Book Review: Edward VIII (Donaldson, 1974)

(Copyright © 2014 by Wil C. Fry.)

Full Title: Edward VIII: A Biography of the Duke of Windsor
Author: Frances Donaldson
Year: 1974
Publisher: J.B. Lippincott Company
ISBN 0-397-00765-5
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Wikipedia page on Frances Donaldson

◊ Summary

Edward VIII is an award-winning biography of the English king of the same name, who “ruled” for only 11 months and then became the only king of that nation in a thousand years to voluntarily give up his throne. Due to my excellent education in public schools in Oklahoma and Texas, I’d never heard of Edward VIII — nor his parents or siblings, so when I found this volume at a local library sale for 50 cents, I decided to fill the gaps in my knowledge.

Edward VIII was born “Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David”, and was called “David” by family members and friends. The eldest son of King George V and Queen Mary, he knew from early childhood that the throne was his destination and he became king at the age of 41 after the death of his father. Seeming to prefer only married women, he dated several until he settled on Wallis Simpson who was in her second marriage when she met the future king in 1934. It was his love for — and intention to marry — Mrs. Simpson that led to his abdication of the throne, since the kingdom simply wouldn’t accept it.

This biography portrays the situation as a “constitutional crisis” and strongly indicates that the nation would have crumbled into dust if King Edward VIII had married Mrs. Simpson while king.

◊ What I Liked Least About It

Number one: Lack of context. The book was clearly written with a specific audience in mind: British people old enough to remember the abdication, or at least someone well-versed in early 20th Century British history. The first sentence of the introduction contained an abbreviation — unfamiliar to me as an American reader — which turned out to be very common in English literature.

The first sentence of Chapter One named a king and queen I’d never heard of, and by the end of the paragraph, as many as nine members of the royal family had been named without helpful historical context. At that point, I should have put down the book and brushed up on Britain’s government of the late 1800s and early 1900s. But I decided you shouldn’t have to read a primer before beginning a biography and plunged on.

The book goes on using various royal titles and naming people I’ve never heard of without any background whatsoever. Even if I’d previously memorized the names of all the kings and queens, I still would have been lost without knowledge of every Duke, Lord, Baroness, and author who’d written about them (many authors are referred to in passing by only their surnames, leaving the reader to wonder who they are).

Number Two: an intrinsic assumption that some people are “high-born” and others are “low-born”.

Unlike many Americans, I’ve never obsessed over royalty, or even been impressed by it. As a child I fully bought into the American ideal that all humans should stand on equal footing, or should at least be treated equally under the law, and I still hold onto hope that this might happen someday. Never having been a member of the privileged class (or the underprivileged, for that matter), I cannot accept that some people are — by birth — more deserving of better treatment or have higher intrinsic rights than others.

I’d always assumed that the British monarchy was mostly ornamental in nature, a nostalgic holdover from the olden times. I got this impression mostly by reading news in British media like the BBC and Guardian, most of whom regularly refer to the UK as a democracy (which by definition assumes the equality of citizens). Apparently my assumption was incorrect, and England can only survive as a nation if her monarchs behave in a precisely prescribed manner.

This author treats the idea of classes in society as an assumed necessity, which I found offensive, even for a book written last century.

Number Three: To understand parts of the book, one must be familiar with the UK system of peerage, which includes Dukes, Marquesses, Earls, Viscounts, and Barons — people who are allegedly more important than ordinary citizens.

◊ What I Liked Most About It

I enjoyed most the glimpses into life in a period and place with which I’m unfamiliar. Snippets like the following pullout quote were enlightening to say the least:

“All upper-class children [around 1900] were reared in isolation from their parents, whom in many families they saw once, at the most twice, a day when they had been specially dressed and prepared to meet them. It was quite common for their parents to be uneducated in child care and subject to the conventions of the time.”

A close second for me was the sheer number of silly names: Lord Beaverbrook (never once referred to by his real name, Max Aitken), Ladbroke (“the King’s chauffeur”, no first name), Buttercup Kennedy, Boysie (aka Count Rex), and Fruity Metcalfe, just to name a few; and how often titles are used in place of names — many characters were only mentioned by titles, never by their names. (Could you imagine writing a book about Barack Obama, but only ever referring to him as “Illinois Senator” and “U.S. President”?)

Perhaps the most difficult reading came in the latter third of the book, when Edward VIII had switched names to “Duke of Windsor” and much of the narrative is provided by letters written by those who stayed with him in France after the abdication. These people wrote personal letters in the idioms of the times, which was informative, not only about the 1920s but about the slang in use today and how quickly much of it will pass.

◊ Overall Impression

The book felt as if it had purposefully been written so it would be difficult to read; I had to repeatedly remind myself that it was written in the 1970s by a foreigner (British woman) about a time and place that no longer exists (pre-World War II Great Britain). I’ve read much older books that are much easier to read.

The further I went, the sadder I became. My sympathies were almost entirely with the Prince/King/Duke, despite the author’s continuing attempts to place all the blame on his shoulders. While I have to agree with her (and with the British populace at the time) that it’s no good to date a woman married to someone else, that’s never been a big hurdle for a King. I felt it hypocritical for a culture to promise a man an unearned throne as his birthright but then take it away over a moral failing — no one had a problem with this affair except as to how it related to the monarchy.

He continued to love this woman to the last, marrying her after the abdication. His family would not attend, nor would most of his friends. He seemed to be a man of robust and singular drives and tastes but was consistently misunderstood. Treated the first half of his life like the Son of God, he lived the last half like a leper because he would not change his mind.

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