The story of Edward VIII has passed into folklore through two legends. The first is the fairy tale of women’s magazines. Prince Charming, spurning all the princesses of effete Europe, finds his true love from the land of freedom and romance, America. But his cunning and aged minister, Stanislas, Count Baudoin, entangles him in his wiles and declares the match to be against the laws of his country. The King gives up his throne for love, he and his bride live happily ever after, and the wicked Stanislas dies execrated by the people for leaving them defenseless in the war which follows Prince Charming’s exile.
The second legend, which I well remember being much canvassed by liberals and progressives at the time, is more sophisticated. It is that the Prince of Wales instinctively sensed the disillusioned mood of the nation after the slaughter of the First World War. Not only did he wish to make the monarchy more democratic, less stuffy, and less snobbish; not only did he lead the reform of sexual morals, dress, and styles of life; but he also understood the significance of the disease which was killing Europe—unchecked unemployment. (“Something must be done,” he said when as king on a tour of Wales he saw the men rotting on the dole.)
Recognizing him as a dangerous influence who would sap confidence in the Conservative-dominated government, Stanley Baldwin, so the legend continues, set out deliberately to destroy him. When the abdication crisis broke, he sealed him off from his friends, used the law of the Constitution (which is not a law but a set of customs always being modified) to bludgeon him into submission and, by a set of hypocritical speeches (while forbidding the King to put his case to the nation), conned public opinion and left the King with no option but to go. Meanwhile the hounds of the Establishment were loosed upon him. What was there to say for the Church of England, which apparently preferred the King to live in sin rather than marry, or of the court of his successor, which took every opportunity to snub, humiliate, and ostracize him, or for the government, which, striking through the King at all that was most ardent and modern in the nation, was through cowardice and deceit to muddle the nation into war? The affair was a spectacular triumph for Black Reaction and Prudery, and the Spirit of Dullness resumed its reign.
Such are the legends, and they vanish at the sight of Frances Donaldson’s biography. The fairy tale which she evokes is not Cinderella but Swan Lake—only in this version, Prince Siegfried, spurning the advice of his wise old tutor, marries not Odette but Odile and, bewitched by her powerful spell, plunges headlong into the lake to his death. The sophisticated thesis also crumbles. The seeds of the King’s downfall were sown long ago in his youth, and his behavior as Duke of Windsor confirmed the fears that …