Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Anne Sebba's "That Woman"

Anne Sebba is a biographer, lecturer, journalist and former Reuters foreign correspondent. She read History at Kings College, London University and her first job was at the BBC World Services in the Arabic Department. She has written eight books, several short stories and introductions to reprinted novels. She has presented documentaries on BBC R3 and BBC R4, and is a member of the Society of Authors Executive Committee.

Sebba applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, and reported the following:
It’s a strange feeling, opening your own book to a random page and wondering what those few paragraphs could possibly tell you about the whole story. I was rather suspicious of the idea, doubting that it could reveal anything worthwhile, and resisted going to look immediately for fear that it could not possibly make any sense out of context. And if it did, then why had I bothered with character build up and scene setting in the preceding pages? Amazingly, however, I discovered that page 99, which sits bang in the middle of chapter 6, actually tells the reader much about not only Wallis but also Edward, at that point (1934) still Prince of Wales and still - but only just - considered young, glamorous and charming, often with the inevitable cigarette dangling from his lips in true film star pose of the day.

To set the scene: Wallis is approaching 40, an unhappy age for most women who recognise that their child-bearing years are over and worse, as they move into the second half of their lives, their attractiveness to men will fade. Wallis, the least maternal of women, nonetheless wrote to her aunt that she longed for a swansong before she was 40. At this point in the story she was married to long suffering husband number two, Ernest Simpson, and both were enjoying being part of the Prince’s circle in London as well as being invited to his country home, Fort Belvedere. They had been introduced to the Prince (well known for his love of all things American including painted fingernails, jazz, trouser turn ups etc) by his then mistress, Thelma Furness, who thought Wallis would amuse the easily bored prince. She did. But Wallis was constantly complaining that she and Ernest did not have as much money as she had hoped in order to keep up. When Thelma had to go to America she asked Wallis to look after ‘the little man,’ a task Wallis accomplished rather too well. On her return Thelma knew immediately not only that she had been replaced by Wallis, but that he was totally obsessed by her.

Back to page 99, which describes how Thelma understood this from the intimate body language and the private jokes, yet, when she confronts her replacement, Wallis replies that while Edward may like her he is not she insists in love with her.

This is significant because although the remark carries an element of disingenuousness, Wallis sincerely believed the relationship would last no more than a year or two, and certainly would not survive Edward’s transition to monarch. Then, somebody younger and more suitable as Queen of England who could provide him with an heir, would be found. She was convinced that the political establishment or the royal family would forbid him to continue his relationship to a twice-married woman and that she would then go back to Ernest, her safety net, and be left with a few jewels and memories. But at this stage, on page 99, she had yet to reckon with the King’s obsessional personality and deep need for her as a controlling presence in his life, which would prevent her from escaping. She had left it too late. Also crucially revealed on page 99 is that Edward’s cruel discarding of Thelma and his refusal to speak to his previous mistress, Freda Dudley Ward, behaviour always blamed on Wallis, had just as much to do with his own weak character and inability to face up to a situation, especially where personal relationships were concerned. Hardly surprising therefore that when Wallis found herself trapped in a situation, albeit of her own making but one she never expected to last, she could not discuss it with Edward the man she was assumed to love but could write only to Ernest, the man she was meant to hate and with whom communications were forbidden by law. The new archive of 15 letters from Wallis to Ernest during 1936-37, which I discovered in the course of researching this book, is shocking in some ways. But it would hardly be surprising to close observers of the couple at the time.
Learn more about the book and author at Anne Sebba's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue