A Hollywood screenwriter could not create a tale with more contemporary sensationalism than Anne Sebba accomplishes in her biography, That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor. Sebba combines the scintillating ingredients of a compelling and eminently readable story: royalty, forbidden love, lies, betrayal, sexual politics, familial discord, and even Nazis. However, the actual tale of Wallis Simpson, a married American socialite who stole the heart of the Crown Prince of Great Britain and the Dominions, is far more multifaceted when contextualized by the instability of a nation on the brink of social change and the threshold of war.

Sebba’s previous works have charted the lives of such luminaries as Mother Theresa and Jennie Churchill, mother of Winston Churchill. She is a well-regarded biographer and journalist whose work in both fields is lauded by professional organizations and historians. In That Woman, Sebba partially succeeds in the daunting task of presenting a balanced portrait of a woman much maligned by her contemporaries and other historians.

That Woman gives a largely sympathetic account of the Duchess’ life from birth to death, drawing on diverse sources to create a portrait of a complex and troubled woman. Notably, Sebba explores the controversial theory that Simpson was born with what is currently called a Disorder of Sexual Development (DSD), a birth defect characterized by external genitalia of one sex and the absence of the corresponding internal sex organs, or the lack of requisite sex organs altogether. Much of Sebba’s efforts are focused on proving that the physical and psychological traits Simpson exhibited were consistent with other persons possessing DSD. Unfortunately, Sebba’s case is simply not strong enough to convince the reader, and it possesses the latent unfairness of attributing Simpson’s strong, dynamic, assertive personality to a physiological disorder.

Sebba does not hold back in her criticism — both implied and overt — of Simpson’s husband, King Edward VIII. His Royal Highness is painted as a spoiled and possessive child who sabotaged Simpson’s marriage to English-American businessman Ernest Simpson in pursuit of the woman for whom he had developed an unhealthy obsession. Edward comes across in the text as a callow, vain, and an essentially venal man who ignored his duties and responsibilities to both family and nation, not so much out of love for Simpson, but simply because he couldn’t bear to be denied her. Though there are other accounts that support this characterization, Sebba, in particular, seems content to let the Duke of Windsor carry the sole weight of responsibility for the affair, while representing Simpson as the victim of a modernized jus primae noctis, rather than as a willing partner in a consensual adulterous relationship.

By casting Simpson as an impoverished woman struggling only to make her way in a male-dominated world, seeking security and happiness in a series of failed relationships, Sebba underemphasizes the Duchess’ own mercenary nature. She justifies Simpson’s domineering and outgoing personality as her attempt to make herself more attractive and desirable to eligible men and thereby avoid her mother’s fate as a penniless widow. Her first husband, a Naval aviator named Earl Winfield Spencer, was an abusive alcoholic whom Simpson divorced after multiple attempts to salvage the marriage. Husband number two, Ernest, was a pleasant, if dull, man whom Simpson admittedly described as a security blanket — rich and safe. The beginnings of her relationship with Edward are characterized as almost accidental, with Sebba going to great lengths to make the future-disgraced King the aggressor.

The weakest part of Sebba’s book concerns the couple’s alleged sympathy for Nazi Germany. Very little in the narrative deals with these suspicions, and what does exist is treated in rather cavalier fashion. While history has provided no evidence that either Simpson or Edward actively colluded with Germany, their visits to the Third Reich and close associations with known sympathizers in the years leading up to war present a challenge to anyone wishing to rehabilitate the pair’s image in this regard.

If Simpson was politically ignorant of the ramifications (something not supported in this text), Edward should and did know how such associations would be perceived. Sebba’s solution is to acknowledge this as little as possible, inserting somewhat strained excuses where it does happen to be mentioned, which an informed reader can only find implausible.

In the end, That Woman reads not so much as a biography but as an attempt at refurbishing Simpson’s character and presenting her motives and ambitions in the softest of lights. Sebba partially succeeds, giving the reader a window into the struggles Simpson endured, not the least of which was the callous rejection of a hidebound British public and a judgmental royal family. Sebba takes great pains to describe the often-cruel tactics the Royal Family employed to utterly exclude the Windsors from any public recognition and reconciliation. Only toward the end of their lives was there any softening of this stance, and only then by very media-savvy methods: allowing husband and wife to be interred side-by-side in the Royal Cemetery.

What Sebba cannot do is extinguish the flames that smolder beneath Simpson’s life of negative publicity and dangerously naive and selfish decisions. We are left with a portrait of an ambitious woman who put her own desires for wealth, security and notoriety before any sense of decency, duty and responsibility. What the book does well is show that there are not one, but two “villains” in this story, laying the portion of blame due to Edward firmly at his feet. As the entire world teetered on the brink of the Second World War, two supremely juvenile people destabilized the British Empire for no other reason than fear of being denied their desires. No amount of post hoc ergo propter hoc soul-searching by any party can blur the cruel truth of history.

Read more about:

Leave a comment