When a first-time novelist produces a best-seller, it’s no small achievement. After reading, The Woman Before Wallace, A Novel of Windsors, Vanderbilts and Royal Scandal by Bryn Turnbull I can see why her book became such a success. And historical fiction is my favourite genre. It’s well-written, engrossing, and especially satisfying when the author is a fellow Canadian. It’s the story of Lady Thelma Furness, King Edward VIII’s mistress before he waltzed off with Wallis Simpson. After reading this book, I’m convinced her story is just as fascinating if not more so than that of Wallis Simpson.
Thelma Morgan was born in the United States. Both Thelma and her twin sister Gloria were raised and groomed by their difficult, temperamental mother to marry rich and marry well. Gloria certainly conformed to her mother’s wishes by marrying Reggie Vanderbilt, from one of the richest families in the United States. Both sisters went on to become famous for their lifestyle and love affairs.
Before she had turned twenty, Gloria had provided Reggie with a daughter, known thereafter as Little Gloria. Unfortunately, Reggie’s reckless lifestyle left Gloria a widow by the time she was twenty. Gloria’s own story has inspired as many books as her famous daughter. Gloria Vanderbilt became a celebrity in her own right. As a young child, Little Gloria was the centre of a custody dispute between her mother and her paternal aunt, Gertrude Whitney. Little Gloria became the Gloria Vanderbilt we came to know as a designer, artist, fashion icon and mother of Anderson Cooper.
An early and disastrous marriage for Thelma left her broke and disillusioned. After divorcing her husband, she visited her sister Gloria in Paris while Gloria’s husband Reggie Vanderbilt was still alive. Thanks to the generosity and social connections of her sister, Thelma was introduced to members of the elite including minor royalty. It was the roaring twenties. Morals were loose, aristocrats were unencumbered by jobs and enjoyed the high life in night clubs and weekends at country estates. At one party, Thelma was introduced to Viscount Duke Furness, a rich widower with two children who was also considered one of the best catches in England for young women looking for a suitable husband. After some initial resistance to the relationship, she eventually grew to love Duke and married him. They produced a son, Anthony.
Like so many of the aristocratic set, Thelma’s husband enjoyed the company of a series of mistresses. What was considered acceptable and commonplace in the English upper classes was not so easy for American-born Thelma to accept and their marriage faltered. Later, when she was introduced to the philandering, handsome Prince of Wales at a party, she responded to his advances with easy and guilt-free enthusiasm. Her husband, however, was not as forgiving of his wife’s dalliances as he was of his own and they too separated after less than three years of marriage.
Moving into her own posh London apartment allowed Thelma the freedom to devote her entire energies to the Prince of Wales, David as he was called by family and friends. Their affair followed on the heels of his earlier and lingering relationship with Freda Dudley Ward who remained part of his life. Thelma helped David finish renovating his private home, Fort Belvedere in Great Windsor Park, and served as hostess and lady of the house alongside the Prince for several years.
When her sister Gloria’s legal battles over custody of Little Gloria were reaching a peak in the 1930s, Thelma returned to New York to lend her personal support to her twin sister’s struggles. She naively asked Wallis Simpson to keep an eye on David while she was away. And we know how thoroughly Mrs. Simpson followed through as the rest of that story is well-documented history.
I’m a huge fan of historical fiction but it’s not always as well-written as The Woman Before Wallis. My only complaint is one I’ve expressed before in my book reviews on BoomerBroadcast. When an author toggles back and forth in time, I get confused and have to keep referring to the date at the start of the chapter to figure out where I am in the story. That’s minor, though, compared to how much I enjoyed the book. The author describes scenes in loving detail. We’re witnesses to what the characters were wearing, what they ate and drank, the rooms they lived in, and even what the weather was like. It’s so easy to visualize the chairs they sat in, the hand gestures, the conversations that took place, the thoughts and conflicts of the various famous characters who form the cast of this wonderful story. I loved this book and look forward to reading more by Bryn Turnbull in the future.
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