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Book Review: That Woman

That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor

by Anne Sebba

St. Martin’s Press, 2012 (US)

The pencil-waisted, beak-nosed, cleaver-jawed praying mantis on the cover of Anne Sebba’s That Woman, the taut, sinewy grasper trying her best to look thoughtful, vulnerable, and even alluring, ‘that woman’ is Wallis Warfield Simpson, the Baltimore arriviste who, while still married to her second husband, set out in the 1930s to enthrall Edward, Prince of Wales. Once she had accomplished this admittedly simple task, she joined him and all the members of his Jazz Era set during endless social outings while the disgust of the old king, George V, steadily grew darker. In 1936 the king died, and the social climber from America (“Hey Dook, lookit da pictures!” she’d croon over photo albums) saw before her the possibility of being nothing less than Queen of England.

Famously, it didn’t happen. The British Parliament, a chunk of the British population, and the assembled voices of the British Dominions across the sea all revolted at the idea of a pushy foreigner (with two husbands still living) becoming Queen, and the new King Edward VIII was quietly but firmly told that he must take up his duties and end the affair. He was thoroughly besotted and refused, deciding instead to abdicate in order to be with “the woman I love.” His younger brother became King George VI, and the former Edward VIII became Duke of Windsor, and when he married Mrs. Simpson in 1937, she became his Duchess. From that moment on, dozens upon dozens of biographies have been written about her, dozens of books about their relationship, dozens of long chapters in books about him.

Veteran biographer Anne Sebba’s That Woman is the latest in this long line and one of the most sympathetic. Sebba deals right away with the filthy rumor (begun by James Pope-Hennessy and arising from his meeting with the Windsors while preparing his enormous biography of Queen Mary) that Simpson, far from being ‘that woman,’ was in fact no woman at all, that she had what Sebba refers to as DSD (Disorder of Sexual Development) or ‘intersexuality.’ Rather than face the possibility that Simpson was simply personally repulsive (something the gallant Pope-Hennessy was equally unwilling to face), our author wades into murky waters of physio-sexuality, where she quickly loses her footing, telling us, for example, “The ultimate confirmation for Wallis of being totally female would be to get pregnant, which is not possible without a uterus” (sic) (actually, four sics in a row).

Sebba moves on from such sordid speculation almost as soon as she raises it, preferring instead to dwell on how elegant and refined Simpson looked in her designer gowns and the sparkling baubles her husband had bought her (not to mention – which must be why Sebba doesn’t – the Royal Family items nicked from various cupboards on the eve of exile). “Her parties,” we’re told, “were small but attention to detail was second to none and the food and wines were lavish.” Her cocktails were strong, her entrees were Southern, and her conversation was salty – but all that effort had been in preparation for the grandest prize of all, not loafing in French chalets with an odd little man who wasn’t king anymore. Sebba lauds Simpson for an array of great personal qualities, but she also keeps her eye on that central frustration:

Above all of this, what has made her irresistible to a wide swathe of writers and artists is her personal sparkle – the echo of her magnificent jewellery – as well as her wit, her charisma and, in the end, her courage and grace that enabled her to endure a predicament she had created for herself and live with a man she privately ridiculed.

The bleakness of that ‘predicament’ is attested to at great length in these pages, almost certainly for the purpose of eliciting sympathy by portraying the Duke as the ultimate clinging dependent:

Nothing else in his life gave him any sense of achievement other than his marriage to Wallis. For him it was enough, almost. Wallis provided him with a mother’s love and a mother’s chiding. He genuinely saw no other way to continue his life and adored her to the end. It was an obsession. For her, the slavish devotion was at times claustrophobic and she was not afraid to show it. But love is famously impossible to define and in their case especially so. Few who knew them well described what they shared as love.

That ‘nothing else in his life’ business comes from the Duke’s own memoirs, part of the his-and-hers book-tandem he and Simpson wrote in order to cash in on their lurid and more than a little pathetic celebrity status (private residences hung with royal trappings, private servants decked out in royal finery, etc.), and one of That Woman‘s minor distressing ticks is its reliance on these two books as factual sources despite their countless instances of willful mendacity (in fairness, at least Simpson’s volume makes good reading – although disturbing, as if Brideshead Revisited were narrated by Sebastian Flyte instead of Charles Ryder). Virtually nothing these two say about anything can be trusted for even a fleeting instant – two more delusional and self-serving creatures have scarcely ever walked the Earth.

On no subject is that deception more active – or more important – than the one that’s given Simpson idolizers heart-flutters for seventy years. When the Germans invaded France in 1940, the Duke and Simpson fled to Portugal, where there were many German plans not only to abduct them but to suborn them (Hitler, knowing with uncanny accuracy the kind of people he was dealing with, pledged access to a large Swiss bank account): there are ample records of conversations in which the possibility was raised of the Duke holding himself ‘in readiness’ for some momentous future role – very possibly as restored king of a post-invasion Nazified England. Some biographers have shied away from such incredibly dark implications (a Quisling king watching his brother and sister-in-law carted off to Buchenwald, for instance, or executed in Wembley Stadium), and other biographers have been vigorously (and tellingly?) warned away from them by the Duke’s lawyers. Sebba herself reposes in enviable certainty:

Entire books have been written about plans to kidnap the Duke and use him as a pawn, plans that were known to Churchill thanks to British intelligence intercepting coded messages. Would the defeatist Duke have agreed to become a puppet king if Hitler had invaded and occupied Britain? It is of course unknowable, and Philip Ziegler has argued that he was too much of a patriot ever to have been part of such a scheme. But he had only himself to blame that people should believe such a ruse possible. Wallis was not only not part of this, she desperately wanted to return to England.

There can be no certainty on the subject, of course: ‘Wallis’ (Sebba uses this chummy term throughout her book, seemingly oblivious to how few people in real life were ever chummy with her subject, and how badly those few paid for the mistake) was certainly present at conversations where a violent regime-change in England was contemplated, and she knew perfectly well such a regime-change would make her Queen at last. What Sebba won’t acknowledge is that there are many different ways for somebody to be desperate to return to England.

Her ultimate point extends from the ‘what if’ hypotheticals that always hover around the Duke of Windsor. Sebba sees ‘merit’ in the most common of these contentions:

Merely by marrying the ineffectual King she did not only England but the world a favour. His removal from the throne ensured that his own patriotism was never tested nor was the nation ruled, in the midst of an existential struggled against Nazi Germany, by a man whose intimates at times questioned his very sanity.

There’s always been a lot wrong with this hypothetical, and Sebba’s phrasing of it doesn’t help matters (she repeatedly calls England’s war with Germany ‘existential’ – because, I fear, she knows that England’s very existence was at stake and therefore arrived at the adjective ‘existential’ and had no Kantian copy editor take her aside): precisely two of Edward’s intimates ever seriously questioned his sanity, as opposed to two hundred intimates (including his brothers, his mother, his nieces, his Prime Minister, and his sister-in-law) who attested to his nimble intellect and immense charisma. And it doesn’t matter anyway, since war very often summons hidden strengths in those it afflicts – as indeed it did with Edward’s inward, self-doubting brother. Simpson didn’t do England (and the world!) a favor – England got lucky despite the worst she could do. That’s the problem with sympathetic biographies, even ones as spirited as Sebba’s: if the subject in no way deserves sympathy, the whole exercise falls flat.

Sebba would no doubt counter by claiming that whatever Simpson’s sins, she more than paid for them with her subsequent suffering – the loss of the Duke to throat cancer, the isolation, the frequent hospitalizations, the growing dementia. “Now she lay in a darkened room, hallucinating, desperately emaciated and bedridden,” Sebba tells us. “The house itself was almost as dilapidated as its former owner with a leaking roof and rising damp.” It’s some great last-act stage-setting, but it can’t change the fact that the first four acts were All About Eve.