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  • Royal Renunciation:Edward VIII and the Problems of Representation
  • Renée Pigeon

Edward VII gave the early twentieth century the “Edwardian Era,” bridging the gentlemanly world of his mother, Victoria, and the modern world of technology and fashion, but his grandson, Edward VIII, remains a problematic and enigmatic figure almost eighty years after his 1936 abdication. In the last twenty years, he has been both vilified as Britain’s “Traitor King,” a flagrant Nazi sympathizer, and acclaimed as the “People’s King,” a champion of the underprivileged who was maneuvered from his throne by an intolerant British establishment.1 It is generally agreed, however, that, in his many years as the Prince of Wales and in his brief months on the throne, royal status and modern celebrity merged in a way unequaled until Princess Diana (Mayhall 532).

If Edward is enigmatic, Wallis Simpson, his mistress-turned-wife, is perhaps even more difficult to understand beneath her often-pilloried public image and the glittering carapace of her post-abdication years as Duchess of Windsor, doyenne of café society. Whereas the king was widely regarded as charming and charismatic (though some who knew him well held more jaundiced views and privately expressed relief when he abdicated), Mrs. Simpson was less readily appealing to many contemporaries. She was neither young nor conventionally attractive, as she herself admitted. Sir Alan “Tommy” Lascelles, an especially bilious observer, considered her “a shop-soiled American, with two living husbands and a voice like a rusty saw” (414), while David Lloyd George, who was sympathetic to the king and felt he ought to be allowed to choose his own wife, wrote “There are not in her any of the elements that can possibly constitute a tuppeny romance” (qtd. in Williams 155). Queen Mary, the king’s mother, remarked with asperity on the eve of the abdication, “to give up all this, for that!” (Donaldson 405).

Philip Ziegler, Edward’s official biographer, describes Simpson as the subject of “lurid and unbridled fantasy,” with regard to her sexuality, the most infamous instance being the so-called “China Dossier”: “a report allegedly commissioned by Stanley Baldwin for George V, which explored [her] iniquities . . . during her time in the Far East” while married to Win Spencer, her first husband (195). Whatever the truth may have been about Simpson’s sexual appetites, Ziegler acknowledges what seems undeniable, based upon eyewitness accounts both early and late in the Windsors’ relationship: Edward VIII discovered in himself a profound need to be dominated, and Wallis Simpson fulfilled that need. She treated him, writes Ziegler, “at best like a child who needed keeping in order, at the worst with contempt. He invited it and begged for more” (206). What David Cannadine calls his “abject constancy and unquestioning devotion” (52) colored their relationship and persisted throughout their thirty-five year marriage.

If it actually existed, this dossier has not survived in the official archives, but, as the cinematic narrative of the abdication has taken shape, such long-standing rumors have positioned Simpson— American, childless, thrice-married, and sexually deviant—as the antithesis of her sister-in-law--Queen Elizabeth, loving wife and dedicated mother--and thus, by extension, as the antithesis of Britain. By the same token, Albert, who succeeded Edward to become George VI, has been positioned, both in the initial public narrative of the abdication, such as the British newsreels, and in later dramatizations, as a family man leading a “normal” life, in contrast to his brother.2 Wallis and Edward have been narratively represented and historically explained, in other words, within the genre of melodrama.

The “Love Affair of the Century” or Dereliction of Duty?

One might assume that a relationship sometimes called the “love affair of the century” would have been a ready source for lushly romantic film adaptations, but that has been far from the case. The first stumbling block was a legal one: A prohibition in Britain against representing living members of the royal family in fictional films or on stage, coupled with the litigiousness of the Duke of Windsor (Ziegler 476), [End Page 13] meant their relationship was not dramatized prior to 1972.3 Second, and perhaps more significant, the conventional...


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