Saturday, September 22, 2012

Wallis & Elizabeth

Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon & Wallis Simpson

 Anyone who has seen Madonna's movie W.E. has caught a glimpse into the life & romance of Wallis Simpson & Edward VIII.  They know that this was a relationship that altered history and they know that "W.E." was the cypher used to symbolise that relationship.  They may also remember a few of the movie's "bit players" including Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, first seen as the Duchess of York and played by Natalie Dormer (who in a lovely little twist also played Anne Boleyn in The Tudors).

Elizabeth pops up again in The King's Speech where she is portrayed as charming & rather quirky by Helena Bonham Carter (who, as luck would have it, also played Anne Boleyn in the ITV mini-series Henry VIII). She goes about her business, dutifully supporting her husband as he makes his reluctant transition from Duke of York to King George VI.

This certainly was the image that I had of Elizabeth; always gracious (except when it came to Wallis of course), always smiling and always a bit boring.  Elizabeth appeared to be more like the "Bound to Obey and Serve" Jane Seymour while Wallis appeared more along the lines of the stylish, sophisticated and, some might say, shrewish Anne Boleyn.

Apparently I was off track with these stereotypes, way off track.  Having dug a bit deeper, it now appears to me that instead of being polar opposites Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon and Wallis Simpson were actually more like "sisters under the skin".  Who would have thought that theirs is the "W.E." relationship that is truly fascinating!

My interest in Elizabeth was first piqued when we recently discovered a photo of her in an old family album (see The King's Trip: George VI visits Oba, Ontario) but I took a rather roundabout means of learning more about her starting with That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor by Anne Sebba.  After that I tackled The Queen Mother: The Untold Story of Elizabeth Bowes Lyon, Who Became Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother by Lady Colin Campbell.  Both books have eye opening "revelations" and they were good to read in series noting the contradictions and collaborations, especially in some of the more controversial areas.

I certainly came away with a greater appreciation for the era in which they lived and I'm now happily indulging myself with Downton Abbey which, I imagine, reflects a bit of the lifestyle of Elizabeth's early years.  It's interesting to note that Elizabeth is just two years younger than the Downton character Lady Sybil Crawley and that her childhood home, Glamis Castle, was actually turned into a convalescent home for wounded soldiers, which Elizabeth helped to run.

As for my opinion of the two women, it does seem to me that they were very much alike although Elizabeth certainly represented the old ways while Wallis was forging ahead with the new.  I have more respect and sympathy for each of them and I'm going to try to keep an open mind as I discover more.

Gareth Russell's excellent post,  Beyond a stereotype  should help me with this.  As he relates "The six wives of Henry VIII hover in our collective imagination, fulfilling our need for female stereotypes or historical fantasies".  It's intriguing that this also seems to be the fate of Wallis & Elizabeth.

Wallis & Elizabeth at the funeral of the Duke of Windsor, 1972

Have you already discovered Wallis and Elizabeth?  What's your opinion of these two "warring wives of Windsor"?


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