The duke’s sick compulsion to serve her like a lackey has been well documented in other books, but Sebba produces the most riveting example. The trip to Nazi Germany the Windsors made after their marriage, the trip that gave the world the famous photo of Hitler bowing over Wallis’s hand, had nothing to do with politics or the duke’s unabashed Nazi sympathies. He arranged it solely because it “afforded a real opportunity for Wallis to sample a state visit . . . to give Wallis a taste of being queen.”
She got another taste of being queen when her new brother-in-law, King George VI, appointed the duke governor-general of the Bahamas during World War II. It was the most minor of queenships but her southern identity kicked in once again: In the subconscious mind of every southern woman is a vision of herself as a great lady, an Ellen O’Hara or Melanie Wilkes laboring uncomplainingly for others with no thought for herself. Once again Sebba gets it right. “Those who knew her at this time admired the element of Southern nobility” in her behavior, she writes. “Publicly she did not complain, and many remember her working hard and efficiently in a variety of capacities as the governor’s wife” — in the Red Cross, a home for destitute women and children, and a canteen for troops in transit. A British journalist was struck by how “extraordinarily nice Wallis was to people as she went around inspecting homes and creches,” and how she “always had the right word for everyone.” Her Bahamas period was the only time in her life when she was widely liked, and it raises an interesting point. Her surprising depths of dignified compassion might have made her, in time, a much-loved queen, and certainly a better match for the English temperament than the hugging dervish that was Princess Diana.
Wallis herself was aware of her complex, contradictory personality and often spoke of her good-Wallis, bad-Wallis split. The author does not stint in describing Wallis the Gorgon, but her ultimate assessment is more than favorable: “Merely by marrying the ineffectual king she not only did England but the world a favor.”
The abdication is now shrouded in the mists of nostalgia, but its political divide is still with us. On the day after the “woman I love” speech, the archbishop of Canterbury denounced the former king for giving in to “a craving for private happiness.” Instantly, a fiery debate broke out between traditionalists and fashionable lefties that sounds exactly like today’s face-offs between cultural conservatives and anti-religious progressives. “Harold [Nicolson] is glum as an undertaker and so are the other nobs,” observed feminist novelist Virginia Woolf, while the New Statesman’s drama critic wrote: “You may say that Parliament won — so did the prudes and the Pharisees; a dangerous victory. . . . Clericalism will now fight harder than ever to hold all its forts of intolerance and obscurantism.”
Gossip columnist Liz Smith famously said, “Gossip is news running ahead of itself in a red satin dress.” Anne Sebba serves up all the well-known Wallis stories as well as some new ones, and even supplies what comes close to being a gynecological ultrasound, but no matter how much she dishes, this is not just another tell-all Wallis book. She has written the first historical biography of the Duchess of Windsor, and it is not to be missed.
– Florence King can be reached at P.O. Box 7113, Fredericksburg, VA 22404.