The duchess

Wendy Holden, 1965-

Book - 2021

"It was a love so strong a king renounced his kingdom-all for that woman. Or was she just an escape route for a king who never wanted to rule? Bestselling author Wendy Holden takes an intimate look at one of the most notorious scandals of the twentieth century. 1928. A middle-aged foreigner comes to London with average looks, no money, and no connections. Wallis's first months in the city are lonely, dull, and depressing. With no friends of her own, she follows the glamorous set on the pages of magazines and goes to watch society weddings. Her stuffy husband Ernest's idea of fun, meanwhile, is touring historic monuments. When an unexpected encounter leads to a house party with the Prince of Wales, Wallis's star begins to... rise. Her secret weapon is her American pep and honesty. For the prince, she is a breath of fresh air. As her friendship with him grows, their relationship deepens into love. Wallis is plunged into a world of unimaginable luxury and privilege, enjoying weekends together at his private palace on the grounds of Windsor Castle. Wallis knows the fun and excitement can't last. The prince will have to marry, and she will return to Ernest. The sudden death of George V seems to make this inevitable; the Prince of Wales is now King Edward VIII. When, to her shock and amazement, he refuses to give her up-or recognize they are facing impossible odds-her fairy tale becomes a nightmare. The royal family closes ranks to shut her out, and Ernest gives an ultimatum. Wallis finds herself trapped when Edward insists on abdicating his throne. She can't escape the overwhelming public outrage, and, villainized, she becomes the woman everyone blames-the face of the most dramatic royal scandal of the twentieth century"--

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Biographical fiction
New York : Berkley 2021.
Main Author
Wendy Holden, 1965- (author)
First edition
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pages cm
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Review by Booklist Review

The duchess of Windsor, formerly the American Wallis Warfield Spencer Simpson, was famous (many would say infamous) for changing the course of British history when King Edward VIII abdicated to marry her. In her second woman-centric historical novel, following The Royal Governess (2020), Holden begins with Wallis en route to England for her third husband's funeral, then travels back in time to her arrival in England in 1928. Thereafter the story alternates between an account of her and Edward's love and her last visit to England. It's a colorful and dramatic narrative, packed with descriptions of clothing and jewels, townhouses and country estates, society affairs and intrigue, and the duchess' emotional turmoil. One of the delights of historical fiction is the what-if factor, and Holden poses a whopper: What if Edward never really wanted to be king and pursued Wallis, whom he knew he couldn't marry as monarch, to avoid the throne? We'll never know, but fans of biographical fiction and British royalty will thoroughly enjoy this sparkling tale of love and loss.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.

CHAPTER ONE Honeymoon in Paris 1928 The hotel room was dingy and had an odd smell. There was a brass double bed whose counterpane sagged in the middle. The floral wallpaper was faded, with rust-edged stains. Two long windows looked out into the street. Wallis went across to them. The window opposite had dried-up plants and dirty curtains. She had not expected Paris to look like this. All the way over on the boat from Dover she had imagined views of the Eiffel Tower. But Wallis was an optimist, and never more so than now. This was her wedding day. A fresh start. A new life. There was a mirror on the wall by the window, positioned to throw light on the face. Critically, she examined hers. She was no longer young-thirty-four at her last birthday-but she looked pretty good, she thought. Poised, sleek, fashionable. And hopeful, most of all. Her wedding outfit-primrose-yellow dress, sky-blue coat-made a colorful contrast to the glossy black hair center-parted and curled in two "earphones." In her pale face her lips were a bold slash of red. If, in her dark-blue eyes, there was still something sad behind the sparkle, that would not stay long. Everything would be fine from now on. They had married that morning in London. At the Chelsea Register Office, as both had been divorced. But Wallis did not regret being unable to wed in a church. She had done that the first time around, and to a cad. Ernest could not be more different. He was a fine, kind, honorable man, and she was a lucky woman. A movement in the mirror caught her eye. She saw that the bellhop who had brought their bags up was still standing in the doorway, scratching himself. "Ernest," she prompted, smiling. "I think he expects a tip." Her new husband rummaged in his overcoat pocket and handed over a small coin. The boy looked at it, raised his eyebrows and disappeared. Wallis heaved her suitcase onto her bed and snapped the locks open. In the dingy surroundings, her dresses, new for the honeymoon, bolstered her feelings of optimism. She had bought them all for a song and altered them herself. She was clever with her needle and had once thought of a career in fashion. After the divorce, the idea of supporting herself, of becoming an independent woman, had strongly appealed. But her shattered self-confidence and her lack of practical skills had made this more difficult than she expected. And once she met Ernest, she had abandoned the effort altogether. He had been a port in a storm, quite literally, as his family owned a shipping firm. When he announced he was leaving America for the London office, and asked her to marry him and come too, she had seized the chance to begin again. She shook out a dress and thought about the great Paris fashion houses. She was keen to see them even if there was no chance of buying anything. Money was tight, hence the shabby hotel room. Hence the tiny stone in the ring on her finger, so small it struggled to catch the limited light. The family firm was in trouble, although Ernest was determined to turn it round. There were also the alimony payments to his first wife and young daughter. He had thought that would annoy her, but it didn't. On the contrary, she was pleased that he already had a child. She was in her early thirties and the prospect was fading, but after her own miserable childhood, she had no wish for one anyway. She felt sorry for her little stepdaughter, whose life had been upended by her parents' divorce. When Audrey came to stay with them in London, Wallis would give her a good time. They would be friends. She felt Ernest's solid, reassuring presence behind her. He came close and put his large hands over hers. She leaned her head back, into his chest, and relished, for a few moments, his tall broadness, the feeling of utter safety, of being cherished and protected. "Don't do that now," he murmured into her shoulder. He meant the open case before her. "But I have to unpack. My things will be so creased." The cheap material needed to be hung to look good. He pulled her closer. His mustache was tickling her neck. "Who cares if your things are creased? I'd like to crease them some more!" Her reaction was as instant as it was unexpected. Panic swept through her like a tidal wave. An alarm bell shrilled loudly in her head, and her heart rose in her throat, banging violently. The urge to wrench herself away was overwhelming, and only by inhaling slowly, shudderingly, could she gain any control. Ernest had not noticed. He was sliding his arms round, pressing his body into her back. Through his coat and jacket she could feel how aroused he was. "Wallis," he murmured into her ear. "I've wanted you for so long." As his hand explored her breast, her whole body screamed silently. Her teeth began to chatter. She clamped them hard together so he would not hear. He pushed her gently forward, onto the bed. She fell like a stone, hands by her sides, and lay rigid, face pressed in the cover. Its sour smell filled her nostrils. She braced herself, as if against some expected blow or other act of violence. Great waves of heat followed by sickening swirls of cold were chasing each other round her stomach. She could not breathe. She turned her head, gasped. He seemed to take this as encouragement, perhaps as a pant of desire. His hand was on her thigh now. It was pulling up her dress; she could feel his fingers on her stocking top. She was going to be sick; she pressed her mouth and body hard into the bed. If those fingers got through, if they touched her . . . Oh God, no. Please, no. She must have spoken aloud. The fingers stopped. The hand pulled away. Beneath her ear, there was a grate and groan of bedsprings as he sat down. "Wallis, whatever's the matter?" She raised her head. He sat at the other side of her case, his overcoat still on. His basset hound face with its round brown eyes registered absolute bewilderment. She could not blame him. Throughout their short courtship, kissing was as far as he had gone. He was the very pattern of chivalry and had treated her with the utmost respect. But on their wedding night he was naturally hoping for more. She was a divorcZe, after all, a woman of experience. That he had absolutely no idea what her experience had been was not his fault. Perhaps she should have told him, but what could she have said? That she had, for nine years, been married to someone who had beaten and abused her, who drank himself senseless, who had not only forced himself upon her but made her watch him with other women? How could she have told him? Ernest would have been appalled; it would have lessened her in his eyes. It lessened her in her own. She had pushed her first husband into the depths of the farthest cupboard at the back of her mind, the one marked "The Past," and done her level best to forget. It had worked, or appeared to. After the divorce, as she recovered and looked to the future, her time as Mrs. Earl Winfield Spencer Jr. seemed increasingly like a bad dream. She had thought she could move on, but that Win-as he was known-had destroyed her ability to enjoy physical intimacy, even to take part in it, was something she had not suspected. Until now. Now-on her wedding night. She hung her head. What could she say? That she was damaged goods, in every sense? Would he even believe her? He might think she had known, that she had trapped him. Her panic had drained away to leave a sense of utter hopelessness. She had no idea what to do. She could feel his eyes on her and tried to guess their expression. Accusing? Angry? She could not blame him. But when, eventually, she screwed up the courage to look at him, the basset hound eyes were gentle. "We're married now," Ernest said softly. "I love you. Talk to me." Wallis stared at him for a moment. Then she looked down at her hands, at the ring, took a breath, and talked to him. CHAPTER TWO Win had burst into her life in 1916. Her grandmother had recently died, and after the required period of mourning, her mother decided that Wallis needed a little fun. She sent her to stay in Florida with her cousin Corinne, who was married to an air base commandant. Fun it certainly was. Wallis had never seen an airplane before, let alone a pilot as dashing as young Lieutenant Spencer with his close-clipped mustache and worldly air. They met on her first morning and saw each other every day. When, with bewildering speed, Win proposed, she accepted. She was nineteen years old. "Mother adored him," Wallis said ruefully now to Ernest. "Which should have been a sign. She has terrible taste in men. She married twice more after my father died and chose someone worse every time." "Alice didn't like me, for sure." Ernest shrugged his wide shoulders. It was true that Alice had admired Win's charm and derring-do. Her new son-in-law, she considered, fell far short of this dashing ideal. "That bowler hat and mustache! He's like an American actor playing an Englishman!" "But he is English, Mother. Well, half." The connection was on his father's side. Ernest felt it strongly. Though he had grown up in America and been educated at Harvard, he had spent the war in the Coldstream Guards, an elite British regiment. He was passionate about British history and during their courtship had taken Wallis around the New York art galleries, showing her portraits of English rulers and describing their reigns. "Stop!" Wallis would laughingly implore. "I'm from the States. We're a republic, remember. If we'd wanted all this royal stuff we'd have hung on to it." But by far the worst of Ernest's crimes in Alice's eyes was his failure to understand her sense of humor. She regarded herself as a wit and on their first meeting had told him the most cherished of her amusing stories: how she fell down the stairs in the five-and-dime. An assistant rushed over and asked if he could help her. "And whaddya think I told him?" Alice demanded as Ernest stood awkwardly twisting his hat. "I don't know, Mrs. Warfield. What did you tell him?" Alice's gaze switched gleefully to her daughter, who was standing apprehensively by. "Tell him, Wallis! Tell him what I said when I fell down in the five-and-dime!" Wallis turned to her fiancZ. She said flatly, "Mother told him to take her to the five-and-dime coffin counter." As Alice dissolved into hysterical laughter, Ernest looked blank. Their relationship had never recovered. Wallis was aware that her husband thought her mother delusional. She didn't disagree. Her difficult relationship with Alice was something else she had been glad to escape from. She returned to the subject of her first marriage. She and Win had married in Baltimore; she had worn white velvet over a petticoat of heirloom lace. Her bridesmaids wore wide picture hats. She was madly in love, or so she thought. Then, on their wedding night, Win pulled a bottle of gin from his suitcase. It was an introduction to what would become the third person in their marriage. "And the drinking got worse when the war came," Wallis went on. "Win was desperate to fly in combat, but somehow it never happened." She paused again. "Go on," prompted Ernest. "One day, after he'd been drinking, he dragged me into the bathroom. He . . . assaulted me. Then he left, and as he went, he locked the door. I lay there all day. . . ." She stopped. Evening was coming. Oblongs of coral light, cast by the setting sun, shone on the faded wallpaper. She remembered lying on the cold tiled bathroom floor, her mouth full of the brassy taste of blood and her mind churning with anguish. The shaft of sunlight through the small, high window had moved across the wall as the hours dragged by. It was next to the street and she could hear people passing. But calling for help was out of the question. "Why?" asked Ernest. She sat on the bed edge, bending over, both arms wrapped round her middle as if to protect herself. She raised a hand to cover her eyes. "I don't know," she muttered. "I should have. But it was a small community. Everyone knew everyone's business. And Win was popular. People would have been surprised. Perhaps I was worried that they wouldn't believe me. Or maybe . . ." "Maybe what?" "Maybe I thought it was my fault. Maybe I was ashamed." Ernest groaned. "Oh, Wallis." She lowered her hand and glanced at him. His basset hound eyes were glistening but had a furious glow to them too. She went on. "Then, much later, Win came back. I heard him unlock the bathroom door . . ." She shut her eyes, but the image of herself cringing in terror against the bath, anticipating another beating, was seared on her memory and could not be erased. "He didn't come in though. He left the door open and went to bed. I lay there for a few more hours. Then I spent the rest of the night on the sofa, and the next day I left." "You filed for divorce?" Ernest's brow was furrowed. She guessed he was trying to work out the timings. "We separated. I went back to live with Mother. She didn't want me to divorce. Warfields and Montagues didn't do that sort of thing." Throughout Wallis's poverty-stricken childhood she had been reminded of her descent from the foremost families in Baltimore. It was like being a modern American version of Tess of the d'Urbervilles. "Of course they didn't." A wintry smile crossed Ernest's features. He had often been told about the illustrious family background. Along with the famous sense of humor, it was Alice's favorite subject. "And then Win went to join the US fleet in the Far East. He'd kept writing to me, and gradually he persuaded me that the Shanghai posting would be a new start." Another one. Just how many new starts had she had? Shadows were gathering in the room. Across the street, in the window opposite, a red bulb had come on. Its glow evoked another room, dark and sour-smelling, a room with a red paper lantern. A woman in a dirty wrap with cynical eyes. A mat-strewn floor. A rumpled bed. Excerpted from The Duchess by Wendy Holden All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.