It is strange how history parallels itself. Since the Royal Wedding, I have researched our current royal family, about whom I truly knew little. It became like the story of Elizabeth I: I kept hearing about the previous generation and how their actions had a clear impact on the current. In the Tudor story and film Elizabeth, I found that I must know who ‘the whore Anne Boleyn’ really was to understand why Elizabeth’s claim to the throne was arguably tenuous. Understanding Anne actually told me far more than that and introduced me to a woman every bit as fascinating and remarkable.
Reading about today’s royal family is exciting because it is the same kind of epic history, but still unfolding, with the possibility to interact with it. We don’t know the end of the story. I like to read stories where I don’t know the end; it is a shame that classics and history are half known to the general public so that there is rarely the pleasure of complete discovery for the first time. We know the Titanic sinks and that Mr Rochester does marry Jane Eyre. We know that Elizabeth I doesn’t marry and that Anne Boleyn is executed. Those events are best discovered like a film that starts with the end and you have to learn why that end is arrived at.
Reading about Prince Charles – whose story is still being made and whose ending is not known – I kept coming up against warnings about being like Uncle David, whose regnant name was Edward. This seemed to be the ultimate threat, the most dreaded comparison. The shadow of Edward VIII’s abdication was and perhaps is still looming in the memory of the royal family, though many of them were born after that event and even after his lifetime. I previously knew only that Edward abdicated to marry; I knew nothing of to whom, except her name and that she was divorced. However – any books, films and perhaps people are quick to fill in my blank that this was a feckless, selfish couple; she, a crude, loud American siren. And brave old Bertie conquered his stammer and stepped into his shameful brothers’ shoes and gave us the current royal lineage, with the strong Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon at his side, known to us today as the late Queen Mum.
This year, I have seen three films about that era: The King’s Speech, Bertie and Elizabeth, and Any Human Heart. They all add to what the biographies say. David/Edward says little in the films, and neither does Wallis Simpson, but their small parts are almost caricatured in not being flattering. Only in 2001’s Bertie and Elizabeth was there a hint that he carried on with his duties, despite being exiled and stripped of his title, and still had popularity when he met people.
Yesterday, I watched the 2005 film for television, Wallis and Edward. I wanted to hear their side of the story. My instinct had been to wonder if Edward and Wallis were really so dreadful and to feel sorry for Edward. Who else but royalty cannot reject the work our family lines up for us? You can refuse to be a doctor as your parents hoped or to carry on the family business, but this is one firm you cannot leave. I find his abdication speech very moving. He says he can’t be king and do the best for his people without the woman loves. I understand that. Who else has ministers and laws telling you whom you should marry? Why is the anti-Catholic law still in place? The prime minister has no such scrutiny, yet PM Stanley Baldwin felt that he could manipulate his Sovereign on that matter. Easy to deal the duty card to someone else when it’s not your companion that’s being dictated.
Jean Brodie says “…Stanley Baldwin who got in as prime minister and out again ere long”. This has stuck with me – that it’s the headmistress, Miss Mackay, who admires Baldwin and has the slogan near his picture, ‘safety first’. The complex antiheroine loves truth, beauty, art, and esteemed Axis European leaders whose getting in and getting out caused immeasurable suffering. I think that regarding the Windsors, Stanley Baldwin can also be charged with causing suffering – not with the mass torture and execution of fascist dictators, but his prejudice fuelled pressure had an effect on the nation and his government as well as ripples of hurt and stress for the whole the royal family, Edward and Wallis especially.
I wish that Wallis and Edward had ended not with the end notes that they were ostracized for the rest of their lives and that Wallis died a recluse, but that Baldwin resigned and the sympathetic friend Churchill was who became our famous, perhaps iconic prime minister, and that Wallis and Edward’s lives and duties carried on beyond their wedding day.
Wallis and Edward is well written and the DVD’s interview with writer Sarah Williams is very illuminating. It’s her first made script, inspired by coming across a book on Wallis in America that perhaps indicated another light was possible on the woman so hated and decried over here. In Sarah’s telling, the Queen Mother comes across as scheming and controlling. King George V is not portrayed well in any of the films, always been bombastic and cold and autocratic, a negative force on both brothers. David/Edward is neither hero nor villain, but complicated. Wallis is not grasping at the English throne, but would rather see her love alone on it and lose him than cause constitutional crisis. She is always the one with caution, showing sadness and fear when things escalate. Rather than Wallis leaving yet another husband callously, it’s he who leaves her. She is willing to put her second husband before the king, but it is Ernest Simpson who asks for the divorce. There’s none of the crude, brash presumption in this Wallis, played by Joely Richardson. Joely’s an actress who plays symptheic protagonist roles and so this casting makes us willing to warm to her and suggests that’s what we are supposed to do.
It’s easy to see Anne Boleyn/Henry VIII parallels in that a man falls in love so passionately that he is prepared to go against his ministers and shake the constitution to do so. Henry, like many kings, took lovers of married women, and this was accepted. Edward VIII was advised to do the same, without marrying her, but this film has Edward refuse to take such a double standard. Wallis, like Anne, is not aristocracy and her husband, like the men of Tudor paramours, angles their women towards the king to reap the benefits for themselves. Ernest Simpson is a nice partner who bravely confronts the King with his intentions – he does not want to leave Wallis unless she is well looked after.
The parallels with the current royal family are also powerful. Charles and Camilla’s wedding was announced during the filming of this drama. Had that happened earlier – or when Charles becomes king – a similar crisis could have emerged. I also recently saw the Channel 4 docudrama series, The Queen. It covers Charles and Diana’s break up and a parallel in living memory with Princess Margaret. Margaret wanted to marry a senior employee, Peter Townsend, but eventually gave him up for duty. I wonder how much of ‘Uncle David’ would have been behind that decision and the Queen’s views on both her sister and her son’s marriages. Being the daughter of the other brother, the one thrown into the limelight by the decision of the abdicator, one can surmise at how that affected Queen Elizabeth’s beliefs. A girl at the time, it may be that her parents influenced her ideas about it as she perhaps can remember little herself; I don’t think she had much contact with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor as David/Edward and Wallis became.
I would like to do further research on Wallis and Edward, and am open to the more sympathetic view. Like Anne Boleyn, it seems she has been demonised, but it is better that she does not remain so for centuries if it not deserved.