“That Woman” The Life of Wallis Simpson

It’s amazing that more than 75 years after the historical abdication of the throne by England’s King Edward VIII, people would still be writing and talking about the former King and his wife.

That Woman, the Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor is a new book that indeed focuses on the couple – Wallis Simpson in particular. The book was written by author, lecturer and Reuters news agency correspondent Anne Sebba. Ms. Sebba has based her writing on letters from various sources including Wallis herself. Her research seems intensive and some of the material comes from documents just recently released.

The book’s title refers to the term used by the then-Queen and other members of the Royal Family and many associated with them to describe Wallis Simpson.  I assume it was one of the kinder terms used.

While it may not provide all new information, the book does advance rather startling ideas about the sexuality of both the former King and his wife, though they are not proven. 

A large share of the material focuses on the early years of the woman born Bessiewallis Warfield in Baltimore, Maryland.   It isn’t until perhaps one-third of the way in that we find Wallis and Edward meeting.   But leading up to that point, author Sebba does give insight into the woman who would so shock the world.

It’s fairly common knowledge to anyone who has a passing interest in history that the relationsip between the Prince of Wales (and eventually King Edward) and Wallis Simpson forever changed the outlook for Britain’s Royal Family, beginning most importantly with Edward’s abdication of the throne in late 1936.  As we all recall, he felt he could not discharge his duties “without the help and support of the woman I love…”

The struggle the couple endured not only to marry but to deal with the hostility toward them once they became husband and wife and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor is evident on every page.  The struggle continued to the end of each of their lives.

In fact, this is one of the aspects of the book that impacted me the most.  True, I’m not a devoted student of all things Duke and Duchess of Windsor.  But I thought I had a working knowledge of them. I felt they were a couple deeply in love, who overcame great obstacles to be together, yet lived a life of parties, fashion, leisure and ultimate happiness. 

I’m not saying this wasn’t partly true.  But Sebba’s book certainly paints a sadder, more unpleasant life. It also reveals much about the time period of their early love story, where even divorce itself was frowned upon, in any context.

My other lasting impression is how deeply ironic it is that the Duke and Duchess scandal was unable to teach lessons that prevented future scandals.  Charles, Prince of Wales, married Diana but loved Camilla Parker Bowles, a married woman.  He was apparently “in contact” with her before and during his marriage (do we all recall the infamous tampon telephone conversation?).

Diana felt unloved and ignored by Charles (in part of course since finding out about his love affair with Camilla) so she turned to lovers of her own.

But Charles and Diana divorced and apparently moved on, until Diana’s tragic passing.  Charles and Camilla now seem totally acceptable as a couple, yet seem to me to mirror the Duke and Duchess in so many ways. And there have been other Royal scandals — Princess Anne’s divorce, Prince Andrew’s divorce, the Duchess of York’s many blunders, and others.

That Woman reveals much about the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s and the intolerance, fear and paranoia that existed in so many areas of life.  The poor Duke and Duchess were unluckily placed in that time period to live out their love affair.

The book, published by St. Martin’s Press,  isn’t the definitive portrait of the Royals or of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor.  But it is interesting to read because it’s a human and overall sympathetic portrayal of the woman, the man, and the love that shook the world.Image

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