In defence of Wallis Simpson
Philip Ziegler reviews The People's King by Susan Williams
12:01AM BST 18 Aug 2003
Susan Williams's somewhat venturesome subtitle suggests that she has discovered some hitherto undiscovered truth about the abdication.
Whatever this may be, it is certainly not based on new facts. There is no material in her book that was not already available - to this biographer at least - except for the Special Branch reports. These are of interest in that they show the police considered it their duty to monitor the activities of the Prince of Wales and his mistress, but otherwise are no more than modestly entertaining. The most pungent charge they contain is that Mrs Simpson, while married to Ernest Simpson and in hectic pursuit of the prince, was simultaneously conducting an affair with a raffish motor-car salesman, Guy Trundle, on whom she lavished expensive gifts and cash.
Williams very reasonably doubts whether Wallis Simpson could have found time to fit Trundle into her life. She might also have pointed out that giving, rather than receiving, expensive presents was not Mrs Simpson's style, but references to the Duchess of Windsor's meanness would not have fitted comfortably into Williams's master vision.
This book is an exercise in rehabilitation. As such it is overdue. The Duke of Windsor has been spectacularly traduced in recent years; the culmination being a programme called Edward: the Traitor King, without even the courtesy of a question mark. Williams reminds one of Edward's extraordinary charm, his ability to talk with people of every kind, his wit, his genuine concern for the underprivileged. But she lays it on a bit thick. To refer to the "democratic leanings" of a man who believed in strong and authoritarian government is wholly to misinterpret Edward's political opinions; the real dismay that lay behind his comment on the horrors of unemployment in South Wales - "Something must be done" - needs to be set against his conspicuous failure to do anything about it when preoccupations about his love life absorbed his energies.
The author's determination to present the Windsors in a favourable light leads to occasional unfairness to other people. Cosmo Gordon Lang is perhaps fair game, but Williams does less than justice to Stanley Baldwin's affection for Edward and anxiety to keep him on the throne. When Mrs Simpson took on the role of hostess at Balmoral, and stepped forward to greet the Yorks, Williams describes her behaviour as being a "gesture of friendship" and reprimands the future Queen Mother for snubbing her sister-in-law-to-be. Others might feel that only a woman of extraordinary insensitivity would not have thought it better to keep discreetly in the background at such a moment.
Williams's most energetically exploited source is the mountain of letters written by members of the public to Edward VIII, as well as letters to Churchill, Baldwin and other dignitaries, contemporary diaries and other manifestations of vox populi. Williams's contention is that Baldwin "misjudged the feelings of the British public"; that there was more support for the King and readiness to accept Mrs Simpson than was acknowledged by the Establishment; and that the working classes and the liberal elements of the bourgeoisie believed that Edward VIII should follow his heart and marry the woman he loved.
There is quite a lot in this; she assembles a dossier to suggest that, if there had been a plebiscite in 1936, the result might not have been as conclusively against the King as ministers assumed. But again she weakens her case by its tendentious presentation. Voices expressing the other point of view are from time to time audible. "Dear Ted. I think you are a bugger. Bill" was one succinct example, but the King's supporters get the lion's share.
It is interesting to speculate whether, if Edward VIII had stuck to his guns, Baldwin had resigned, and Churchill had led the Cavaliers into an election, the King's party might have won the day.
Probably not, but Williams's book suggests that it might have been a close-run thing. Her thesis is not totally convincing, but it is well worth presenting for all that.