When Wallis Simpson walked into an Ipswich courtroom in October 1936 to divorce her second husband, most people in England had never heard of her. Americans knew her as the King’s mistress but there had been no mention of her in the British press. Amazingly this was British restraint, borne of respect to the Royal Family – unthinkable today as the paparazzi get out their telephoto lenses everywhere.
But then a bishop preached a sermon criticising the king’s behaviour and the press finally broke its silence. Society devoured every detail about the Baltimore divorcée but the newspapers were still circumspect. In private, rumour and gossip flourished. Discovering that Wallis had been to China, alone, in 1924 meant she must have learnt bizarre sexual practices in Shanghai brothels. Those who witnessed Edward’s slavish devotion to Wallis and his apparent enjoyment of her bossy tongue-lashing ways concluded sexual masochism was at play.
When Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin urged Edward to keep Wallis as his mistress, just not marry her, the King feigned outrage at the hypocrisy of this suggestion – although Wallis would probably have liked having the jewellery without the duties. But Baldwin was reflecting 1930s attitudes to public service and private morality. Having a mistress was what kings had always done. No one imagined that monarchs were not interested in sex – how could they after Henry VIII? They just did it in private.
But the idea of giving up one’s job – any job – to pursue private happiness was the unforgiveable sin. This was such a modern notion that even Princess Margaret in 1955 had to abandon her romance with the divorced Peter Townsend and when Prince Charles and Princess Diana separated in 1992, each believing they had a right to pursue personal satisfaction above duty, it still created shockwaves in Britain.
Edward insisted to his father George V that Wallis – or THAT WOMAN as the royal family called her – was not his mistress and threatened to sue anyone who dared suggest that he and Wallis had indulged in sex before marriage… but then he had to if she was to be allowed her divorce.
Divorce in 1936 was fiendishly difficult and available to women only on the grounds of the man’s proven adultery. If it could be shown that the woman was also an adulteress the divorce would be disallowed, giving rise to horrific tales of collusion and miserable women trapped in desperate marriages. The Mothers’ Union fiercely opposed a change in the law, terrified that with easier divorce husbands would abandon wives willy-nilly, leaving them with children to support and no money. Wallis was a dangerous woman.
In the Britain of 1936, what mattered was duty, pluck and responsibility, especially after the First World War had demanded that thousands sacrificed much more than merely love of a married woman. The prevailing morality of the day – for kings and commoners alike – was that espoused by Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter, a terribly British film about repressed romance and denial of sexual pleasure. It took another world war for that to change, but rewarding adulterers is still frowned upon by the British. Poor Camilla was pelted with bread rolls in 1992.
Anna Sebba is the author of That Woman, published by W&N.
W.E. is out in cinemas on 20 January.