A. Susan Williams: The People's King: The True Story of the Abdication Allen Lane. London. 2003. 400p. ISBN 0713995734
The Abdication is not a new story, and has been extensively worked over by historians both academic and popular, but Susan Williams brings a new approach to it which will be of particular interest to historians of women and gender. She has done detailed work in the archival sources, including materials scarcely touched by others, and brings a perspective to her interpretation informed by women's history and history from below. One of her major discoveries was the copious files of letters sent to Edward VIII by members of the general public, most of them highly sympathetic to his predicament and urging him to follow his heart. This study is a vignette of a society in change, in which elements of tradition and modernity were at war, with more widespread sympathy for modernity than the 'establishment' recognised or was prepared to admit.
Edward himself forms a fascinating study in changing paradigms of masculinity. His popularity as Prince of Wales was based on his persona of a modern young man with informal, rather than hidebound and staid, manners and attitudes, approachable and concerned for the people of the country he was (everyone assumed) destined to govern. However, as Williams points out, he had been brought up to have an overpowering sense of duty, inculcated through 'the strict sense of discipline drummed into him during his years at school'. Williams cites A. J. P. Taylor's judgement that Edward 'was not the man to shatter the establishment' (p. 157). But from his 'extreme manifestation of chivalry', he was not prepared to do what the establishment thought appropriate and set up the woman he loved as a mistress, while marrying elsewhere and suitably. It is arguable that this was also driven by a different sense of sexual morals (influenced by social changes more generally) from those famously manifested in his grandfather Edward VII. The response of the public indicates that they read the situation in these terms: that he was not 'Victorian'.
The response of the political establishment and social elite towards Wallis Simpson was a painful manifestation of misogyny and anti-Americanism. While she had initially been welcomed in the highest circles in London, her relationship with Edward led to ostracism and stigmatisation. Williams has found no evidence at all to support the often-repeated tale of her alleged exotic erotic skills. Indeed, the gossip about these seems driven by an upper-class male misogyny for which the default assumption was that all women were the same in the dark, and that the only reason for preferring a particular one would be on the grounds of some such dubious expertise. How pervasive the rumours of something sexually problematic or perverse were - even coming to the ears of Virginia Woolf (p. 40) - is indicated by the letter sent by sex-guru Marie Stopes to Edward, suggesting that a talk with her might be helpful, given that she had been consulted on 'every imaginable problem of marriage' (p. 136). Williams also debunks the 'Nazi sympathies' claim - far from being a friend of Ribbentrop Wallis Simpson had only met him twice at large parties at Emerald Cunard's - as just one element in the miasmatic whispering campaign about her and the effects of her influence on Edward. Networks of prurient and malicious speculation and the transmission of things that 'everyone knows' but which are hard to find any evidence for, played a significant role.
It would have been interesting to analyse the Abdication crisis and the response to it in terms of popular media, in particular Ruritanian romance. These were prevalent at the time, in popular fiction, stage musicals and film, and privileged the romance between royal and commoner over dutiful dynastic marriage. They also tended to position the romance as associated with modernity and reform against cruel tradition and dictatorship. Popular attitudes toward Edward and Wallis seem to have been strongly influenced by these tropes.
This is an extremely readable 'thick' history of the Crisis and its resonance not only throughout all levels of British society but worldwide
Lesley A Hall, Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine, London