The Woman Before Wallis by Bryn Turnbull

I’ve got my hands on a fairly recent release in Historical Fiction, The Woman Before Wallis. It just came out in July 2020. As I’ve mentioned before, if there’s a book that even circles around the Royal Family of Great Britain, I’ll read it. And this about Lady Furness, the Prince of Wales’ special friend before he met Wallis Simpson.

If you don’t know the time period, it’s the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. Lady Furness was actually American Thelma Morgan of the Marvelous Morgan girls, society darlings in the late 1920’s. Her identical twin sister, Gloria, married a Vanderbilt, and had a daughter, the Gloria Vanderbilt of the fashion empire and mother to cable news anchor Anderson Cooper. Thelma’s older sister, Consuelo, also married well, a Count, before she dumped him for a diplomat.

I knew something of Thelma from the reading of Little Gloria, Happy at Last (review to be found here), and of course, I’ve read just about everything about Edward VIII, later the Duke of Windsor and his wife Wallis, so of course, when I found out this book was going to be published, I promptly put my name on the hold list and just had to wait for contactless pickup to begin at the local library so I could get my hands on it.

The story follows Thelma, fresh from her first disaster of a teenage marriage to a jerk who blew through his inheritance in one year. She’s been living off her sister, Gloria, and her husband Reggie Vanderbilt’s charity. Through their travelling, they land in London and Thelma catches the eye of Lord Furness, called Duke to his friends. Soon enough, they are spending a lot of time together. A proposal is made. Thelma accepts and becomes the second Lady Furness.

Flash forward to 1934. Gloria is battling the Vanderbilt family for custody of her daughter Gloria and Thelma is on a ship heading to America to lend support and provide testimony to Gloria’s character. She’s thinking back on her relationship with Duke, and her current relationship with the Prince of Wales, David. They’ve been together for several years, and she’s worried he’ll stray with her being gone so long.

The Woman Before Wallis jumps back and forth between the early days with Lord and Lady Furness to the eventual meeting of the Prince of Wales, and Thelma’s subsequent affair with him. Duke is already playing around on her, and in British upper aristocracy, it is seen as commonplace: have affairs, but stay married for the sake of appearances. So when Thelma takes up with David, the prince, it is talked about in hushed tones, but also accepted as perfectly normal. The Prince of Wales often has affairs with married women.

Thelma is seen as a vain, insecure woman, who pushes away her husband after having a baby because her figure has changed, constantly worried about her physical appearance and clothing. This is the same sort of portrayal I got from Little Gloria, Happy at Last. The Morgan women were taught that appearances were everything, that marrying rich was a necessity, and that children were merely someone or something to be handed off to the nanny as soon as possible, until they were ready for boarding school.

Edward VIII, The Prince of Wales during the story, is portrayed just as accounts have mentioned: trying to modernize the monarchy, must to his father’s chagrin, fastidious about dress and appearance, yet he loved getting hands on with his garden renovations of his country estate. He does embroidery, but loves to tear it up at night clubs and private parties. He’s also a man who is not so keen on becoming King and all the responsibilities it holds. He’s terribly jealous of his brother Bertie, who the king takes a shine to for settling down with the lovely Elizabeth Bowes Lyon and having a family.

The Woman Before Wallis introduces Wallis Simpson and her husband, Ernest, as social climbers, but nice and stylish enough to hang out in the Prince and Thelma’s circle. Thelma, Gloria and their sister Consuelo help Wallis prepare for her presentation at court, and the description of her outfit matches the pictures I’ve seen perfectly.

This book was well-researched and avoids getting political, as is often done these days when discussing Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson after they became Duke and Duchess of Windsor. I thought The Woman Before Wallis was an excellent read, especially considering I knew a lot about the subjects prior to picking up the book. I found it interesting that the author became inspired to know more about Thelma after watching Madonna’s W.E. about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. It has been a long time since I’ve seen the movie, so I plan on seeing it again.

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