Shadow Queen by Rebecca Dean
The Shadow Queen by Rebecca Dean is a fictional biography of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor. The woman for whom Prince Edward, the Duke of Windsor, gave up the throne. Most of us know at least something of this story, but I knew less than I could ever have imagined until I read this novel. The Shadow Queen opens on the birth day of a baby girl, named Bessiewallis, to Alice and Teackle Warfield in 1896. Both parents are from old stock – members of Baltimore society – and would have raised their family with wealth and style had not Teackle died at a young age, leaving his family to care for his widow and his daughter. As much as she wanted the financial security that came with living in the Warfield family home Alice wanted her independence and chose to leave, although she and Wallis (as she chose to be called) were supported by the Warfield’s and fees were paid to the most prestigious schools.
Wallis was bright, and daring. She was not typically pretty but she knew how to use her intelligence and street smarts to present herself in a way that captured the attention of a room – and the men in it. Rebecca Dean creates a friend for Wallis in this novel that stitches the story together over Wallis’ school days and into her young adult years and her early marriages. Interested in biography – and historical fiction – I picked up this novel not realizing that Rebecca Dean was know more as a “romance” writer than a “serious” novelist – but except for a couple of descriptions of handsome men and melting women this novel perhaps has moved her out of the romance category and into literary fiction.
What I did not know about Wallis Simpson is fully revealed in this novel. Her need to have prestige in society, her need to be the woman in the room who all others envied, her need to capture the attention of the most handsome, most desirable man in the room – desired for his good looks, money or position. Wallis Simpson was an “it” girl before the phase was coined – capable and calculating, she knew just what to do to get the attention she craved.
My impression of Wallis Simpson – before reading this novel – was of a woman who took advantage, and stole the King of England from his throne by some hold we could never understand, and changed the course of history. I felt no particular liking for either the Duke or Duchess of Windsor. Rebecca Dean however brings us a sympathy for both – the Duke who most certainly did not want to live the life he was born into – and Wallis who had experienced a very miserable first marriage, a very ordinary second marriage, and fell head over heels in love with Edward, and no doubt about it, his heritage and his wealth, and his place in society even if he would not be King of England. Yes, I think she was a cold-hearted opportunist but she was also a woman needing a man who loved her above all others, no matter what, and that she found in Edward – who it seems needed the same thing.
What is also revealed in this novel is the cruel, and to me unknown, facts about the sexual life of Wallis Simpson. That she could have concealed the truth from so many – and yet been married three times seems more than odd.
The years between the wars, in both the United States and England, are brought vividly to life. With Wallis in the United States, married first to a Naval Officer in Florida, and her fictional friend married to an American in London we see life on two sides of the Atlantic. Then we are into the Roaring 20’s, with Wallis in Washington, where affairs are no longer scandalous. The years following the First World War were years when these women and their friends lived life to the fullest – travel, parties, clothes, drink, and pleasure. In England as well, at least in this story, it was quite ordinary for married women and their husbands to have lovers.
If, like me, your are still curious about the life of Wallis Simpson you can read another recent book, this one non-fiction, That Woman by Anne Sebba. This biography paints Wallis Simpson as a more ruthless and less generous woman than the author of The Shadow Queen, but it does give us the rest of the story, while we wait to be able to read the sequel to The Shadow Queen by Rebecca Dean.