“The day would come when her Uncle Sol would eat his heart out to be publicly recognised as being her relation – and when it did, she wouldn’t even give a nod in his direction.”
I nearly didn’t get my hands on this one; after a FedEx misadventure, there is still a copy of it floating around my office block which remains stubbornly elusive; thankfully Jonathan at Random House was generous enough to send a second copy across the Atlantic.
This beautifully presented novel (how could you not love all the Art Deco/ancient photograph stuff going on on the cover?) fictionalises the life of Wallis Simpson previously Spencer née Warfield, up to the point at which she meets (then) Prince Edward, heir to the throne which she would famously (infamously?) cause him to abdicate. We follow her fraught childhood, caught between the money and glamour of her family and the financial situation of her mother, left nearly penniless by a consumptive husband; her escape to Florida and a number of failed romances, and eventually her move to England in pursuit of the very highest of society.
It’s always hard to know with this style of book what is documented fact and what is author’s literary licence, but Wallis was a strong and well-fleshed out character; proud, strong, vivacious, not cowed by financial difficulty or bullying, always certain she was right but vulnerable as well. I loved the budding romance between Wallis and John Jasper, and was suitably outraged when it came to an end (that’s not a spoiler, right? Everyone knows she ended up marrying no-longer-King Edward).
Her subsequent romances were more difficult to deal with – as we moved into more reliably documented territory (her first and second marriages, her time in Florida, Washington and London), I struggled more to understand her motivations – I think Dean writes better when not constrained so much by documented history. The increasing emphasis on Wallis’ and others’ sexual liaisons also made me lose interest in the book a little – I know she had a scandalous reputation but it seemed like it was the easy thing to write about; I needed more context as to the mores of the time to know what was shocking and what was not.
Definitely worth a read if you are interested in the period, the story, or turn-of-the-century high society in the US.