The Duchess by Wendy Holden turned out to be a surprising read. After all, we all know the story of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, don’t we? I started the book half-expecting not to finish it, unsure whether I could empathise with Wallis Simpson. But having read Wendy Holden’s first novel – Simply Divine, published in 1999 – and many since, I was curious about her subject matter. I finished it wanting to go back to the beginning again, reading it with fresh eyes. Holden, a former journalist, has done her research to portray the middle-aged American divorcee. Wallis arrives in London in 1928 with her second husband Ernest, determined to be a part of the party scene. Scrimping and saving, and with the quick mind and equally quick tongue of her mother, she learns to deal with the snubs, putdowns, cold shoulders and snobbishness, all the time backed by her steady husband. After a difficult childhood raised alone by her mother without much money, followed by an abusive first marriage, Wallis now reads the Court Circulars and newspaper stories about the parties of the Bright Young Things and longs to have fun. But she hadn’t bargained on the British class system. With her own sense of chic and by altering cheap dresses herself, Wallis catches the eye of Coco Chanel who offers some salutary advice.
The dual timeline, always from Wallis’s viewpoint, alternates between the Duke of Windsor’s funeral in 1972, and Wallis’s life in England from 1928-1936. After a lot of hustling, scrimping, spending money they don’t have, the Simpsons meet the Prince of Wales and are invited to his home at Fort Belvedere, Windsor, for the weekend. There we see the divisions between the prince’s public role and private political views. Holden juxtaposes the freedom and ‘what if’ American approach to life with the stuffy 1930s British ‘not possible’ view. This culminates finally in the Abdication. The final twist is intriguing.
The first few pages are a slow read and felt more like a historical record – there is a lot of emotional and historical baggage wrapped up in this story – but the story gets going once Wallis is in London. She struggles to be accepted, hosting cocktail ‘open evenings’ that no one attends, always being sparkling and entertaining despite Ernest’s misgivings. We see her vulnerabilities as the difficulties of her childhood, and her first marriage, are revealed. I finished the book with new-found respect for Ernest Simpson.
I read The Duchess in two days on holiday. Compulsive, wicked, sad and funny, I was left with a feeling of regret about the Windsors, and for Ernest, though with the obvious footnote that this is a fictional account not a biography. Even taken with a large pinch of salt, I came to empathise with Wallis; simultaneously head over heels in love but also exasperated, despairing, trapped, powerless, lonely and maligned.
Definitely food for thought. A compulsive fictional take on royal history
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If you like this, try:-
‘The Glass House’ by Eve Chase
‘The Orphan’s Gift’ by Renita D’Silva
‘The Cottingley Secret’ by Hazel Gaynor
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THE DUCHESS by @Wendy_Holden #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-5Qe via @SandraDanby