Book review: Abdication by Juliet Nicolson

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1936... a year etched into the soul of Britain.

It was a turning point on both the home and international stage. Fascism was making its inexorable rise in Hitler’s Germany, the bitter civil war in Spain was a rehearsal for another cataclysmic world war ... and the new dilettante King Edward VIII was dancing his way to disaster.

Abdication is the first novel from acclaimed social historian Juliet Nicolson whose two superb non-fiction books, The Perfect Summer and The Great Silence, focused on British society before and after the First World War.

Here she points her long lens on the momentous year of 1936 when the rumblings of another war were growing louder and the spectacular culmination of the Edward and Mrs Simpson affair was set to consume a shocked nation.

Using three quirky ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’ fictional characters as the novel’s axis, Nicolson’s evocative and politically astute story takes us deep into the real-life drama of the abdication crisis and provides memorable cameos of its leading players.

Two very different women have recently disembarked at Liverpool. One is 19-year-old May Thomas who has sailed from Barbados to escape the constraints of her childhood on the family’s sugar plantation, and the attentions of her abusive father.

The other is 40-year-old spinster Evangeline Nettlefold, a ‘mountain of a woman’ who is fleeing unhappy memories of her late mother’s cruelty and lovelessness. Ravaged by alopecia and constantly searching for something to fill the void in her life, she has been invited to keep company with Wallis Simpson, her old schoolfriend from Baltimore.

Evangeline is staying with her godmother Lady Joan Blunt, wife of Sir Philip Blunt, Chief Whip in Baldwin’s Government, and one of those charged with dealing with the relationship between the king, or David as he is known to his family, and Wallis Simpson.

When May is employed as chauffeuse and secretary to Sir Philip, she and Evangeline form an unlikely friendship, based on their shared position ‘on the outside of the insiders,’ during trips to the king’s country retreat in Berkshire.

It is through Evangeline that May meets and falls for Julian Richardson, an Oxford friend of the Blunts’ son Rupert and a young man whose easy manner, warmth and social conscience transcend the normal class barriers.

But secrets, hidden truths, undeclared loves, unspoken sympathies and covert complicities are everywhere, including the truth about the new king’s relationship with Wallis.

The Government hopes that the king will see sense and put Mrs Simpson aside but, as Evangeline points out, ‘when Wallis wants something, boy, does she hang around until she gets it and blow the consequences.’

As one would expect from the pen of a social historian, Nicolson’s strength lies in the rich period detail which forms an impressive framework for events and personal stories to unfold.

We see Sir Oswald Mosley and his shadowy New Party offering Britons a version of fascism, the Chancellor Neville Chamberlain desperately trying to appease Germany and the press barons who agreed to suppress news of the king’s affair.

Star of the fictional cast is the irrepressible and gregarious Evangeline with her vast assortment of fashionable hats, combs and wigs to cover her bald head, and a tragic personal story that is both moving and pitiable.

Nicolson is also at her best in the startling snapshots of the royal lovers ... David, obsessive and needy, cutting a pathetic figure as he stoops over a tapestry canvas, needle in hand, his face ‘the colour of a plum’ and ‘his left eye drooped a little as if halfway towards a wink’ and Wallis, restless, ambitious, watchful, with her ‘unnaturally wide smile, a doll-like body, high little shoulders and an enormous head.’

Abdication paints a fascinating portrait of a milestone year and marks an impressive start to Nicolson’s new venture as a novelist.

(Bloomsbury, hardback, £16.99)