When Anne Sebba, author of That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor came to town we knew the opportunity to chat to her was too good to pass up. Dr. Sean Palmer, the Chair of Monarchy New Zealand, conducted an interview with Anne on our behalf.
SP: What do you feel sets this biography of Wallis Simpson apart from the others out there?
AS: I’m most proud of treating all of the participants in this story as ordinary people. I don’t think that has been done before. There are four ordinary people at the heart of this story and they are all flawed and damaged in a way, as of course we all are. That is the human condition.
I think people have seen it as a history story and that may explain why there have been so many books written by men about it. I’m the first woman to have written a biography of Wallis. I just tried to see her in the context of her time, as a woman who grew up without a father, deeply insecure, seeing her mother work. Wallis could have had a job, if she’d wanted, but in the context of the time she decided that she would never earn enough with a job to live the life she wanted, so she decided to live vicariously through men.
I think nobody has really taken the time and trouble to understand these people as ordinary people with the same difficulties that we all have. Wallis in particular, became grasping, in the pursuit of security. She went one step too far and couldn’t stop herself.
SP: There seems to have been a tremendous amount of momentum in the life of Wallis Simpson. Could anything have been done to avoid the drama that unfolded in 1936?
AS: King George V died in January 1936 and, although he had been ill, it happened quite suddenly. I think that if Edward had had another year, he would have already been married to Wallis. If he had been married as Prince of Wales, it might have been possible for him to remain on the throne. He simply would have been married to this woman.
1936 went by terribly quickly and Wallis kept thinking, “Edward will get rid of me eventually”. She doesn’t realise how hated and vilified she already is until she goes on a trip to Greece in the summer. It is then that she realises that what she thinks is ok, adultery with the King, the rest of the world finds unacceptable. It is only when she realises how unpopular she is that she tries to call off the relationship. She says, “You and I will only create disaster together.” Edward responds to this attempt by vowing to follow her wherever she goes, and with threats of suicide. Wallis found herself trapped. There is a sort of inexorability in the whole story.
People often say, “She wanted to be Queen.” I don’t think so. I don’t think she was the hunter, she was the hunted. People have blamed her for creating this situation in the first place, but she was a victim in it as much as anyone else. She always thought that the king would dump her and that she would return to the security of Ernest. But it did happen very fast. Wallis had manipulated the circumstances in her life but went a step too far and got caught up in them, unable to adjust them any further. She played with fire and got burnt.
SP: Do you feel that in some way, Wallis and Edward got exactly what they were looking for?
AS: Yes, but it wasn’t quite what they thought it would be. Their story is a sort of dark gothic fable. I do think the jewellery was the corrosive element in the story. I think it plays the part of the Devil in a Faustian pact. If you make a deal with the Devil you don’t enjoy the results. Wallis and Edward’s story is certainly not the wonderful romance people thought it was.
Edward and Wallis were committed to the pursuit of personal happiness. In the early 21st century we all accept that this is ok. But it was very different in the early part of the 20th century. People found this pursuit of happiness at the expense of duty very shocking, particularly in the wake of World War I, in which many people had sacrificed so much. Edward and Wallis got the social life of parties they had pursued, but they ended up rather aimless people, quite pathetic in many ways.
SP: Would you say you have written a sympathetic analysis of her life?
AS: No, she was no saint. I just think it’s time that we turn the tables and looked at Edward’s role in all of this. I certainly don’t think anyone should say she was the one doing the chasing. She may not be any more likable at the end of my book, but you can understand what drove her. I think history has given her a raw deal and it’s about time that we acknowledge that there are more complex factors at play here.
As a character, if her life had been a novel, she develops. That’s why she is so interesting. She grows over the course of her life, coming to terms with the role she is going to have to play, the role that she, and history, have created for herself. Publically, she stops complaining about this role, Edward continues to complain on her behalf, but she does a reasonable job in all the roles that fall to her from then on. She does the best she can for her husband.
SP: Is there a particular reason that you wrote this book now?AS: There is quite a bit of renewed interest in Wallis and Edward at the moment, but that was complete coincidence. I hadn’t worked out that it was 75 years since the abdication in 2011. It was only when I realised this anniversary, part way through the writing, that I thought, perhaps 75 years is a good time to look back because there are still people alive who remember and yet 100 years is too far away.
It just seems to have hit the spot. I hadn’t been aware of Madonna’s film or the Diamond Jubilee this year, which, had it not been for the abdication we would not have been celebrating this year. It was the right time for me to write this and it turns out, the right time for lots of other people too.
SP: Do you think Wallace regretted the abdication?
AS: I wish I could find an honest diary of Wallis’ where she actually spells out her thoughts on the subject. I think with hindsight, she would have regretted it, but if she was reliving events again, I don’t think she would have changed anything. She was quite insightful about her own nature, a dual nature. On the one hand she was a grasping, needy, ambition person desperate for social recognition and material goods. On the other hand she was a fragile, brittle, fearful creature. She wanted nothing more than security and love, but she couldn’t resist grasping for more. Her husband Ernest understood this and answered both sides of her nature. So I don’t believe she would have been able to stop herself, but I do believe that in hindsight she would have wished that she had taken a different path. It just wasn’t in her nature to take any other path.
She hated being hated by the rest of the world. It made her existence miserable. She couldn’t go anywhere without journalists following her, she’d lost her privacy, and was generally fearful. The world did hate her for taking this “fabulous prince charming” off the throne. They believed she’d done a dreadful thing, taking him away from his people. They blamed her entirely for that. She knew that the reverse was closer to the truth, that Edward had no interest in being King, but she could never say that. If I have sympathy with her, it is a genuine sympathy for never being able to be able to say that, although she’d led him down a path, she had thought he’d have had the personal strength to turn away from it when it was necessary. She certainly had historical precedent on her side. Kings have had mistresses in the past and she assumed that she would be tossed aside as previous royal mistresses had been. It is unfair to say that it was her fault that Edward gave up on his duty, but she has been blamed for it. This book is sympathetic to that extent.
Interview conducted by Dr Sean Palmer
Dr Sean Palmer has a PhD on the importance of the monarchy in New Zealand. He is Chair of Monarchy New Zealand, a not-for-profit organisation made up of a cross-section of New Zealanders who are passionate about New Zealand’s constitutional monarchy and the democracy that it promotes.
That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor
By Anne Sebba