The Real Wallis Simpson: A New History of the American Divorcée Who Became the Duchess of Windsor
By Anna Pasternak
Atria Books, 2019
Even the most even-keeled author can succumb to the tawdry allure of the untold story. Digging deep into a subject and revealing its “real” version to an eager readership is catnip both to a publisher’s marketing department and to an author’s ego. Such books can be worthwhile, but it’s a scattershot affair; most of them combine the worst elements of shallow research and breathless prose.
Anna Pasternak escaped this pattern with her genuinely thought-provoking earlier book, Lara: The Untold Love Story and the Inspiration for “Doctor Zhivago.” That story of that book involved her great-uncle Boris Pasternak, and perhaps that fact imparted a bit more topspin than is healthy in this little sub-genre. Anna Pasternak’s new book, The Real Wallis Simpson: A New History of the American Divorcée Who Became the Duchess of Windsor, is everything Lara managed to avoid being: like it’s subject, it’s pushy, transparently duplicitous, and completely unconvincing.
The subject this time around is Wallis Warfield Simpson, the twice-divorced American woman who came to know the Prince of Wales in the 1930s in the waning years of the reign of King George V. The Prince became besotted with her; she was the uncrowned queen of his fast-set world at Fort Belvedere; and when the old king died and the new king, Edward VIII, made it clear to the British government that he would marry Wallis and they made it clear in turn that this was unacceptable, Edward VIII abdicated. He and his new wife became the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and about the same time also became an itinerant pair of state embarrassments.
Biographers have generally been harsh when assessing the character of man who could so easily abandon his singular duty, and if anything they’ve been even harsher on the woman who urged him to do it. If the Duke of Windsor has been seen as feckless, lazy, and self-absorbed, his American Duchess has been seen as venal, grasping, and even more self-absorbed.
Such a settled consensus is exactly the kind of thing untold story narratives were born to explode, and in The Real Wallis Simpson, Anna Pasternak gives it a full-throttle try. Her contention is that Wallis has been misunderstood; in reality, she was diffident, charming, and not in the least big ambitious - indeed, she was horrified at the idea that her David would surrender his crown rather than surrender her. In this our author takes some of her cues from Anna Sebba, whose 2011 book That Woman was similarly sympathetic. She also relies to a downright contaminated degree on the oily memoirs written by both the Duke and the Duchess. She consults a good deal of archival material and turns up many friends of the ex-royal couple who were, in retrospect, willing to say kind things.
It doesn’t work, mainly because those same sources are forever slipping their traces and making side-comments that reveal the truth of the received version. When writing about the couple’s relationship in the years leading up the to the Abdication, for instance, the Prince’s own private secretary, Major Alexander Hardinge, observed: “It was scarcely realised at this early stage how overwhelming and inexorable was the influence exerted on the king by the lady of the moment. As time went on it became clearer that every decision, big or small, was subordinate to her will.” Such notes sound throughout the book, and they’re frequently echoed by the most damning source: Anna Pasternak herself. When mentioning the reading of King George V’s will, for instance (at which Edward received a kingdom but no money), she summarizes: “Edward went immediately to telephone Wallis. He told her that while he had a crown, which he didn’t want, he had no fortune, which they had both keenly anticipated.” This doesn’t sound quite exactly as though Wallis Simpson has been misjudged by history.
Edward solo fares no better. He never does in books of this kind (or any other kind). On page 211, for instance, two-thirds of the way through the book, we find him in March 1939 haggling for money with his younger brother the king:
The duke felt cheated out of some of his pension and argued over the value of Sandringham and Balmoral; most of all, his resentment burned over the Crown’s attempt to link payment of his allowance from investments in his share of royal properties with his promise not to return to England without the consent of the government. In March 1939 Edward was positively blistering with rage.
It’s just possible that in March of 1939 the King of England had more pressing things on his mind than allowances to staggeringly wealthy globetrotting royal turncoats, but there the Duke of Windsor always is, insistently phoning, always with the grasping hand extended. And as has often been said, behind every great man there stands a woman.
Wallis Simpson is a natural target for “true story” revisionists. History has judged her to be a full partner, indeed the dominant partner, in her husband’s petty perfidy, and even the testimonies of her closest friends do little to dispel that judgement. Here’s hoping the writing of this book got the virus out of Anna Pasternak’s system once and for all. Nobody wants to see Eva Braun: Misunderstood Homemaker in 2021.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.