Deconstructing Wallis Simpson: Anne Sebba’s That Woman
In Anne Sebba's That Woman, we get a revealing portrait of Wallis Simpson, the Southern woman who caused the abdication of King Edward VII and turned Britain upside down. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, as they were commonly known, have remained controversial figures long after their deaths, both for the abdication, as well as for the myriad of rumors that swirled around them suggesting Nazi sympathies. Sebba steers mostly clear of the Nazi issues, though she does address the famous photo of Wallis smiling and shaking hands with Adolf Hitler. She explains the photo away with a combination of unfortunate timing and lack of political insight on the part of the Windsors.
What Sebba does spend time on is the character of Wallis herself, not attempting to make Wallis likable, but to at least humanize her. We learn of Wallis' poor yet aristocratic upbringing in Maryland that gives depth and reason to her actions later in life. A childhood characterized by wants shaped Wallis' strong materialism evident in later years. A possible sexual dysfunction disorder or hermaphroditic symptoms explains Wallis' attraction to over-the-top feminine and flirtatious style. Above all, Sebba shows how Wallis craved stability, and equated stability with money. When she caught the eye of the future King of England, therefore, she had no choice but to succumb.
Sebba dismantles the rosy image of a great love story, giving a much deeper and nuanced view of Wallis' feelings and emotions. She loved the Duke, but she was not passionately in love with him. In fact, she was willing to leave the man she truly loved, Ernest Simpson, in order to finally achieve the comforts she'd craved for most of her life.
Unfortunately for Wallis, stability was out the window the moment Edward abdicated the throne and Wallis became the most reviled woman in Great Britain. Effectively exiled from England, the pair spent the rest of their lives wandering from place to place, trying to find a permanent home. Though they finally settled in France, what is most striking about Sebba's portrayal is her ability to reveal the emptiness and aimlessness that permeated the Windsors' lives. Yes, they were narcissistic and materialistic, but they were also pathetically unanchored and restless.
You will find yourself sympathizing with Wallis, while still finding some of her actions distasteful. This is Sebba's greatest triumph as a biographer: The reader leaves the book not loving or hating Wallis, but understanding her.