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An enduring tale of royal romance and scandal

The story of Britain's King Edward VIII, who gave up the throne for American divorcee Wallis Simpson, is drawing renewed fascination amid the frenzy over another royal wedding.

April 26, 2011|By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times
  • Edward VIII, known as the Duke of Windsor after abdicating the throne, with Wallis Simpson, a twice-divorced American, in 1937.
Edward VIII, known as the Duke of Windsor after abdicating the throne, with…

Reporting from Windsor, England — Watch "The King's Speech" closely and you'll realize that the real villain of the Oscar-winning film isn't King George VI's debilitating stammer. It's his older brother, David.

Feckless and hedonistic, David ascends the British throne in 1936 as Edward VIII but abandons it to his unprepared brother before the year is out. His famous declaration that he was abdicating to be with "the woman I love," the American divorcee Wallis Simpson, has proved irresistible fodder for breathless biographies and melodramatic made-for-TV movies ever since.

The story has drawn renewed fascination now that another royal wedding is in the offing, the eagerly anticipated marriage Friday of Prince William, Edward's great-great-nephew and second in line to the throne, and his fiancee, commoner Kate Middleton.

Capitalizing on the fever surrounding the royals, at least two new books on Wallis Simpson are due out this year, promising a fresh look at the woman who cost a country its king. The BBC broadcast a radio play about her in December. And even Madonna is getting in on the act, directing the upcoming film "W.E.," whose main character is obsessed with the scandalous relationship between Edward and Simpson.

All the attention has highlighted an enduring gulf between popular perceptions on either side of the Atlantic of what happened 75 years ago, competing interpretations that say as much about differences in national character as the events themselves.

Is it a tale of deeply abiding romance, starring a man who shuns the dictates of a stuffy, hidebound establishment and gives up immense wealth and privilege to follow his heart? (Cue the soaring music.)

Or is it the story of a weak-chinned, irresponsible monarch who gets ensnared by a scheming Yankee femme fatale, shrugs off his duties as constitutional ruler and leaves a fearful nation in the lurch, as clouds of war darken in the east? (Cue the pursed lips.)

The latter version is on display in "The King's Speech," which, notably, was made here in Britain, not Hollywood. It hews to a view of the affair that historian Kenneth Rose says was widely held by the establishment at the time, despite some voices in Edward's defense.

"They were horrified that he should have given up his duties so lightly at a vital moment for Europe," said Rose, 87, the author of an award-winning biography of Edward's father, George V. "At school at the time of the abdication, we sang a song among ourselves: 'Hark, the herald angels sing, Mrs. Simpson's pinched our king.'"

In many ways, the negative feelings reflect a particular view that many Britons had, and still have, of themselves as a people.

Old-fashioned values such as discretion, restraint and sacrifice for the greater good remain part of what it means to be British — in theory, anyway; Edward and Simpson failed spectacularly on all three counts.

Just compare their relationship with the one in "Brief Encounter," a terribly British depiction of doomed romance from the 1940s.

In the film, which could just as well be called "No, No, We Mustn't," a homemaker and a married doctor share torrid glances of yearning before the woman bows to duty and tearfully refuses to run away with her true love. In a poll last year, Brits voted "Brief Encounter" the best movie romance of all time, even though the highly chaste affair goes nowhere, both literally and figuratively.

"There is a belief that people had given up so much in World War I, and here was Edward, and he couldn't just sacrifice this," said author Anne Sebba, who has written a more sympathetic biography of Simpson, due out in August. "He was pursuing individual happiness when it just was alien."

The gimlet-eyed take on Edward sees not an upright man who painfully relinquishes the throne for love, but a louche semi-layabout who never much relished dull royal responsibilities like reading the documents of state sent to him by His Majesty's government.

"He was known not to do his work…. He was bored by it all," said Rose, who later became friends with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, as the couple were known after the abdication. "He had great charisma as a very young man. He had a tremendous personal following, but more thoughtful people were dismayed by the damage he was doing to the constitution."

In the U.S., however, the pursuit of happiness is part of the national DNA. That may be why, in American eyes, the couple deserves admiration, not scorn.

"America has always taken a different view, because obviously Wallis Simpson [is] seen as a kind of American folk heroine, the broad from Baltimore who makes it," said British historian David Starkey.

But don't even ask some Britons how they view Simpson.

Among the politer terms are "manipulator," "gold digger" and, after a bit of throat-clearing by those of a certain age, "sexual adventuress."

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