Review by Emma Venables
Juliet Nicolson’s Abdication presents its reader with a vividly researched account of Britain between the wars. Focusing on 1936 and the events surrounding the abdication of King Edward VIII. Nicolson explores the scars left by the previous war, Sir Oswald Mosley and the rise of fascism in the UK, the threat of another war, unrest amongst the working class, and the presence of anti-Semitism. She gives these events a face, a way the reader can understand them and interact with them: May’s family are Jewish in an increasingly hostile environment, one of the Blunt’s servants bears the physical scars of WW1 on his face for all to see, Julian is fascinated with the working class, and Evangeline provides us with a looking glass through which the reader gains access to the mysterious relationship of Wallis Simpson and King Edward VIII.
Unfortunately, Evangeline is the weakest character. Her physical attributes (she is obese and suffering from alopecia) provide the comedy which is clichéd and encourages the reader to step into the shoes of a school bully. The first of Evangeline’s unfortunate encounters (involving a revolving door) was funny, reminiscent of something penned by Miranda Hart, but they wore thin as the novel proceeded. May is a woman in a man’s world. Fascinated with cars, May gains a job as a chauffeur where she is allowed to wear trousers and tinker around with car engines; she is also privy to a great number of political secrets. This storyline has great potential for comment on the roles of women in the period between the wars but the kitschy romance between May and Julian (the affluent scholar) follows a well-trodden path and the novel suffers for it. May becomes something akin to a lovesick puppy and as the novel ends you are disheartened by the thought of her marrying Julian and becoming a housewife. Evangeline claims that Wallis has ‘both puzzled and influenced her since her schooldays’ (p.256). Indeed, this quote sums up Nicolson’s presentation of Wallis throughout the novel. She does not try to aid the reader’s understanding of the events surrounding the abdication of King Edward VIII but retains the mystery, bringing the couple to the attention of a modern-day audience. Nicolson’s descriptions of Wallis and her relationship with the King are both creative and grounded in thorough research, providing the novel with a dazzling epicentre from which the chaos and disappointment ensues. Wallis is well represented as a woman with a wealth of power at her fingertips: power that is driving British politicians and aristocracy to breaking point.
The novel explores abdication in the widest sense of the word: the characters all have decisions to make, responsibilities from which they must abdicate or which they must adhere to. Society is in flux and history is being made. Throughout the novel, the characters must decide if they are going to go with the flow or make a stand. Unfortunately, as the novel reaches its climax, all the women seem to step out of the limelight (bar Wallis, of course): for example, Evangeline returns home, embarrassed, alone (having betrayed Wallis), and no better off than she was before she set sail for England. The men prove to be the driving force of the novel which might have been true of the time but, at the novel’s beginning, the women had so much potential to break boundaries and stereotypes. Nicolson seems reluctant to pursue the idea of a strong woman in the 1930s, leaving the feminist reader feeling utterly disappointed.