What an absolutely riveting read this is, an unputdownable history book – which is not a usual combination, I would posit.
But this is no ordinary history book.
This is a fresh appraisal of the lives and ideologies of two of the most divisive figures in the British Royal family…and no, I am not talking about Prince Harry & Meghan Markle, though there are certainly some parallels. More anon.
This is the story of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, aka King Edward VIII, who abdicated from the throne in December 1936, because he could not marry the woman he loved, the twice divorced American Wallis Simpson.
Much of their story is well known.
I, for one, thought I knew enough about them, but Mr. Lownie’s excellently researched book has proved me wrong.
The author has researched previously unexplored archives and tracked down notes and file annotations and cross-checked them against letters and diaries, to reveal aspects of the couple that shed a very new light on them. Let me be frank, it is a very unattractive light.
We meet a couple obsessed with their titles, their status, and (not surprisingly) money.
The meanness and penny-pinching, the saddling of their bills on other people, is staggering, and very distasteful. We learn that on the night of his abdication, as he sails away from the British Isles on a British Navy vessel:
“Much of the time was spent sending farewell cables to friends. When told that the wireless could not be used when the ship reached territorial waters, the Duke ordered Fury back to sea until he finished his list. ‘He later happily confided to another close associate, Lord Peregrine Brownlow, how much money he had saved because all those cables were free.’
I’ll continue sharing this except with you, since it leads straight from the Duke’s meanness to another fascinating revelation, which sets the ensuing narrative in a whole new perspective.
So, after the Duke had stayed up all night, sending his cables at someone else’s expenses, the writer continues :
The ship docked at dawn. Windsor’s first act was to telephone Wallis.
She spent most of the Saturday in bed depressed by events. Her friend Constance Coolidge had told the journalist Helen Worden Erskine, after listening to the (abdication) broadcast:
“Can you imagine a more terrible fate than to have to live up publicly to the legend of a love you don’t feel? To have to face, morning, noon and night, a middle-aged boy with no other purpose in life than a possessive passion for you?”
And from this point onwards, now knowing that Mrs. Simpson was depressed at the thought of a life with the Duke of Windsor, we follow their lives, as they wander aimlessly and self-indulgently around Europe, with huge amounts of luggage and lap-dogs in tow. They are entertained by people, but appear indifferent to the upheavals and the expense incurred by their hosts, accepting everything as their due.
Distasteful as all this is, even more disconcerting – especially for the new King and his government – was their pro-German, pro-Nazi sympathising.
The Duke emerges from the book in a very poor light. He has no intellectual depth, is interested only in his own shallow world, and – obsessively – trying to get his family to accept his wife. He wants the HRH title for her, and constantly lobbies his family and the government.
The Duchess – she does like the title – shops. Incessantly and expensively, and often at someone else’s expense.
Don’t let this brief sketch of mine of two mean, insubstantial people put you off reading this book- that is in no way my intention. “Traitor King” is an excellent, engrossing read, very well written and, as I mentioned earlier, superbly researched.
An absolutely fascinating story and, yes, one cannot avoid comparing the Windsors with the Sussexes (Prince Harry and his divorced American wife Meghan Markle), although obviously in very different scenarios: a King relinquishing his throne vs the then 6th in line to the throne moving to California, and there is, of course, absolutely no hint of untoward political affiliations from the Sussexes. None whatsoever.
But the whole American divorcée/hanging on to titles/wanting the pomp & ceremony & deference, without wanting to put in any of the work – well, it does add a modern counterweight to this excellent book.