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.”
“My mother-in-law, who’s 87 and a real gritty Englishwoman, said to me, ‘How could you live three years in the company of that ghastly woman?’” said Sebba, referring to the time she spent researching her book.
The title is “That Woman,” the contemptuous phrase used by some members of the royal family for Simpson, a socialite who was still married to her second husband, an Anglo-American businessman, when she met Edward, prince of Wales.
Correspondence and other archives released in recent years suggest that the prince was the more ardent pursuer, despite the general image here of Simpson as a calculating social climber with pretensions of becoming queen. (It could never have happened then, because the Church of England and the British government would never have countenanced a divorced woman in the role.)
But history is written by the winners, or at least those in power. In this case, they were the reluctant successor to the throne, George VI, and his wife, Elizabeth, later the queen mother. To her, Edward and Simpson were forever to blame for plunging the country into crisis and hurrying her husband to an early grave by thrusting on him the stress of an unsought-for kingship.
Because Elizabeth was so popular throughout her long life — she died in 2002 at the age of 101 — her resentment toward her brother-in-law and his paramour inevitably colored the opinions of her subjects.
The disgraced couple didn’t do themselves any favors by paying a smiling visit to Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany shortly after the abdication. They later died in semi-exile in Paris, Edward in 1972 and Simpson in 1986. But they are buried side by side here in Windsor, close to the royal castle and near the spot where he signed the piece of paper that made him the only British monarch to give up the throne voluntarily.
“I don’t know that anybody thought of it as being a romantic story,” said Jean Jones, 89, a diplomat’s widow who lives in the county of Warwickshire, in central England. “I was a schoolgirl then, but I knew what was going on…. The fact that he wanted to marry a divorcee and give up his responsibilities as king was shocking.”
But Edward’s determination not to let societal convention and antiquated rules stifle his quest for emotional fulfillment reminds historian Starkey of another royal celebrity born nearly 70 years after Edward: Diana, princess of Wales.
“It’s a Diana-esque ethos, that personal satisfaction is central,” Starkey said. “Diana sets the notions of personal happiness above everything else, and is perfectly prepared to wreck the royal family, abuse her husband in public, denigrate him as a successor to the throne and all the rest of it.”
Now, it is Diana’s elder son who is about to marry the woman he loves, on Friday, in Westminster Abbey. And in a bit of historical irony, the more modern values embraced by his mother and great-great-uncle Edward are, in many ways, the ones that have triumphed — and from which he has benefited.
The idea that William, 28, could be forced to abandon his beloved, or to enter into a loveless marriage with someone considered a better match politically or genealogically, is distasteful to most Britons today.
Sexual mores have shifted as well. William’s father, Prince Charles, is a divorced man remarried to a divorced woman. And only the most willfully deluded would expect Kate Middleton to be a virgin at this point, though when Diana married Charles 30 years ago, it was still a prerequisite for the bride.
Still, Jones, the elderly widow, finds it hard to excuse Edward VIII even now for the turmoil he caused.
“I think he thought he could get away with it. But English people, they liked more responsible kings,” she said.
Then she added in a compassionate tone, “But don’t spoil it for the Americans, because they sort of romanticize the whole thing.”