Of the making of books about Edward VIII and the Abdication Crisis of 1936 there would seem to be no end. In the popular romantic memory, he will always be the man who gave up the throne of England for the woman he loved. In the minds of many, the romance of Edward VIII and Wallis Warfield Simpson ranks with those of Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, and Tristan and Iseult. The truth, as it usually is, is more mundane. Ziegler’s book is essentially a sad tale of misdirection, waste, and loneliness. No doubt if the archives, letters, and interviews of friends and family still existed from the days of those other famous lovers, we would have entirely different, more prosaic versions of their stories as well.
There is little romance in this story, which Ziegler tells with great fairness, with style, and even with elegance. This is an “official” biography; indeed, the British edition is subtitled “The Official Biography.” Ziegler, the author also of well-regarded books on Mountbatten and others, was given unrestricted access to the royal archives as well as privileged access to various groups of restricted papers elsewhere. The book under review, however, does not suffer from the stodginess and careful restraint that are the usual qualities of official biographies. While he is eminently fair to Edward VIII, Ziegler does not ignore or gloss over the facts of the life of his subject; he does not hide the weakness of character and judgment that the documents available all too clearly expose.
The book falls naturally into three convenient parts. The first and third parts, of about two hundred pages each, serve as introduction and coda to the central section of about one hundred pages, which covers Edward VIII’s brief reign and the Abdication. After the setting out of Edward’s years before he became king, and after the detailed and even intimate record that establishes clearly his character, opinions, and qualities, the second and third parts have some of the inevitability of a Greek tragedy; given a knowledge of the first forty years of Edward VIII’s life, no one should have been much surprised at what the final thirty-six were to bring.
The future Edward VIII, always known as “David” to his family and friends (his brother, the future George VI, was known as “Bertie,” and his brother’s wife, Elizabeth, as “Cookie”), was unfortunate in his parents, his education, his tutor, and his friends. He could well be said to have had no real friends, only hangers-on and a few acquaintances—a condition that lasted through his life. He was trained for the navy, as his father had been, but he could not be said to have been educated. His tutor was a notably unimaginative and philistine former schoolmaster. His father, whom Ziegler insists had a good heart and really loved his eldest son, had little ability to communicate, was inclined to sententiousness, frequently found fault, and worried greatly about proper clothes and small points of royal or social etiquette. His mother, Queen Mary, was closer to him, but she too was addicted to good advice, and her rigid views were to cause the young prince much pain in later years. All in all, he grew up as a shallow and conventional thinker who read little; he had the usual biases of his age and class, and he much preferred to be doing rather than thinking.
He was independent minded, disliking the trappings of royalty and frequently wishing to be treated as “one of the boys,” but it was not to be. He was generally coddled and his way made smooth. During World War I, he wished with all his heart to serve in a useful capacity, but he was restricted to ceremonial occasions and duties in France. He felt acutely his place as a protected member of an age group that was shedding its blood; he sought, when possible, danger, even though he frankly admitted his fears.
It was during the war that several of his staff arranged for his first sexual experiences with an experienced prostitute. During the years before he became king, he was to have at least two serious affairs and a number of casual liaisons. After he became involved with Mrs. Simpson, however, he remained true to her for the rest of his life.
A key word that recurs throughout the book and that is especially common in the first part is “charm”; everyone—family, friends, political leaders, and casual acquaintances, in diaries, memoirs, interviews, and reminiscences—remarks at length on the effect of the charm of the young boy and later of the man. The same sources make many references to Edward’s boyishness and his rather wistful smile. He retained these traits well into maturity; it is not hard to conclude that Edward VIII was a rather pleasant child who never grew up. He was addicted to physical exercise and a spare diet that allowed him to keep his trim and slender figure throughout his lifetime. There were some who...