You can see why Madonna wanted to make a movie about Wallis Simpson, the Baltimore siren who captured the heart of a king.
Here’s an American from a modest background who comes to London and gets cold-shouldered by the toffee-nosed types in the British establishment. And is disparaged by a hostile media. Yes, Madonna feels for Mrs Simpson.
She has said she felt driven to rescue Mrs Simpson’s reputation. Traditionally, Wallis was seen by the British public as a manipulative “Yank” who had plotted to seduce and take possession of their adored Edward, Prince of Wales, later, briefly, king (though never crowned.)
Madonna is half-right when she portrays Wallis (played by the gifted actress Andrea Riseborough in the movie, “W.E.”) as a victim, unfairly vilified by history. Wallis Simpson did not set out to “steal” her royal lover. The boot was on the other foot: he was totally smitten and enslaved to her.
In his famous diaries, “Chips” Channon – the American-born parliamentarian who was married to the heiress Lady Honor Guinness (though he was also gay) – records Wallis’s impact on London society in the 1930s.
Channon’s first impression of Mrs Simpson is of a woman who is “jolly, plain, intelligent, quiet and unpretentious”. After meeting her a few times he was completely won over by her “charm, sense, balance and great wit”: she had “dignity and taste”: she had a “sense of humour” and she “makes the king happy” for which, he believed, the British Empire should be profoundly grateful.
In the 1930s, when society women were encouraged to be brittle and artificial, Wallis had real personality and a sassy, American, wise-cracking intelligence.
But she had been married and divorced twice, by the time she became the mistress of the Prince of Wales (though implausibly, Edward denied that they had ever had sex before marriage – “Wallis is a lady,” he told the stuffy Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin.)
Interestingly, Wallis Simpson had quite a fan-club in Ireland, even while the Abdication crisis was raging, in the winter of 1936.
The reasons were partly political. The British Empire and Commonwealth countries were sternly hostile to Wallis because they saw her as a threat to the monarchy. The Canadians were particularly enraged, being extra-loyal to the Crown and carrying a strong Scottish Presbyterian disapproval of “fast women”.
The Australians and New Zealanders also denounced the King’s entanglement with Wallis, and the Scottish establishment, still austerely Calvinist, thundered that she wasn’t welcome in Edinburgh or Balmoral.
But among Irish nationalists there was no historical attachment to the institution of the British monarchy, so whether Wallis was damaging the crown was not a big issue.
Even De Valera told the Dominions Office that he didn’t see why the King shouldn’t marry the woman he loved, adding, with a back-handed compliment, “isn’t the King a Protestant? Can’t he do as he likes?” (Dev had in mind the precedent of Henry VIII and his six wives.)
But the public was simply more engaged by the romantic story. There were scrap-books put together by women all over the country which assembled articles and clippings about the fascinating Mrs Simpson.
Quite a few women felt that Wallis was breaking the mould on their behalf. She wasn’t a classic beauty – in some photos she certainly seemed plain, with prominent facial moles – and, above all, she was forty!
“It’s about time that women of 40 were put on the map!” was the reaction of many an Irishwoman. I think many an Irish spinster who had felt consigned to “the shelf” took heart at the example of Wallis Simpson.
Edward was popular in Ireland anyway among the general populace – although southern (and northern) Unionists felt he was “letting the side down” by not marrying some suitably respectable German princess. But then he was thought of as a bit of a rebel, who had sympathy for the lives of ordinary people – he had shown real concern when visiting the devastated unemployment areas of Wales.
Naturally, the Catholic church did not approve of divorce, and the Catholic press was critical of the King’s carry-on. Yet that didn’t diminish the fascination with the event.
Serious commentators complained that the story of Wallis and Edward (“W.E.”) wiped reports of the Spanish Civil War off the front pages. But maybe people wanted to be distracted from distressing reality.
There was also another aspect touching Irish social history. Since the fall of Parnell, divorce had been a sensitive subject in Ireland. But with Mrs Simpson, it could be discussed in a way that didn’t touch a painful political memory.
My mother regarded Wallis Simpson as a feminist. Indeed, she much preferred that feminists should look like Mrs Simpson – bandbox-elegant, and with such emotional power over men – than the Suffragette types whose appearance was such a mess.
The end of the story was sad. As Duke and Duchess of Windsor, “W.E.” lived abroad all their lives, cold-shouldered by the British establishment. They were accused of being appeasers towards Hitler, which isn’t quite fair: until 1940, almost everyone was an appeaser towards Germany.
Wallis wasn’t really happy in her marriage, according to Anna Sebba’s recent biography. Edward was clinging and dependent, and in retrospect, she came to feel that Ernest Simpson had been the real love of her life.
Maybe great love stories are best unfulfilled. If Edward had been married off to some harmless Protestant princess, “W.E” could have cherished, for the rest of their lives, the idyll of their grand amour. But romance doesn’t always measure up to reality. And that is the true story of “W.E.” January 2012. I.I. Mag