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 were current at the time he came to the throne. Startlingly, her book is a justification and almost total exoneration of the British Establishment.
To write the life of a statesman requires knowledge of the political and economic impersonal forces with which he had to contend, just as the biographer of an intellectual or a writer ought to set him against the climate of opinion and culture of his time. The biographer of a constitutional monarch does not need such depth of understanding, but he must display mastery of almost as exacting a branch of knowledge. Every nuance of social usage and behavior must be at his fingertips, every distinction between this and that shade of smart society. He must know the precise pecking order, not just, say, between the three armed services or between the Household Brigade and line regiments, but between the Grenadier and the Coldstream Guards. He must know how courtiers deal with ministers of the Crown and how both relate to that hierarchy of officials such as Lord Lieutenants and High Sheriffs in the shires who hold nebulous positions of little power but considerable influence.
No British sovereign in this century has wielded any significant political power and even that possessed by Queen Victoria has often been exaggerated. But they have swayed appointments, helped this institution to grow and ignored that, given their active patronage as distinct from their names to pursuits or ventures or people of whom they approve, and have acted as arbiters of behavior and deportment to those of their subjects who care enough about the institution of monarchy to listen. Quite a few do listen.
Frances Donaldson is not for nothing the daughter of Freddy Lonsdale, that skillful playwright of social comedies. She knows English society from the inside and that is why she is able to keep up a running commentary of judgment on Edward’s actions and on those who enter his story. Her judgments are almost invariably just, scrupulous, balanced: lenient because they accept the way that the world works, convincing because they acknowledge that great personages are not free agents and should be guided by the advice of wise friends. She is as much aware of the moment when it became permissible for a gentleman to wear suede shoes as she is of the precise nature of the duties which the sovereign’s private secretary must perform toward the Crown and His Majesty’s government, and the receprocal obligations which the sovereign owes to him.
She understands, too, a great deal about royalty and the effect the Royals have on people. Agreeable, affable people fall silent in their company, pushing, ambitious people appear to become demented. Socialist republicans, who abominate the institution in their writings, totter away after meeting their sovereign, captivated monarchists: even those, she says, who consider themselves “immune to attractions of royalty are often taken by surprise by the ecstasy of pleasure and appreciation they feel.”
Frances Donaldson thinks the analysis by Edward Shils and Michael Young of royalty being a soap-opera family with whom the British identify is an insufficient explanation. It is also the glamour, the uniforms, jewels, homage, the panorama, which transforms them into superhuman beings whose unaffected and often simple conversation appears to sparkle with wit. She might have added that the Royals are not snobbish because, incapable themselves of being outranked, they are indifferent to social differences beneath them and are immune to social envy, climbing, and other odious manifestations of competition in life. To compensate for the loss of political power, they live in a magical world in which every wish is granted and whim gratified—the order is given, the jinni appears, the magic carpet transports them to Isfahan, the stables teem with thoroughbreds, and every subject obeys their summons.
Presidents and dictators have these privileges too but they are always having to look over their shoulders to secure their power base: they are mortal. It is this glamour, as much as fear of reprisal and exclusion from the Presence, that makes royal biographers search for circumlocution and fall into meiosis. Sir Sidney Lee, Edward VII’s biographer, knew that the King’s normal regime was to eat a substantial breakfast followed by a sound luncheon, a tea graced by two boiled eggs leading up to a gargantuan dinner which would be topped off with a supper of devilled bones or at least a chicken chaudfroid placed in the royal bedroom. Faced with the fact that the King was even by the standards of those days a glutton, he wrote: “The King was never a man to toy with his food.” No such euphemisms encumber Frances Donaldson’s text.
For her Edward is three different characters, Prince of Wales, King, and Duke of Windsor. Perhaps she does not quite do justice to the first of the three, which gets only 170 pages to nearly 250 of calamity and decline. Nor, despite her thorough reading, did she consult the records of the Dominions which the Prince visited on those exhausting and triumphant tours, or the papers of, say, Sir Edward Grigg, who accompanied him as political adviser and with whom later he stayed in Kenya. These were the years when he won in the war the hearts of thousands of veterans, enchanted five continents, cemented the bridge between the United Kingdom and the Dominions, and appeared to be the personification of the new age of youth and informality, a superb complement to the father figure of George V.
Frances Donaldson says some harsh things about his clothes, which certainly at times were bizarre in color and exaggeration—his plus fours, long and voluminous, were of the kind worn by music hall comedians. But the generation of schoolboys to which I belonged blessed him for wearing soft suede shoes, no waistcoat in summer and preferring a pullover to one in winter; for popularizing a soft shirt with dinner jacket; for often appearing without a hat; and for vastly increasing the variety and sprightliness of casual clothes and in general confounding the Dreadful Old Men.
When he was on form—and despite the melancholia from which he suffered he often was—no film star or celebrity of the time could match his power to enchant individuals or capture crowds. It may well have been the knowledge of this power and the success of his tours which induced him to imagine that whoever he chose as his queen would be acceptable. But public opinion, as children’s history books used to say of the mob, is fickle. It is not an investment to be drawn upon in a crisis: the very people who had cheered him for doing his job so well felt all the more keenly that he had betrayed them when he threw it up.
His power to captivate people and his gift for informality carried the obverse. The more successful he was, the more that was expected of him and the more he was apt to become moody and resent those who tried to exploit or imitate his informality. Ceremonial bored him—comprehensible in anyone but unfortunate for a monarch. It was as if a cardinal were to take a distaste to high Mass. He liked intimate occasions—dancing, nightclubs, golf, dinner for two or four; the repetitive routine of levées, opening buildings, banquets, and the events of the social calendar bored him. He grew opinionated. Royalty often is: they see and hear much and are not slow to speak their minds because they are inhibited by no one. So long as Edward was well briefed this did not matter. But when during the abdication he cut himself off not only from his official advisers but from his old friends, and later during his years as Duke of Windsor when there was no one to brief him, his lack of intelligence and his stubbornness gave his prejudices a field day.