“I who had sought no place in history would now be assured of one – an appalling one, carved out by blind prejudice.” — Wallis Simpson in her memoirs, The Heart Has Its Reasons
Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor may be one of the most reviled women in the history of the 20th century British monarchy. To Queen Elizabeth (the future Queen Mother), who blamed Wallis for the anxiety her shy husband experienced as King George VI, her name was not to be spoken in polite society. The twice divorced American who inspired Edward VIII to abdicate in 1936 because he believed he could not reign “without the help and support of the woman I love” was simply That Woman.
Wallis is often portrayed in popular culture as an adventuress, determined to become Queen despite her unsuitability for the role. In the recent Academy Award winning film The King’s Speech, the actress portraying Simpson speaks a single line at a palace reception, removing her cigarette holder to welcome the Duke and Duchess of York to “our humble sha-a-a-ack,” a scene that appears to encapsulate just how out of place she was among royalty. In contrast, Madonna has recently attempted to rehabilitate her image in the popular imagination, presenting Wallis as another American material girl who encountered snobbery from the English upper classes, in the film W.E.
Anne Sebba has extensive experience researching the lives of prominent Americans in British high society, as demonstrated by her engrossing 2007 biography of Lady Randolph Churchill, American Jennie. That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor is a sympathetic portrayal of another controversial American socialite. Sebba discusses documentary sources that have not been consulted by previous biographers such as Wallis’s correspondence with her second husband Ernest Simpson (which continued during her marriage to the Duke of Windsor), and recently declassified British government files stored in The National Archives of the United Kingdom. Although some of her conclusions regarding Wallis’s medical issues and activities during her first marriage are highly speculative, her discussion of the Abdication Crisis provides convincing new evidence of Wallis’s motives and expectations in 1936.
Through the correspondence between Wallis and Ernest, and a critical reading of The Heart Has Its Reasons, Sebba argues that Wallis never wanted to become Queen of England or even marry the future Edward VIII. Both Ernest and Wallis were fascinated by British high society and wanted to belong to the fashionable set led by the Prince of Wales. Wallis appears to have viewed her flirtation and eventual affair with the Prince as a temporary arrangement that was under her control. When Edward succeeded to the throne and declared that he would not reign unless Wallis was permitted to be his Queen, she expressed her willingness to end their relationship. In her letters to Ernest, she wrote of her nostalgia for the life they had enjoyed together before she was forced to flee to France during the Abdication crisis as the most hated woman in England and Commonwealth.
One of the great strengths of That Woman is Sebba’s discussion what it meant to be divorced and American in 1936. While divorce was gradually becoming acceptable within the United States, it was viewed as a destabilizing practice in England. The idea of the King marrying a divorcee was particularly unsettling as many Britons believed the marriage would normalize divorce, leaving deserted wives destitute and children without stable homes. For Edward VIII, Wallis’s origins made her particularly attractive because America appeared to symbolize modernity and he was eager to distance himself from the traditional society personified by his parents, King George V and Queen Mary.
While Sebba creates a nuanced portrait of Wallis, I would have been interested to read more of her research concerning Edward VIII. She presents a highly negative interpretation of his character, drawing heavily on Philip Ziegler’s King Edward VIII: A Biography for context. That Woman contains numerous instances of the Duke of Windsor’s selfishness, ignorance, poor judgment, and, during the Second World War, defeatist and pro-German sentiments that might be interpreted as treason. Although Sebba makes passing references to Edward’s desire to reconnect with his German relatives, and his thoughts on Bolshevism, a detailed discussion of the fate of his Russian and German cousins during the First World War would have strengthened her analysis of his rejection of his Kingship and his questionable behaviour during the Second World War.
That Woman is an interesting, readable biography of one of the most controversial figures in 20th century British royal history. Sebba’s analysis provides new insights about Wallis Simpson’s role in the abdication crisis and her long life in exile as the Duchess of Windsor.