According to the pop superstar Madonna, the late Wallis Simpson, the woman for whose love the besotted Edward VIII forfeited his throne and empire, was truly a romantic heroine.
That is how the scorned American divorcee, who thrust the British monarchy into the crisis abdication of the King, is portrayed in Madonna’s film, W.E, the first movie she has ever written and directed.
But ask Anne Sebba, author of the first full-scale biography by a woman writer of the girl from Baltimore who bewitched men, whether she would have invited the celebrated Duchess of Windsor into her own home, and you receive a surprising response.
“If she were my friend who I met occasionally at a party then I’d be amused by her sharp wit and banter,” says Anne, one of the stars of this month’s Marlborough Literary Festival.
“But I’d be sorry not to be able to discuss books and culture and music with her as she was not interested in any of that – she and the Duke never read proper books and several people commented on how their homes lacked all trace of a library or single book.”
“But inviting her to my home? Well I’m quite sure she wouldn’t want to come but, if she did, I’d have to make sure she did not make a beeline for my husband.”
“She’d be bound to flirt with him so perhaps a ladies lunch would be safer. And I’d ask her ‘If you did it all again, what would you do differently?’”
Anne, who spent four years delving into the life of That Woman –- the title of her biography -- probably knows more about the Duchess than anyone alive today, which is what makes her visit to Marlborough so exciting.
For it was undoubtedly the search for the truth that provided Anne with electric moments, none more so than when she unexpectedly found letters from Wallis to her second husband Ernest Simpson, the grandson of Polish-born Jews.
“Being handed the package of 15 letters from Wallis to Ernest tied up with ribbon never before made public still in their envelopes …so unexpected yet dynamite,” Anne tells me. “Wallis was not meant to be corresponding with Ernest at all during these months -- she was meant to hate him and was divorcing him. She was certainly not meant to be telling him how she missed him, loved him, thought of him and prayed for him.”
“And how the King was Peter Pan, who would never grow up and how she wished none of this mess had ever happened. Every biographer hopes to find some little new nuggets but this was a vast great treasure trove with real historical importance.”
Indeed, Anne, Reuter journalist turned biographer of Enid Bangnold, Mother Teresa and Jennie Churchill, dates her interest the royal saga that shook the nation to her own university days studying the history of the 1930s when Hitler came to power.
She also remembers visiting Schloss Enzesfeld, the fairytale castle outside Vienna where the Duke of Windsor stayed immediately after his abdication in 1936, waiting nervously for the woman he loved to arrive.
That, together with her researches into the life of Jennie Churchill, mother of Winston and another American who shocked the establishment, kept her switched on to the subject of iconic women like Wallis Simpson.
Yet, in those early days, she explains: “I had no idea what I would find, although I was convinced there must be another side and, after the Queen Mother’s death, there must be many who would talk more freely.”
“But it was just after a lot of detective work and digging that I found the new letters and diaries…I did not know of them when I started. I also knew that I would see things differently as a woman and ask different questions so I was confident it would produce something new but not sure what - four years ago when I started.”
In particular, she reveals that between her first and second marriages, her enemies claim, “she learnt from Chinese prostitutes some ancient oriental techniques for pleasuring men.”
So did Edward VIII forsake his throne for sexual satisfaction?
“No absolutely not,” insists Anne. “Wallis was an enigma and, at over 40, not especially beautiful or clever and twice married, no-one could understand what it was that Edward found in her that made him throw up a kingdom, a throne, as well as respect.
“So people assumed it must be sex and turned her into a sex demon. It was part of the whole process of making Wallis into a hate figure so that the next King and Queen -- George V1 and Elizabeth -- were seen as paragons of virtue compared with the American brash she-devil who had lured Edward to abdication.”
“Now we can see that Wallis was the hunted, not the hunter, it is time to re-evaluate all of this.”
However, she performed one tremendous task for which we can all be thankful. Her love of powerful men, her fascination with Mussolini and Hitler, did prevent England ending up with a King willing to capitulate to Fascism.
Anne Sebba, author of That Woman – The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20), speaks at Marlborough Town Hall at 5pm on Sunday, September 25.
Tickets priced at £10 at 01249 701628 and www.marlboroughlitfest.org
Two pieces of information on local traffic changes emerged from this week’s meeting of Marlborough Area Board in the Town Hall – neither as yet has firm dates:
First, the narrow part of the High Street that runs north of St Peter’s church is going to be made one-way for an experimental eighteen month period. This trial is being arranged in response to complaints from residents in the street which is too narrow for anything but small cars to pass each other and is often used as a ‘rat run’ by drivers trying to avoid queues at the Pewsey Road mini-roundabout.
The trial was backed by councillors Nick Fogg and Peggy Dow. But there was some strong opposition voiced from the floor of the meeting. It was said that traffic emerging onto the A4 by Hatto’s the barbers, close to the Pewsey Road mini-roundabout, would be dangerous. It was argued that it would much better to make this arm of the High Street one-way from west to east so drivers could then go up Hyde Lane and lessen the traffic on the main part of the High Street.
The Area Board Chairman, Chris Humphries, put the proposal to a vote it was narrowly agreed.
If there are no objections to the one-way scheme during the trial it would automatically become permanent. No date for the start of this trial has been set. We will bring you the date as soon as we know it.
Secondly, the A4 between Manton and Lockeridge is to be closed for eight nights – sometime in early October. The closure is to start at 7 pm and this start time worried representatives from Lockeridge who feared evening rush hour traffic would divert onto narrow country lanes and village streets. Watch this space for news of the actual closure dates.
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Kennet Valley Arts Trust, which encourages drama in local schools, is sponsoring a pre-school drama class in St. Mary's church hall, Marlborough, every Tuesday morning from September 20.
The first hour -- from10 to 11am -- will be devoted to reading with action for two and three year olds together with their mothers.
The second hour will be for four to five-year-olds. The teacher in charge is actress Lizzie Sigrist, director of Youth Development at the Newbury’s Watermill Theatre.
Those interested should contact 077950 56256.
Marlborough is a not high spending town council and is not guilty of persistent allegations that it is incompetent, reckless and even dishonest.
Its annual budget of £400,000, planned to stay in surplus, is among the lowest of market towns in Wiltshire, ended the last financial year £52,672 in the red compared with a loss of £125,555 a decade ago and other substantial losses until 2009.
And the council’s proposals to use low interest rate public loans to carry out further improvements to the town hall – aimed at raising its income level – is the same policy as that adopted by other town councils in the county.
“I think some members were quite shocked by the implied allegation that appeared to accuse this council of financial incompetence, reckless spending and even dishonesty at the annual meeting,” finance committee chairman and former mayor Councillor Andrew Ross (pictured) told last night’s town council meeting.
“Even more disturbing is that one of our councillors, Mrs Marian Hannaford-Dobson, is writing in the press challenging the financial governance of this council and raising concerns that really have little basis in fact.”
And he added that the council currently maintained reserves of £284,000.
Mr Ross was interrupted by Mrs Hannaford-Dobson, a Conservative member, who jumped up protesting that he was “being very rude and insulting” and repeatedly asking him to withdraw his remarks.
And her husband, Councillor Stewart Dobson, complained that councillors were not present to hear a lecture that made petty points and raised insulting issues but to hear details of a new and improved presentation of the council’s accounts.
“This (points scoring) is not the purpose of the item on the agenda,” he insisted.
But they were both slapped down by Councillor Edwina Fogg, the deputy mayor who was in the chair, and told to wait until question time to raise any matters they disagreed with.
And later in the meeting, Mrs Fogg said that the town’s precept for council tax payers was neutral last year and in the current year was below inflation.
“We are a high income generating council, attracting funds and donations of £250,000,” she declared, among them £75,000 for the town’s skate park, £50,000 to repair the steps and decorate the frontage of the town hall and £18,000 for disabled access to the Town Hall.
The row erupted following angry scenes at the council’s annual parish meeting earlier in the year when some members of the public challenged the council’s spending record and its proposals for further renovations to the town.
In the current issue of the Gazette & Herald, Mrs Hannaford-Dobson writes: “Marlborough town council is a high spending council with even larger plans to spend mega money later in the year.”
“Sadly councillors who dared to voice concerns over the £1.2 million projected spend and massive borrowing for the town that this expenditure would require, were swiftly removed from the committees.”
She complained that just a third of the councillors controlled the budget, and added: After all this is public money, yours and mine, and it is always easy to spend other people’s money.”
But those accounts were accepted by the 16-strong council and Mr Ross, a retired chartered accountant, has now produced easily understandable accounts. They reveal that last year’s overspend was on buying the Stonebridge Meadow in partnership deal with ARK plus equipment for the Salisbury Road play park, reducing the council’s reserves by £52,000.
The town council’s current budget –- each individual committee is responsible for its own budgeted spending -- is to end the year with a surplus of £7,950, the improvements to the town hall, which generates an income of £25,400, to be carried out over several years.
“Clearly it can be seen that council spending is not being controlled by one third of the council as Mrs Hannaford-Dobson alleged in the Gazette and Herald this week,” insisted Mr Ross.
“Council spending decision are not made behind closed doors. There are no secret cabals. All spending is determined by 16 members with the public present.”
A petition presented to Wiltshire Council by Nick Fogg, one of Marlborough’s councillors, has saved the former No 76 bus service from Marlborough to Bath.
The route was under the chop by the council. “But the Bath bus has been saved,” Mr Fogg told Marlborough town council. “It is a very good route and people can still enjoy it, but not with quite the same frequency as before.”