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Review: That Woman

Allure that captured a king

    Monarch and mistress: an ill-begotten couple
    Monarch and mistress: an ill-begotten couple

    By Anne Sebba
    Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20

    With a recent Channel 4 documentary about Wallis Simpson, the American socialite and divorcee for whom Edward VIII gave up his throne, merely the latest example among a wealth of published and broadcast material, we are entitled to think we know all there is to know of the scandal that rocked the British monarchy.

    But Anne Sebba's refreshing biography, with its treasure trove of new material, sheds light not only on Simpson's early life, first marriage, sojourns in China and, of course, her affair with the Prince of Wales, but also on her abiding love for Ernest Simpson and the profound doubts she had about her relationship with the Prince of Wales.

    Sebba paints a revealing picture of the early life, including the medical history, of Bessiewallis Warfield, the woman born in genteel poverty in Baltimore. Persistent rumours about Wallis's gender determination, fuelled by her somewhat masculine appearance and inability to have children, may have had their roots in a medical condition now known as a Disorder of Sexual Development (DSD).

    "This does not mean Wallis was a man… and she was certainly not a freak," Sebba observes, adding that one baby in 15,000 is born with some degree of DSD. But it would have meant that Wallis could never conceive a child and may, suggests Sebba, have motivated some of Wallis's need constantly to demonstrate her feminine allure.

    Towards the end of her turbulent first marriage to the alcoholic naval officer Win Spencer, she spent time in Shanghai and Peking. On her subsequent return to Washington, Wallis met Dorothea and Ernest Simpson. Ernest was the grandson of an Orthodox Jew, Leon Solomon, who had lived in England's south-west and had been a generous donor to Plymouth's Western Synagogue.

    Ernest, writes Sebba, "was good looking and in love with her. She would not have known about his Jewish background at this point, if ever…" After joining him in London, where he was running the family shipping company, Wallis married Ernest at Chelsea Register Office in May 1928.

    In London, Wallis eventually met Thelma Furness, twin sister of Gloria Vanderbilt, "celebrated society beauty" and the "much gossiped-about lover of the Prince of Wales". Thelma was Wallis's entrée to the top echelons of London society, a connection that would bring her to the attention of the Prince and ultimately to her role as his mistress and his wife.

    Citing previously unpublished letters, Sebba reveals that, as the Prince became more obsessed about Wallis, her own misgivings about the affair grew.

    While Sebba doesn't entirely exonerate Wallis Simpson of sympathy with the Nazis during the 1930s, she notes "the views of the King himself were more dangerously pro-German".

    Although at times a little didactic, Sebba is consistently illuminating and offers a richly evocative picture of London's social scene between the wars, along with the tragi-comic events which befell an ill-begotten couple.

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