Juliet Nicolson is a member of a literary dynasty second in productivity only to the Pakenhams. She is herself the author of two distinguished volumes of social history describing Britain immediately before and immediately after the first world war. This is her first novel.
The danger of letting a social historian write novels is that the social history is likely to lie rather heavily upon the narrative. Nicolson is not guiltless in this respect. The characters in her novel are strikingly well connected. Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Vanessa Bell, Lord Reith, all have walk-on parts. Almost the only two literary figures of any social consequence who do not appear, indeed, are the author’s grandparents: Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West.
We witness the Jarrow March and the burning of the Crystal Palace. We visit the Queen Mary before its inaugural sailing and read Gone With the Wind. We experience the delights of a Bloody Mary — ‘a concoction that had arrived two years earlier on the menu of the St Regis Hotel in New York’ — and visit the studio of Eric Ravilious to inspect the souvenir mugs he has designed for the coronation.
We are present when the ‘politics don, Frank Pakenham’, is beaten up by Mosley’s thugs, and even have the pleasure of being introduced to Pakenham’s ‘three-year-old daughter, adorable and curly-haired and innocent’ (Lady Antonia Fraser also features among those whom the author thanks in her acknowledgements, so she can claim double billing). It is all good fun, but there is perhaps too much of it.
That complaint over, this is a thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining book. Nicolson writes extremely well, she has a keen eye for detail and she has mastered her sources with impressive efficiency. Edward VIII’s infatuation with Mrs Simpson and the constitutional crisis to which it led loom in the background rather than take centre stage. The events are seen mainly through the eyes of a fat, middle-aged American spinster to whom Wallis Simpson seems rather inexplicably attached, and the 19-year-old lady chauffeur of a Conservative Deputy Chief Whip. Together, they present a lively, if detached, account of the great romance.
The picture of Mrs Simpson is particularly vivid: her ‘hard-edged accent that sounded like coins rubbing up against each other in a pocket’, her posture — ‘assured as a flamingo on one leg’ and her skeletal elegance:
Even the pencilled-in shape of the upended smile of her eyebrows that brought some relief to the otherwise empty expanse of the broad forehead had apparently been subjected to the same strict dietary regime.
Nicolson’s Wallis not merely did not want to be Queen but took active, if ineffective, steps to disengage from her royal lover. It is a convincing picture of a woman whom it is hard to like but impossible not, even if grudgingly, to respect.
It was a good idea to make the youthful heroine somebody who had spent all her life to date in Barbados and thus was as ignorant of the social mores of the English as most of Nicolson’s readers will be today. She gets a few days off because King George V’s illness leads to the cancellation of a weekend party:
It seemed very strange to May that after only two weeks in a new job … a decision about her own working hours had depended on the health of the King.
It would seem rather strange to most of us today.
But on the evidence of this book Nicolson would be wise to stick to what she does best, and give her readers the social history without the addition of an exiguous plot. If she is determined to write another novel, then let her concentrate on the story and the characters. She certainly has the literary skills to do it very well.