Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, has been villainously portrayed throughout British history as the woman who brought down the monarch. Twice divorced, she seduced the charismatic prince of Wales, later styled Edward VIII after his coronation, charming him so utterly that he gave up his throne and abdicated in order to marry the woman he loved.
Often portrayed as a greedy, social-climbing vixen, Wallis is rarely depicted in a positive or romantic light. Yet, as all stories tend to have two sides to them, what if Wallis was in fact the besmirched heroine of a more personal romance? Wendy Holden’s “The Duchess,” recently released in paperback, portrays the point of view of a woman swept away in romantic and political events far beyond her control.
Holden’s novel begins with the marriage of Wallis to her second husband, Ernest Simpson, an American-born British shipbroker. Readers discover Wallis’s social ambitions and desires, along with Ernest’s attempts to please his wife. Traumatized by her disastrous first marriage, Wallis initially keeps her husband at arms’ length, only warming to him as she comes to understand his compassion and supportiveness. She starts to see him as a life partner—that is, until a friend invites her to the private residence of the Prince of Wales. David, the more common name of the prince, becomes the center of her universe.
The other half of the novel takes place in 1972, at the death of the Duke of Windsor, the title the prince took after his abdication. Snubbed by the Windsors, a grief-stricken Wallis attends her husband’s funeral. Aware that she’s been demonized, the duchess participates in the events with an emotionless, cold countenance, refusing to let the detractors dismiss their romance.
“The Duchess” provides a different point of view of this well-known story. Could Wallis have been the victim of circumstances, carried away into a world and position beyond her control? Holden presents a world in which Wallis is a tragic altruist, trying her best to help others while being demeaned by her efforts into an overly ambitious woman.
David Arndt is a freelance reviewer in Fredericksburg.