Was the relationship between Wallis Simpson and Edward, Prince of Wales, a great love story or a dereliction of duty by a spoilt, petulant prince who created a constitutional crisis in 1936 by abandoning his throne for the woman he loved? What you believe largely depends on which side of the Atlantic you’re sitting.
Americans traditionally favour the romantic view of Wallis Simpson, the plain beanpole from Baltimore who wooed and won Edward’s heart, luring him into abdication, exile and marriage. The British have never been quite so keen to buy the Mills & Boon version. A cache of Wallis’s private letters, recently discovered in an English attic, lends further weight to the belief that she had unwittingly signed herself up to a Faustian pact from which, she discovered to her dismay, it was too late to escape.
The 15 hitherto unseen letters, which form the core of Channel 4’s latest examination of Wallis, are mostly from her to her husband Ernest Simpson, whom she was in the process of divorcing at her royal lover’s insistence. They reveal a frightened, confused woman who deeply regrets the legal action she has initiated.
She writes: “None of this mess and awakening emptiness is my doing.” And in another letter: “I miss you and worry about you. Wasn’t life lovely, sweet and simple?” She speaks of escape to the Continent, perhaps for ever. She ends one letter: “Give me courage; I’m so lonely.”
To preserve the anonymity of their owner, Wallis’s latest biographer, Anne Sebba, refuses to say in which private collection in the south of England she unearthed the letters. But she says they show Simpson to be an opportunistic woman who found herself completely out of her depth, and even perhaps still in love with the husband she had been persuaded into leaving.
“As an American, she loved the access to the highest levels of English society, to be showered with blandishments and expensive jewellery, to be the mistress of the future king,” says Sebba. “But she expected the eventual fate of most mistresses, which is to be dumped. She is not an easy woman to like, but I think she at least deserves to be understood.”
Wallis’s attempts to escape her fate are already well known; she even wrote to Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin declaring she had no further interest in marrying the king. But Edward’s smothering attention, and his threat to cut his throat if she abandoned him, kept her in thrall.
Variously accused in the past of being a nymphomaniac, a virgin, a lesbian or even a man in disguise, she had an erotic magnetism that has never been fully explained.
John Julius Norwich, the English viscount who knew her when he was a child, says: “Edward thought she was Helen of Troy. Nobody else did; she had a face like an old boot.”
Philip Ziegler, Edward’s official biographer, says: “What really appealed was that she treated him like dirt, and he loved it.”
With the 75th anniversary of the abdication approaching in December, the story of Wallis refuses to go away: parallels are inevitably drawn with Charles and Camilla; Kate Middleton’s engagement dress was inspired by that 1930s look of Simpson chic; and Madonna has directed W.E., her own film version of events. “This is a love story, but not the one we thought it was,” says Sebba.
There is a final irony. Wallis and Ernest, the husband she seemingly truly loved, probably colluded in their divorce, he having found a mistress of his own. Under the law of the time, that would have made the proceedings completely null and void.