Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Wendy Holden Interview - The Duchess

Photo Content from Wendy Holden 

Wendy Holden has written numerous books and is a celebrated journalist. She lives in England.


Greatest thing you learned at school.
To love literature. Up until the final years I wanted to do history at university, but then one of those brilliant, world-changing English teachers blazed into my life. She turned everything around and from then on it was only English for me. But my love of history never went away and being a historical novelist means I can combine the two.

Tell us your most rewarding experience since being published.
In general, being in charge of my own destiny and setting my own work times and patterns. In as far as it is possible – see answer to next question!!

What was the single worst distraction that kept you from writing this book?
The pandemic! I wrote THE DUCHESS through the first and second lockdowns in the UK, so my teenage kids were at home rather than school. Trying to motivate them, as well as keeping them fed and in clean clothes, was a challenge to say the least. I grew used to diving from the Abdication to the dishwasher! But we all went through it, all over the world, so I can hardly complain.

Has reading a book ever changed your life? Which one and why, if yes?
As a teenager I loved Testament of Youth, by Vera Brittain. It’s about the tragedy of the First World War and its main themes are feminism and pacifism. But what appealed to me was the beginning; it’s the 1900s and the heroine, Vera, is desperate to go to Oxford at a time when few women did. In the early 1980s, I was desperate to go to Cambridge but I was a working-class person at a school which rarely sent people there. I took heart from Vera, who taught herself Greek in order to pass the Oxford exams. I thought if she could succeed, so could I, and I did!

Can you tell us when you started THE DUCHESS, how that came about?
It grew out of a chapter in THE GOVERNESS, my first historical novel, about the young woman who taught the Queen. Marion Crawford, the governess of the title, encounters Wallis in the woods near Balmoral. Wallis has just arrived and is dismayed. She was met by the King at the station but he was supposed to be opening a hospital. The evening papers have blamed her for this but it struck me, when reading about this real-life incident, that Wallis would have had no idea about the hospital; Edward was hardly likely to have told her. It made me wonder about all the other incidents she was unfairly blamed for, including the biggest one of all, the Abdication. I began to construct my alternative take on her from there. And so THE DUCHESS takes a fresh look at the story we think we know. Wallis is usually seen as the ruthless seductress who schemed to be Queen of England. But the more I researched, thought and wrote about her, the more I found myself resisting this version. My Wallis is witty, warm-hearted and intensely human. But this is no invention of mine; I found plenty of evidence in my research to support it. Wallis’s own autobiography and letters attest to her engaging personality while contemporaries such as Chips Channon and Lady Diana Cooper write about her with admiration and liking.

What was the most surprising thing you learned in creating your characters?
Delving into Wallis’s past, I found a difficult childhood, a violent first husband and a lonely period in London in the late 1920s that I came to think of as her ‘Cinderella years’. Arriving in Britain to marry second husband Ernest, Wallis knew no-one and was cold-shouldered by society. When, via an unlikely chain of chance events (involving a cow show in Leicester at one stage), she finally met Edward, rumors exploded that she had bewitched him with sexual powers acquired in Shanghai. But it seemed to me that he simply just liked her. He loved Americans anyway; he saw it as the country of the future and thought its people were amusing, up-to-date and gloriously unsycophantic. And Wallis, alone of everyone else he knew, encouraged his pet project to modernize the monarchy.

Your Favorite Quotes/Scenes from THE DUCHESS
In this scene, Wallis meets her future husband for the first time..

There was a snapping of twigs behind her. She turned to see someone emerging from the bushes with a rake. He was small and slender with a grubby shirt tucked into worn flannel cotton trousers. He had on canvas shoes and a straw hat pulled low over his eyes. “Can I help you?” he asked politely. He spoke in that London twang she had once found so difficult to understand.

“Oh,” she said, flustered. “Do excuse me. I’ve been asked to Fort Belvedere for the weekend. I thought I’d look round the garden.”

“Like it?”

“Oh yes,” she said, and was about to elaborate when a movement in the corner of her eye distracted her. It was Ernest, hurrying up the cedar avenue. “Wallis! I’ve been looking for you all over!”

The sweat stood out on his brow and he was obviously intensely uncomfortable in his thick suit. He fished out a handkerchief and mopped his brow and neck. “There’s no-one around,” he said. “Let’s just go back to London.”

She folded her arms. “We can’t just go! It would look so rude.”

“Well it’s rude of them not to be here to meet us,” huffed Ernest.

“I quite agree,” said a light Cockney voice from behind. They both turned to the gardener in surprise.

He removed his hat and all was revealed. That famous dazzling grin. That shining blonde hair. It could be nobody else.

Ernest gasped. Shock barrelled through Wallis. She had expected a build-up to this moment; time to anticipate meeting The Most Famous Man In The World. It would be like an explosion, the blare of trumpets, an electric shock, perhaps all three.

“I offer my sincere apologies,” he said. “I didn’t realise Lady Furness wasn’t there when you arrived.”

  • 1. Wallis was actually christened Bessiewallis, which hasn’t quite the same ring to it somehow!
  • 2. But there were a lot of oddly-named people in her life. Her father was called Teakle and her one of her brothers-in-law was called Dumaresque.
  • 3. On her wedding night with her first husband Win (brother of Dumaresque), he produced a bottle of gin from a suitcase. It was the introduction to the third person in their marriage.
  • 4. Wallis once dressed up as a tube of toothpaste for a fancy-dress party
  • 5. Despite being famously skinny she was crazy about cooking. Her favorite dishes were Southern ones; bacon in molasses was her specialty.
  • 6. In London, she did her own shopping, which was unusual for a woman of her class (the cook usually got it sent round). The butchers, fishmongers etc of London gave her a hard time, but Wallis wasn’t standing for it. She would whip out her Fannie Farmer cookbook and show them exactly what cut she wanted.
  • 7. Edward VIII when Prince of Wales loved interior designing. He redecorated Fort Belvedere and installed telephones and ensuite bathrooms, ultra-technology at the time.
  • 8. But when he moved into Buckingham Palace as King he took two tiny poky rooms and lived out of boxes. It was almost as if he knew he wouldn’t be staying long.
  • 9. George V, father of Edward, used to shout at him about his fashionable clothes. “YOU DRESS LIKE A CAD!” he screamed at his son and heir.
  • 10. But Edward, for all his subsequent reputation for selfishness and fecklessness, had a loyal core and a loving heart. He rescued his brother George from heroin addiction and almost certainly saved his life.
Meet the Characters
Fiction allows you to interpret a character and inhabit their lives in a much deeper and more complete way. I had a really strong idea of Wallis and wanted to bring it to life. I think she was a much more appealing and interesting person than the social-climbing harridan she is usually portrayed as. The Wallis we think we know relates to the Abdication period, when she was seen as the villain of the piece. But THE DUCHESS goes back to her early years in London, the Cinderella years as I think of them, before she met the handsome prince. She found London a real struggle; she had no friends, little money and couldn’t understand the Brits at all, especially – and how ironic is this? - their obsession with royalty! She was a friendly, witty, very human and completely unpretentious person, and it was this that Edward VIII found so appealing about her.

But THE DUCHESS doesn’t just take a new look at Wallis. It takes a new look at the Abdication and the events that led up to it. Having initially accepted, like most people, that Edward was forced to renounce his throne, I soon began to reassess this view as well. So much of what he did was so completely bizarre, and while it’s been explained away as the actions of a man under stress, I began to suspect that it was nothing of the sort. Indeed, I began to wonder if he had wanted to get off the throne all along, and Wallis was the perfect excuse.

His insistence on marrying her before his Coronation was what puzzled me most. The Abdication crisis was in December 1936, but the crowning was slated for May 1937, a mere few months later. Had Edward waited, his huge personal popularity plus the authority of being the crowned monarch would certainly have meant he could have had his cake and eaten it too.

There were other odd things as well. He seems to have deliberately sought the very worst advice. Instead of getting men of his own outlook he retained the stuffed shirts from his father’s reign who all hated him. And, fatally, he made his marriage a constitutional matter, putting the power in the hands of the Government, who opposed it. The more I pondered all these mistakes the more I thought it was almost as if he wanted to renounce the throne.

Oh, wait..

Now it all made sense. The way he had wept a full hour on his mother’s bosom by his dead father’s bedside. He wasn’t mourning George V, but the fact of his own accession. He had hated the ‘stunting’ and ‘princing’ of being the heir, but being king was a thousand times worse. He had to be cattle-prodded into Buckingham Palace, where he refused to unpack his boxes and lived in a couple of poky rooms. And then there was the matter of an heir. Edward had endured an epically dysfunctional childhood which, my research suggested, made him determined not to be a father himself. For a king, this was an obvious problem. But what if there was someone else next in line, his brother the Duke of York say, with a crowd-pleasing wife and two adorable Little Princesses?

You can see where this is going. And so when Edward met Wallis, he was genuinely drawn to her lively modernity. But the fact she was American, divorced and equally uninclined to parenthood might have drawn him even more. She could not have been more ill-suited to the position of Queen Consort, and by insisting on marrying her Edward could conceal his horror of the throne under a cloak of romance and principle.

But what about Wallis? Did she realise what was going on? Almost certainly not. One of the most dramatic parts of THE DUCHESS is the run-up to the Abdication, when it gradually dawns on Wallis that Edward has intended this outcome all along. As her letters reveal, she never wanted to be his Queen. I’m not even sure she really wanted to marry him. She loved him, but he was controlling and demanding; if anyone was ruthless, it was him. Nonetheless, she got all the blame, and he not only knew it, he actively contributed towards it. This is one of the main themes of THE DUCHESS.

Your Journey to Publication
I was working on The Sunday Times in London. Being summoned to the editor’s office was a nerve-wracking experience. Had I done something wrong?

No, I was getting a new columnist. I was deputy editor of the Style section at the time, and in charge of the first-page column slot. We’d tried out various people, all short-term celebrities who, to quote Dickens, were ‘up with the rocket and down with the stick’.

The new writer, Tara Palmer Tomkinson, who I had seen in gossip columns kissing Prince Charles on a ski slope, looked more short-term than most. Little did I suspect what our collaboration would lead to.

The original idea, that Tara would pen her own weekly account of her glitzy partygoing life, soon hit the buffers. While she could write well enough, she had a relaxed view of deadlines. We settled on a plan of me ‘talking it out of her’ and writing the results up. This sounds easier than it was. Tracking Tara down was a weekly challenge worthy of M15. I would invoke the help of her mother, her sister and her agent, stopping just short of Interpol, before Tara herself would call (once from a car wash) and announce that she was ready to ‘do the column’.

Her voice was all rasping patrician glory. Like Daisy Buchanan’s in the Great Gatsby, it was full of money. But then, so was her life. At our first meeting she told me how her boyfriend, landing their helicopter in her parents’ garden, had blown all the petals off her mother’s herbaceous borders. “Mummy was furious,” Tara recounted between bites of toast. “So from now on it has to be landed in the orchard.”

I quickly realised that I was dealing with comic gold. And there was much more to come. When flying, Tara’s maxim was that ‘in Economy you make Enemies, in Club you make Comrades and in First you make Friends”. She warned me that champagne made your breath smell. Her suspicion of canap├ęs – ‘the ones that get dropped on the floor are put back on the trays’ – means it’s been years since I’ve been able to look miniature fish and chips in the eye. I also became expert on Tara-speak, the acronymic argot of the uber-Sloane: eg OPM (Other People’s Money), PJ (private jet), NSIT (Not Safe In Taxis) and QNI (Quiet Night In) – a rare occurrence in those heady days. Tara, by her own admission, barely slept for twenty years.

She was well aware of how funny this all sounded, and played up to it. She had a strong self-deprecating streak, happy to let me refer, in one column, to ‘the reader who wrote recently to say that me wearing La Perla underwear was the equivalent of putting Pirelli tyres on a Vauxhall Cavalier.” This ability to laugh at herself, along with the saga of her unsuccessful love life, was the secret of the column’s success. As big-haired Euro-hunks came and went the theme of her eternal quest for a man became the perfect foil to the enormous envy that contemplation of Tara’s stratospherically glamorous lifestyle would otherwise provoke in the reader.

And cripes, was it glamorous. Never before or since have I met anyone who had quite such a good time, all the time. Tara’s life, as chronicled through the column, was a succession of supermodel-stuffed parties, fashion show front rows, dinners, premieres and luxury launches. She took PJs like other people take buses, never leaving home without her passport in case lunch in Windsor ended up in Italy (one billionaire host decided English coffee wasn’t up to snuff and flew everyone to Venice). In London she would party with Elton John, Michael Caine and Princess Caroline of Monaco. In LA it would be Richard Gere and Tom Cruise. There was never a dull moment unless, like me, you were sitting in the small hours in a newspaper office waiting for Tara to ring you back.

Perhaps it was this that prompted me to ask her one day whether the glam and glitter ever got boring. Was I joking? “If rich people can be dull, poor people can be duller,” Tara quipped, but both she and I knew she didn’t really mean it. Beneath the glittery party princess was a wellies-and-Labradors girl who loved country walks and log fires. Her comment last year, that she had expected to be living the rural life of her parents by then, is horribly poignant in the light of her lonely London death. She was very protective of her family, who rarely appeared in the column, although ‘P-T Towers’, with its butler and 1,200 acres, sometimes did.

‘Tara Palmer-Tomkinson’s Social Diary’ became amazingly famous with amazing speed. At the height of her fame she was written about in the Wall Street Journal (‘you’ll be able to buy shares in me soon,’ she joked). Everyone read it, and in some unexpected places. The Royal Scots Dragoons in Bosnia plastered their mess with a collage of the articles. A Captain Allison wrote to say Tara brightened up the Balkans for his bomb-disposal unit.

People were desperate to be in it. “Please mention us in your column,” begged Lord Frederick Windsor and friends when Tara ran into them at a burger bar. Tara duly mentioned them, as well as every shop, restaurant, club and brand of car with which she came into contact. The column had more plugs than B&Q but Tara’s breezy freeloading was all part of the fun. And fun was the word, looking back on them now I am struck by how jolly and innocent they are. Nothing sleazy or sordid, just Tara rushing from party to premiere like a friendly, designer-clad dog. She completely got it that the whole point was to entertain, and that the column should be as funny as possible.

Being the writer behind all this was a strange experience. If I mentioned my role, people thought I was a fantasist. While ghost-writing was hardly a new idea, everyone was absolutely convinced that Tara wrote every word herself. Possibly this is a reflection of how close the column was to her actual personality, and the extent to which she had instantly, effortlessly – and, it seems, eternally - embedded herself in the national consciousness. Her blue-blooded bonkersness had something very British about it.

That she was stunning hardly harmed things either; super-glamorous with glossy hair, a year-round tan and a fabulous figure which never gained an ounce despite the horse-like amounts of food she put away. Her favourite lunch was chicken, mash and gravy which she ate so often that the King’s Road restaurant she patronised christened it ‘Chicken Tara’. No Pot Noodles at home for Ms P-T.

Her famous drug problems came to light only after I had left her service, but they certainly explained a few things. And there were signs, even then, that her life was not as much fun as it seemed. As well as ‘lovers’, the column chronicled a revolving door of fair-weather friends. At one of her parties I found her in a corner saying she didn’t have the foggiest who most of the people there were.

When I finally left Style to become deputy editor of Tatler it was with the germ of a novel inspired by our relationship. Simply Divine had as its main character a column-writing celebrity socialite whose column is actually written by someone else. It was spookily prescient – the socialite, called Champagne D’Vyne, makes an idiot of herself on a chat show and eventually seeks help for her chronic drug problems. Tara had done neither of these things at the time but my inner Nostradamus was obviously on to something. I was nervous that Tara might take umbrage at her portrayal, but with typical generosity she was behind me all the way. She turned up to my launch party in a ski hat and gave me a quote for the book cover: “I’m Absolutely Furious but secretly very flattered”.

I was really sad to hear that she had died. She was such a funny, clever and kind-hearted person and there was so much more to her than people imagined. There were other It Girls around, but Tara easily led the field. She had something none of the others had – personality. In spades.

All the same, when I first met her, I didn’t think it was a defining moment. But it was. The success of the column gave me the inspiration for my first novel. It was an instant bestseller and made me into an author, and for that I will always be grateful.

Writing Behind the Scenes
Nothing especially to look at here; I just go to my garden office in the morning, type up notes if I’m still researching and if I’m writing, I work through the chapters. I try and take a break every hour (although usually less!) and drink about 20 mugs of tea a day. At lunchtime I weed a small part of our vast and overgrown garden while listening to the radio news. Sometimes, if I’m on my own, I work in the evenings too. If my family’s around, we might watch a film. We’re currently working our way through Clint Eastwood.

What is the first job you have had?
When I was at school, I pulled pints in a local bar. I really loved it. The thing about bars, people are always pleased to be in them – well, most people anyway. Another slightly quirky job I had was as a cartoonist. I have a knack for caricature and for a while I made a sort of living with it.

Best date you've ever had?
Way before we got married, when my husband lived in Cannes, we used to take picnics to the islands in the bay. We would buy baguettes and wine from the supermarket, get on the tourist boat and roar off across the blue waves. It was simple but it was perfect.

What is the first thing you think of when you wake up in the morning?
Where are my spectacles?

What's your most missed memory?
Life before Brexit, Covid and the rest of it. It seems like paradise now, so sensible and simple, although I probably grumbled like anyone at the time.

If you could be born into history as any famous person who would it be and why?
I am completely fascinated by The Queen. She has met everyone and seen everything. She is a piece of living history, but more than this she writes a diary every night which no-one sees but her. If I could be her I could read it!

It was a love so strong, a king renounced his kingdom--all for that woman. Or was she just an escape route for a monarch who never wanted to rule? Bestselling author Wendy Holden takes an intimate look at one of the most notorious scandals of the 20th century.

1928. A middle-aged foreigner comes to London with average looks, no money and no connections. Wallis's first months in the city are lonely, dull and depressing. With no friends of her own she follows the glamorous set in magazines and goes to watch society weddings. Her stuffy husband Ernest's idea of fun, meanwhile, is touring historic monuments.

When an unexpected encounter leads to a house party with the Prince of Wales, Wallis's star begins to rise. Her secret weapon is her American pep and honesty. For the prince she is a breath of fresh air. As her friendship with him grows, their relationship deepens into love. Wallis is plunged into a world of unimaginable luxury and privilege, enjoying weekends together at his private palace on the grounds of Windsor Castle.

Wallis knows the fun and excitement can't last. The prince will have to marry and she will return to Ernest. The sudden death of George V seems to make this inevitable; the Prince of Wales is now King Edward VIII. When, to her shock and amazement, he refuses to give her up--or recognize that they are facing impossible odds--her fairy tale becomes a nightmare. The royal family close ranks to shut her out and Ernest gives an ultimatum.

Wallis finds herself trapped when Edward insists on abdicating his throne. She can't escape the overwhelming public outrage and villainized, she becomes the woman everyone blames--the face of the most dramatic royal scandal of the twentieth century.
You can purchase The Duchess at the following Retailers:

1 Winner will receive a Copy of The Duchess by Wendy Holden.
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  1. I'd like to know what animals are thinking, especially my dog, if she feels sick or in pain.

  2. Telekinesis would be wonderful to have.

  3. I would like to be able to talk to animals!

  4. I would love to always be able to say the right thing.

  5. I love having clairvoyance its amazing

  6. "If you could have any 6th sense, what would it be?" X-ray vision allowing one to find hidden treasure.

  7. I want to know what happens in the future