WAS EDWARD VII really such a rotten egg? That is the question this revisionist biography asks of the king who abandoned his throne and country for the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. Susan Williams sets out the case for him as a modernising, considerate monarch who was far more in tune with his time and his subjects than any previous king. To use Alastair Campbell-style jargon, she wants him repositioned ‘the people’ s king’, alongside Diana, ‘the people’s princess’. Diana’s legions of admirers saw her as misunderstood, charismatic, politically astute and caring for others more than herself, and Edward was similarly perceived.
It is a large claim to make, as Williams acknowledges in her preface: ‘I shared most of the conventional – and unflattering – opinions about him and Wallis Simpson.’ But then 10 I and behold, this clever academic at the Universitv of London, whose previdus books include Ladies of InJuence, Women and Childbirth in the Twentieth Century and The Children of London, experienced a Damascene moment when she turned her skds to roval research. I had barely scratched the surface of my research before I realised that the truth was rather different. As I watched a newsreel of Edward VIII’s tour of the Welsh villages in March 1936 – when he urged “something must be done” to find work for the unemployed – I saw a man who was visibly moved by the suffering of the poor. He brought hope to the valleys, as to the other areas of unemployment he had visited before and the whole country seemed to admire his efforts. I could now see the stbry of the abdication on a wider screen: it was no longer simply a tale of royalty and the Establishment but included the ordinary people of Britain.’ Well, up to a point.
Williams trumpets as her strongest evidence for reassessing her misunderstood monarch ten massive boxes, stored in the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle, which contain thousands of letters from people all over the world giving their reaction to the King’s sensational abdication. Many are from ex-servicemen who felt a bond with Edward as he too had experienced the horrors of the First World War. Williams is proud to give her story of Edward V111 the perspective of the draper or the factory worker, in essence the man or woman in the street, who found great pathos in the King’s sacrifice, in much the same way as ordinary people would unleash their emotions when Diana died. And while that is legitimate historical evidence, it is not necessarily an accurate reflection of the whole story. The pedestrian and uninspiring sources Williams invokes, such as ‘a man from Surrey’, were really people who observed the King from a distance, rather than knew him. She gives them far more prominence than a conventional biographer would. and at times this makes the book seem unbalanced and lacking in authority. They are pitted against the diaries, letters and notes of people within the royal circle, and they suffer in the comparison, as it is generdy more interesting to have a view from someone inside the court rather than just any old Joe.
Williams’s resourcefulness in finding untapped insider sources is admirable. But what singles this book out, weak-minded philanderer? and in some way spoils it, is her unrelenting determination to convince the reader that Edward was a good man. I felt that this thesis led the book’s research rather than the other way round. Yes, Edward was correct when he made his outburst about the poverty and unemployment in Wales, and drew media attention to the problem brilliantly, but this one moment, although sipficant, is not particularly illustrative of the rest of hls life. Williams asserts that Edward did not care for privileges or special attention, but actually his post-abdication years became dominated by precisely those thmgs: witness his obsession with Wallis’s being denied the title of HRH, his extravagant acquisition of royal trinkets, his grand lifestyle in France and the Bahamas, where he showed little judgement and no gift for diplomacy.
This is a valiant attempt to change the common assumption that Edward was a selfish, narcissistic, weak-minded philanderer who had no conception of the meaning of duty. Wallis is also reassessed, and her attempts to make clear to Edward that she did not want him to give up the throne for her are moving and convincing. Stanley Baldwin does not come across well. He seems a mean-spirited, defensive prime minister who wanted to elbow the King out to pacify the Establishment. The book is fascinating in its dissection of how the different press barons positioned themselves for and against Edward. There is a great deal of fresh detail from private archives and public libraries. It is certainly a useful addition to the abdication literature. But there are omissions. What is left out is the plentihl evidence for the case against Edward. Maybe Williams thought that this was already well known, or that it would detract from her rehabilitation of him. But the case against Edward remains pretty devastating. One might start with the view of Edward’s father, George V, who saw his eldest son as a dilettante loser with no serious conception of his royal duty. ‘I pray to God my eldest son will never have children and that nothing will come between Bertie and Lilibet and the throne,’ he once declared. Such a damning indctment from his own father does not exactly give the impression of Edward as a perfect candidate for King.