In both his novels and non-fiction, D. J. Taylor has long been fascinated by the period between the wars. Now in The Windsor Faction, he brings us a counterfactual version. What would have happened in 1939 if Mrs Simpson had conveniently died three years earlier, leaving Edward VIII free to stay on the throne? Would he have prevented war with Germany — perhaps even by treacherous means?
Taylor explores these questions from a variety of perspectives. In big London houses, groups such as the Nordic League and the White Knights of St Athelstan meet to campaign against Britain’s involvement in a ‘Jewish war’, convinced that they have the king’s unspoken support. In Buckingham Palace, the man himself frets about the limits on his power, but remains uncertain what he’d do if he had more of it. Meanwhile in Bloomsbury, even a small literary magazine finds itself drawn into the world of plot and counter-plot.
And yet, when we do finally get the answer to those counterfactual questions, 370 pages later, it proves distinctly anti-climactic. After months of the phoney war, Germany invades France, Churchill becomes prime minister and Britain stands alone. In other words, what would have happened is what did happen. Wisely, Taylor doesn’t spell this out in so many words — and a generous reader might even admire his reluctance to sex-up the counterfactual record. Nonetheless, it does leave the novel’s premise, initially so promising, looking somewhere between rather thin and surprisingly pointless.
This problem, in fact, seems to have occurred to Taylor as well, because much of the book consists of what seems suspiciously like padding. At the level of the individual sentence, one comparatively minor but unmistakable symptom is the constant superfluous use of the word ‘oddly’ — presumably imported from Taylor’s other job as a reviewer, but here applied to the most blameless of adjectives. (In the space of two not-untypical paragraphs, there’s a room with ‘an oddly subterranean look’ where a woman has ‘an oddly vigilant look’.) The prose is also overloaded with often quite literal similes — while almost everybody does or says almost everything ‘as if’ they were doing or saying something else instead.
The same sense of bulking out the material, or simply of treading water, comes in the assiduous weather reports (‘Despite the rain, it was unusually hot for the time of year’) and, above all, in the descriptions of phoney-war London, whose details are not so much evoked as endlessly repeated. The trouble, of course, is that, rather than disguising the fact that not much is happening, these tactics serve only to reveal it. Nor is the matter solved when, towards the end, Taylor suddenly snaps into action and gives us (in ascending order of implausibility) a kidnap, a chase scene and a murder. By then, it’s too much, too late.
The novel is not without its redeeming qualities. Taylor is certainly good on the bright young women of the time, almost but not quite reconciled to their eventual destiny of keeping house for a dull husband. He clearly knows his literary magazines of the 1930s, and has some sharp-eyed fun with their mixture of idealism and self-importance. A fictionalised version of Beverley Nichols’s diaries, which also featured in Taylor’s 2009 novel Ask Alice, livens things up whenever it appears.
Yet, in the end, even these bright spots degenerate into repetition, leaving us with the overwhelming impression of a novel that spends nearly all its time setting the scene for something that never really happens.