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A new look at 'that woman'

The American-born Duchess of Windsor

Created date

November 20th, 2012

Though an American, we know her best for her place in the annals of Great Britain. Born into a once politically influential family in late 19th century Baltimore, Md., Bessie Wallis Warfield would have many names throughout her life: Wallis Simpson; Wallis Spencer; the Duchess of Windsor; and, among members of the British royal family, “that eoman.”

In That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor (St. Martin’s Press, 2011), author Anne Sebba tells the story of how a Southern belle managed to come between a king and his country, making her perhaps the most vilified woman in British history.

Simpson was a product of the post-Civil War South and its broken aristocracy, which lost everything with Lee’s surrender at Appomatox. As Sebba explains, she grew up fatherless and constantly in the shadow of financial insecurity.

For the rest of her life, Simpson sought to distance herself from such disadvantages, namely through marriage and social connections. By 1936, she was only 40 and already separated from her second husband.

Eye on the prize

She moved in high society, had several lovers on the side, and had set her sights on the highest prize—Prince Edward, heir to the English throne.

Immediately, their relationship set the British government on edge.

According to Sebba, divorce was a fiercely contested issue in Britain at that time, and, with the government under conservative leadership and an ailing king about to die, the last thing England needed was an American woman with two living husbands attached to their future regent.

An experienced journalist and biographer, Sebba provides never-before-seen details about the subsequent fallout—most importantly, Edward’s historic abdication and his marriage to Simpson—and she does so with eloquence and wit.

Nonetheless, her rosy portrayal of Simpson as an admirably strong-willed modern woman belies the plain fact that the Duchess of Windsor was a champion for no one but herself. Simpson wasn’t devoted to any worthwhile cause—not to Britain’s fight against Nazi Germany, not to women’s rights.

Her life’s work was the preservation of her own comfort and security.

For all of Sebba’s sympathetic overtures as a biographer, Simpson comes off as decadent, domineering, self-centered, and, at times, downright monstrous—all of which seem to fall in line with the reputation that left the Duchess virtually friendless in old age.

Ironically, such details are Sebba’s most important contribution to the existing literature. That Woman gives Simpson’s sad story the attention it deserves.