So many girls spend their youth dreaming of falling in love with a prince and having him defy everything to be with them. Then they grow up and realize that probably isn’t very likely. When, in reality, has any non-royal woman, especially an American woman who lives in a country without a monarchy readily available, found an actual Prince Charming? Well, at least in some respects, one woman made this happen: Wallis Simpson. Somehow she so utterly captivated Prince Edward of Britain that when he became King and saw he could not have both her and the crown, he abdicated the throne so they could marry. They remained married for the rest of their lives and their romance has gone down in history. But just what about Wallis Simpson so enraptured Prince Edward that he would do anything to be with her? In The Shadow Queen, Rebecca Dean gives us the story of Wallis Simpson’s early life and what made her the woman she became, the one that made a fairytale come true.
Born on June 19th, 1896, Bessie Wallis Warfield was born into one of Baltimore’s premiere society families. However, after her father dies when she is very young, she and her mother must live off the generosity of their rich relatives in order to maintain the level of comfort and luxury their class and family names demand. Going to the best private schools and crème de la crème of finishing schools, Wallis is always vividly aware that she is seen as the poor charity case of her family. Believing that she has as much right to the benefits of her family’s history as any of her relatives and not being the most beautiful girl among her peers, Wallis quickly learns she must distinguish herself from the other socialites in order to get the attention and praise her pride demands and her heart and head crave. Doing this with great panache, she and her friends live a privileged life filled with parties, holidays and dreams of marrying rich and distinguished men. But Wallis learns early on in life that stability and happiness are not things to be taken for granted.
Being a passionate, confident person herself, Wallis is attracted to much of the same characteristics in men and searches for those she can drive wild with longing. This seems to backfire, however, after a failed early romance leads to an abusive marriage and another love affair that leaves her heartbroken when it ends. While waiting to finalize her divorce Wallis meets Ernest Simpson, a wealthy English/American man who is so unlike her previous relationships that she cannot help but long for the mild safety and security he could provide. After Wallis and Ernest marry in London she is content in her life even as she misses the passion and adventure that is no longer a part of it. When the high social circles Wallis and her friends travel in lead her to meet Prince Edward, someone that Wallis and her friends dreamed of and admired when in school, she is not only drawn to his boyish good looks and royal blood but to the deeper seriousness that comes with his position. As Wallis breaks all standards of etiquette and treats the Prince like a man instead of a title, she once again sets herself apart from the crowd, and this time she makes herself unforgettable to the man who would be King.
Following Wallis Simpson’s life from birth until she meets Prince Edward in 1931, I enjoyed learning what made her the unique woman who changed the future of the British monarchy. Her ability to read people and decipher what makes them tick – something she learned trying to maintain what she saw as her rightful place in society regardless of what money she had – allowed her to seek out the people she wanted in her life and to attract them to her. Written mostly from Wallis’ point of view, the reader gets to see the smart, prideful and determined young girl grow up to be a woman able to navigate a harsh, gossipy society and come out on top.
While I can admire Wallis Simpson’s transformation from a young woman dependent on the kindness of her family for her survival to a strong, relatively independent woman, I found the character of Wallis Simpson in The Shadow Queen hard to sympathize with. Both she and her mother come across as demanding and ungrateful of the assistance and money that their family gives them to not only survive but live privileged lives. Instead of seeming to appreciate the help she is given, Wallis acts as if it, and more, is owed to her. This being the case, it made it harder to root for Wallis to triumph over whatever obstacle she might face because I just didn’t like her as a person.
The other issue I had with The Shadow Queen was the inclusion of a sexual deficiency on Wallis’ part that highly affected her intimate relationships throughout her life. It didn’t feel like it was necessary for the overall storyline. Wallis’ reaction to learning of this dysfunction, which was a pretty serious issue, was so mild that I found it to be unrealistic. I would imagine a typical woman’s reaction to learning of this issue would be devastation while she seemed more resigned. The men’s reactions, other than her first husband, were also more understanding than I would have imagined for the time. It just didn’t seem to be an issue when, in reality, I would think it would have been a much bigger problem in her life.
While learning about the making of the woman who changed British history and made a common girl’s fantasy a reality was interesting, I found the Wallis Simpson in The Shadow Queen to be much less interesting than the idea of her. Since the story ended before the great romance began, I am still interested in learning more about Wallis’ life once she began her romance with Prince Edward. It appears that Rebecca Dean is writing a sequel to The Shadow Queen and I look forward to reading it and seeing if Wallis progresses into a much more likeable, genuine person.
Colleen lives in Tampa, Florida with her husband, son, their dog Oliver and their fish Finn. When not working or taking care of her family she has her nose stuck in a book (and, let’s face it, often when she is working or taking care of her family as well). Nothing excites her more than discovering a new author to obsess over or a hidden jewel of a book to worship.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Broadway. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.