Title: The Shadow QueenAuthor: Rebecca Dean
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 8/14/2012
What it’s about:A king would abdicate his throne for her in one of the world’s great love stories – but who was Wallis Simpson?
Born into a poor southern family but taken in by rich relatives, Wallis Simpson was raised as a socialite. Between family conflicts and debutante balls, she and her friends dream of their future husbands, and like millions of girls’ worldwide, dream of Prince Edward, the heir to the British throne who would someday be king. Beloved author Rebecca Dean imagines the early life of Wallis Simpson, her triumphs and heartbreaks, and the making of the twice divorced, nearly destitute woman who captured a king’s heart and changed the course of history. Set against a background of high society, royal circles, and diplomatic intrigue, The Shadow Queen features one of the most fascinating and controversial women of the 20th century.
My thoughts:I’ve been fascinated by Wallis Simpson ever since I saw the miniseries Edward and Mrs. Simpson in high school. This miniseries, starring Edward Fox as Edward VIII and Cynthia Harris as Wallis is still, in my opinion, the definitive filmed version of their story. Since then I’ve read every major biography that has come out about Wallis and seen every single film and TV version of their story, some of which I have critiqued here on the blog. I think my fascination stems from the fact that Wallis was an American, and here was a King of England giving up his throne to marry her. Of course, we all know now that their story is far from being the great romance of the century, but it still has a certain power. And Wallis herself continues to be somewhat of an enigma. Was she really a hermaphrodite? A Nazi sympathizer? Was she stringing Edward along while having numerous affairs with other men?
Rebecca Dean is more concerned with Wallis’ early years which make for fascinating reading. I disagree heartily with the Publisher’s Weekly reviewer who wrote that Wallis’ personality comes out in unpleasant ways. Wallis doesn’t demand that her Uncle Sol finance her debutante season. She hopes that he will because of the Warfield’s standing in society and because she’s his niece. Given the deprivation of her early childhood, and that her Uncle would tighten or loosen the purse strings on a whim, it is understandable that Wallis would hope for a debutante ball. In order for Wallis to marry well, as was expected of her, she would have needed to have been launched into society with all the bells and whistles, particularly since she had already been invited to balls thrown by other debutantes. It was the custom for a debutante to reciprocate the hospitality.
Dean digs in deep to give the reader psychological reasons for Wallis’ actions throughout the book. She emphasizes the Warfield family history that Wallis had grown up with, dating all the way back to William the Conqueror. It may be hard for contemporary readers to understand just how important a pedigree was back in the 19th century, particularly if you came from genteel poverty. Your pedigree was all that you had. Wallis’ mother Alice, widowed when Wallis just a baby, is flighty and impractical. There is a telling scene early on in the book when Wallis accidentally overhears her Uncle Sol making a play for her mother. Although only a child, she realizes that since her Uncle cannot have his brother’s widow, he uses money as a weapon. Imagine growing up like that? I can’t, so it’s understandable that money looms large in Wallis’ life.Wallis in THE SHADOW QUEEN does not come across as the grasping, greedy woman that most biographers and films depict her as. Dean emphasizes the fact that Wallis was popular and well-liked, considered a great deal of fun by her contemporaries. Although she preferred the company of men, she had several good female friends including her cousin Corinne. Wallis marries her first husband, Earl Winfield Spencer, for love. She ignores the warnings of friends and family, that he has a drinking problem, a bad temper, and more important to her Uncle Sol, his family comes from Kansas and has no money. Even her Uncle’s decision to cut Wallis off doesn’t deter her from marrying Spencer.
It’s hard not to sympathize with Wallis during this section of the book. Despite her flaws, no one deserves to be abused the way that Wallis was in her first marriage, which Dean portrays with sensitivity, emphasizing that Wallis in some way believes that she deserves Spencer’s abuse for her own inadequacies. This is where Dean gives the reader an interesting theory on Wallis’ sexuality that has puzzled biographers over the years. In the Afterward, she explains why she made the choice that she did which seems completely plausible to me.
My only quibble with this novel is the fictional characters of Pamela Denby, the daughter of a Duke that Wallis meets as a child in Baltimore, and John Jasper Bachman who is depicted as her first love. I didn’t think that either character was necessary, especially Pamela, and it certainly didn’t enhance the story or illuminate it in anyway. When the book strayed from Wallis’ story to pick-up Pamela’s in London, I didn’t care. I found Pamela to be narcissistic in the extreme and the less time spent with her the better. I felt that the author included them just so that she could reference her earlier book THE GOLDEN PRINCE which is about an imagined love story between The Prince of Wales and a fictional character named Lily Houghton. The book ends with Wallis meeting and marrying Ernest Simpson rather hastily and sailing for England where she meets Edward in the final pages of the book, no doubt setting the reader up for the sequel. Frankly, I think the book would have been better served with Wallis just meeting Ernest but that’s just my preference.On the whole I enjoyed this book immensely except for the rushed ending and the unnecessary fictional interlopers.