In light of the recent ‘abdication’ – Tatler returns to a piece published last year that made comparisons between Meghan and a particular American divorcée
Continuity, conformity and the cult of the court: Anna Pasternak asks what truths Meghan must learn from Wallis Simpson, the original divorcée duchess?
Whenever there is a Royal Wedding, we buy into the archetypal fairy tale. We want to believe in happily-ever-after, but the reality is rarely halcyon. A royal match promises palaces, but delivers gilded cages and gruelling public scrutiny. The couple may marry for love, but history and tradition regularly conspire against them. Monarchy depends on continuity, conformity and the cult of the court. Too much character or colourful behaviour is frowned upon – the spotlight must be trained on the monarch or heir apparent. As Diana, Princess of Wales and Sarah, Duchess of York, found to their cost, individuality is a liability. Popularity is a mixed blessing, unless you consistently play it safe and keep schtum, à la Kate and Camilla. Which makes me anxious for Meghan.
When Meghan Markle married Harry, the peoples’ prince, last May, two billion people tuned in to witness the modern monarchy in action. This biracial beauty, an American divorcée, was a Hollywood star turned HRH. It was inevitable that similarities would be drawn to her predecessor Wallis Simpson, another American divorcée who became a royal duchess.
Eighty-one years earlier, Wallis married into the firm to no fervour or fanfare – only public fury. While the entire royal clan gathered for Meghan’s wedding, Wallis’ marriage to the former King Edward VIII was a tight, tense affair in a French château, with only seven British guests present. The event wasn’t even recorded in the Court Circular; a deliberate snub to the new Duke and Duchess of Windsor. GETTY IMAGES
For the last two years, I have been researching a book about Wallis Simpson; sitting in elegant drawing rooms in Chelsea, Gstaad and Paris, listening to her friends reminisce. We have been overfed a diet of such fantastical slander about Mrs Simpson that it has become impossible to discern the real Wallis. The common perception is that she was a ruthless, cold, ambitious bitch who schemed from the outset in the hopes of becoming the Queen of England. And yet, again and again, her friends reiterated to me that, far from the Machiavellian villain she’s been painted as, she was a victim of history. They spoke of her kindness, sense of fun and depth of friendship. When, in 1936, Edward VIII abdicated what Churchill called ‘the greatest throne in history’, renouncing an empire of more than 500 million people, to marry Mrs Simpson, she was blamed as the wicked witch who almost derailed the monarchy. As the Duchess of Windsor, she was denied use of HRH and the couple were banished into permanent exile.
So far, so different from Meghan and Harry’s modern fairy tale. Apart from the two women being 34 when they met their princes and sharing an exceptional closeness to their mothers, what else could unite these American divorcées turned royal brides? Both reed-thin, they have a distinctive, pared-down style and penchant for couture. Whip-smart, they were similarly well-educated.
Wallis came from a prominent Baltimore family. She received a strict, traditional education at Oldfields, an all-girls’ boarding school. Posted on the dormitory doors was the inscription: ‘Gentleness and courtesy are expected of the girls at all times.’ Wallis, possessed of perfect manners, took this credo to heart, behaving with laudable inner strength and dignity, despite the decades of insults hurled at her later in life.
As the Duchess of Windsor, she created an eternal signature look which became her personal armour. She learned to distil every outfit to its essence, later asking Parisian couturiers, including Hubert de Givenchy and Christian Dior’s Marc Bohan, to dispense with pockets. She never wore a watch (Fulco Verdura told her they were common). Instead, hers was attached to her handbag by a delicate chain. Like Meghan, Wallis had an innate sense of style and significant sartorial pep. ‘I can’t say that she was sexy, but she was sassy,’ says Nicky Haslam, who knew the Duchess of Windsor. ‘She walked into a room and it took off. The only other person I knew who had that quality was Frank Sinatra.’ Given the popularity of Meghan’s official tours, the Duchess of Sussex clearly has a similar electric presence.
At first, that was where the comparisons between the two American duchesses ended. But ever since the news broke that Meghan and Harry were leaving Kensington Palace for Frogmore Cottage, Windsor (where, coincidentally, Wallis is buried), the rumour mill has been churning out less favourable reviews. Apparently, a rift between Meghan and Kate is driving William and Harry apart. The dark echo of history threatens. Edward VIII and his brother, Bertie, once close, fell out due to the enmity between their wives. The young Queen Mother was so outraged at the abdication forcing her nervous, stuttering husband on to the throne that she blamed the whole affair on Wallis, dehumanising her as ‘that woman’ and ‘the lowest of the low.’ She even convinced herself that Wallis was responsible for her husband’s early death at 57 of lung cancer.
The Queen Mother, then Elizabeth Bowes-Lyons, once had dreams of marrying Edward herself, before she accepted his brother Bertie’s hand, on the third proposal. Jealous of Wallis, she saw Edward as a weak pawn in his wife’s palm. Interestingly, the blame for the current schism between the merry wives of Windsor is being laid at ‘pushy’ Meghan’s door. Harry, as beloved as his great-great uncle, is regarded without recrimination – or even agency – despite reports that he behaved with regal hauteur prior to the Royal Wedding, telling courtiers: ‘What Meghan wants, Meghan gets.’ And yet the popular narrative remains that Harry, like Edward, is helplessly besotted with his feisty, demanding wife.
What Meghan needs to wise up to fast – and what Wallis realised too late – is that with the monarchy, it is, in fact, the courtiers who hold the real power. As Queen Mary’s biographer James Pope Hennessy warned: ‘It is courtiers who make royalty frightened and frightening.’ Princess Diana, who called them the Men In Grey, learned that to thwart or underestimate
them would be catastrophic. They will always win, whether you are the Princess of Wales or not. They maintain control by undermining with snide gossip and setting up rivalry between courts. Clarence House took on Kensington Palace in the war of the Wales’ during Charles and Diana’s acrimonious divorce in 1996. In 1932, Edward’s equerry, John Aird, railed against the courtiers at York House who were briefing King George V against his son, lamenting ‘all the nasty gossip, which is very wrong of them and does no good.’ Plus ça change.
Meghan, who has already suffered the indignity of two aides leaving her court and rumours of her imperiousness to Kate’s staff, needs to understand what a constitutional monarchy is. The sovereign reigns but does not rule. The Royal Family do not wield ultimate power. Wallis realised it: ‘I became obsessed with the notion that… a calculated and organised effort to discredit and destroy me had been set afoot.’ She was right. The unholy trinity of the government, church and palace did not want Edward, whom they considered weak and ill-disciplined, on the throne and they used Wallis to rid Britain of him. Wallis, wise to this, wrote to Edward post-abdication: ‘It is the politicians whose game it is… to build up the puppet they have placed on the throne. I was the convenient tool in their hands to use to get rid of you and how they used it!’
Her detractors consistently fail to acknowledge that Wallis did not want to divorce her second husband or marry the Prince of Wales. At the time of the abdication, Edward slept with a loaded gun under his pillow and threatened to kill himself if she forsook him. Aides described him as ‘exalté to the point of madness.’
What the treatment of these royal women has revealed is that no member of the royalty can ever be bigger than the Crown. The Duchesses of Cornwall and Cambridge, who have never sought the spotlight, understand this. Diana’s star was too bright in the firmament. Tragically, it was extinguished too soon. Wallis never got a chance to shine for the exceptional woman she was nor the dutiful wife she became. Meghan needs to take note. If she tries too hard to take centre stage, her royal fairy tale may well become another cautionary tale, just like that of her late mother-in-law and the Duchess of Windsor. She should heed Wallis’ fateful words: ‘I who sought no place in history would now be assured of one – an appalling one, carved out by blind prejudice.’