The Duchess Of Windsor: The Uncommon Life of
Greg King is open in his desire to write a sympathetic treatment of the life of Wallis Simpson, the American socialite for whom King Edward VIII abdicated the British crown. King argues the standard portrayal of Simpson is that of an immoral “adventuress” who pursued the King and was responsible for his decision to give up the throne. This narrative belongs firmly within the moral codes that existed in Britain during the 1930’s. With the divorced Prince of Wales due to rein after Queen Elizabeth II, the legal and theological arguments that kept Simpson off the throne ( as a twice divorced woman) seem flimsy in the light of subsequent events. Simpson was judged according to a hypocritical moral standard. The Parliament had no objections to her being the Kings mistress. It was his attempt to make an honest woman out of her that caused all the trouble. King explores these issues brilliantly and successfully re-creates the moral tone of Britain in the 1930’s. It is impossible to understand the abdication crisis without this historical context.
The Duchess was obviously a complex, intelligent and talented woman. However, in attempting to “correct the record” King often goes to ludicrous lengths to exonerate Simpson from every criticism. In one passage he describes the dismay felt by a houseguest watching the former King on his hands and knees looking for
a misplaced piece of Wallis’ jewelry while the lady herself is warmly tucked up in bed. King is anxious to assure us that although it may look as though the ex-King is firmly under the thumb, Simpson didn’t ask him to look for the missing broach- he wanted to do it. The author is not fooling anyone. The Duchess was exactly the type of woman to encourage this combination of fear and devotion in those closest to her. Why negate this interesting aspect of her character with risible excuses?
The Duchess’s use of racial epithets and racist behavior is excused as a part of her American heritage. Besides, Greg King argues, other members of the Royal Family are known to be racist and thus far Prince Charles is the only member of the Royal family to hire a black staff member. This may well be true (or not) but it’s irrelevant to our understanding of the Duchess. These constant attempts by King to sanitize The couple’s less attractive personality attributes are unnecessary and distracting. Attempts to explain away the Duke and Duchesses support for the Nazi Party that culminated in their notorious tour of Germany in 1937 with a blithe statement that the Duke “Was probably not aware of Hitlers racial policies” stretches credulity. The Duke stated publicly that “racial policy” in Germany was a “domestic issue” and other nations did not have the right to interfere. He certainly was aware of Nuremberg Laws. of 1935. They were enacted while he was still the Monarch and being kept abreast of foreign developments. I find it difficult to believe King did not come across this evidence in his research, as many other historians have done, including myself.
The Duchess is continually portrayed as a victim of the Palace’s slander machine -misquoted, misunderstood and grossly maligned. The fact remains, however, that the Duke and Duchess spent their lives after the war living as socialites and enjoying themselves. The Duchess is generally remembered for her lavish homes and domination of the world’s Best Dressed Lists- a standard of sartorial excellence she maintained for decades. After reading this book, I felt that both the Duke and Duchess had failed to live up to their potential as individuals and as a couple.
Despite some of my criticisms of King’s approach to this topic, I recommend this book. King has a lively, gossipy style that makes the pages race by.
No one is ever as bad or as good as they seem – especially “that woman”, Wallis Simpson.