed an excellent reminder that history is often told from only one perspective, and that it is important to seek out alternate viewpoints. The only reason I knocked it down to a 4.5 was because it did drag on a bit in the middle, and at times Wallis’ fatalistic hand-wringing was quite annoying. Overall, for lovers of historical fiction, slow burn romance, and literary fiction, this book would be a great addition to the home library.