A chance discovery of never publicly seen letters penned by the American Wallis Simpson – who almost became Queen of England – has sent British biographer Anne Sebba on a four-year journey that has included the search for the truth, a book called “That Woman” and now a visit to Dubbo. Interview by Yvette Aubusson-Foley.
Are there parallels between Meghan Markle and Wallis Simpson?
Everybody is asking me, “Are they the same”? And there are lots of things I have to say: of course they’re not the same, that would be an insult to Meghan I think, but it is interesting because they are both divorced, and they’re outside the usual circle of suitable young women chosen for royal brides.
I think the real thing they have in common is that they’re well-travelled individuals who have seen the world, who are not afraid to talk to men, and are at a serious level about interesting world issues.
Wallis was very well schooled in diplomatic issues, she’d travelled in China, in a way that other women hadn’t seen the world.
In 1936, that sort of woman was viewed not only as threatening but probably a bit dangerous, and worrying and to be avoided.
Lots of men find that sort of woman threatening, and they certainly would have done in 1936.
It was part of the aura of Wallis that made her unacceptable.
Nowadays, I think people really embrace the fact that Meghan engages with world issues, she understands things, she’s travelled and she’s not afraid to speak out, and while I think that’s a similarity (with Mrs Simpson) the 80 years in between has seen a lot of change.
The other thing is, the Royal Family now recognises it’s important to have a women of experience. After the tragedy of Diana, they don’t want another fiasco like that, with a young girl who hasn’t seen the world. They’re happy to have an experienced young woman who’s prepared to settle down and do her job.
The other serious point is that Harry is sixth in line to the throne and he’s not going to be king. With Wallis it was a question of marrying the king at a time when the divorce of remarried people in the church wasn’t acceptable.
Wallis was threatening to challenge all of these rules.
What Meghan really offers is a chance for the royal family to show, “Look, we’re keeping up with the times, we’re modern, we’re very PC, we’re engaging with real issues.” I think it’s a fantastic publicity coup for the present-day royal family, whereas Wallis Simpson was a publicity nightmare.
Because she was a divorcee?
In 1936 Wallis had two husbands that were living and that was really rather frightening at a time when divorce really wasn’t considered normal, it was slightly shameful. To have these two husbands still alive, people thought maybe they’ll blackmail the royal family, there was a real fear.
Is there heroism in Wallis Simpson’s story?
I think the heroism is that she removed an unacceptable monarch from the British throne. We got the better brother. I think she did us a favour. Noel Coward said there should be a statue to Wallis Simpson in every market town and I tend to agree.
When did you find Wallis’s letters?
I found them while I was researching the book, and they absolutely transformed historical understanding of what the abdication was about. The royal family couldn’t give interviews in those days, so nobody knew.
These were just private letters between Wallis and her second husband, Ernest, which in themselves proved the divorce was illegal, it was collusive; a divorce by agreement which wasn’t allowed then.
The mere fact of writing to Ernest in this loving way proved they were breaking the law of the land, but it was extraordinary because it showed that Wallis really recognised too late that she’d made a mistake. She’d abandoned the man who didn’t give her enough money, she’d been greedy, so she reached for the stars and got burnt. She did not want to saddle herself with the king, who she saw as a very needy, troubled adolescent. She referred to him as ‘Peter Pan’, the boy who wouldn’t grow up. She didn’t really expect to have to marry him. At this point, she did have to marry him, but she always behaved as if she was the one who’d been trapped.
She felt, she’d paid a very heavy price for marrying a great big overgrown man-child. So the letters were extraordinary.
How did you come to find the letters?
My first clue was discovering the son of Ernest Simpson. He gave me a whole load of addresses, and I followed them up and the last one really didn’t know that she had this trove in her attic. At first she didn’t want to meet with me, and eventually she agreed to meet me in a neutral hotel.
I thought this was going to be a 20-minute interview and I’d be home for supper. She brought out the letters in their blue envelopes. These were pristine letters that really were intended just for the eyes of one person.
I knew it was dynamite when I opened them. I do remember calling my husband to say, “Have dinner on your own, I’m probably not coming home for a while,” because all I had was a notebook to copy them down. I don’t think I had a smart phone in those days.
So I just sat down on the sofa and made copies and hoped she’d let me see them again, and indeed she did.
Above left: “That Woman, The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor” by Anne Sebba. Above right: “Les Parisiennes” by Anne Sebba, her latest book inspired by her research into Wallis.
WHERE WHERE WHEN
Australian Decorative & Fine Arts Society presents “Anne Sebba: Duchess of Style, Wallis Simpson”
Wesley Hall, Dubbo
Monday, May 21, 6pm to 8pm
Members $5, Visitors $20. Refreshment’s included. Meet Anne afterward.