Sunday, 31 March 2013

Book Review - That Woman by Anne Sebba

This was a book that I'd wanted to read for a while, a biography of one of the most notorious women of the 20th century: Wallis Simpson.  When I thought about it, what did I really know about Mrs Simpson?  Only that she was the twice divorced woman Edward VIII couldn't live without and gave up his throne to marry.  For that matter, what did I know about the King apart from that he was known as "David" to his friends and family? 

Sebba does a good job at filling in the gaps in my knowledge of both lives.  David is an insecure womaniser,  a man of obsessions, a spoilt brat to whom only his parents ever said "no".  His world revolved around him and his pleasures; while his parents world revolved around "doing your duty" and "putting the country first".  He spent the 1920's deeply in love with one married woman, Freda Dudley Ward, before dropping her for another, Thelma, Lady Furness.

Wallis grew up as the poor relation of a wealthy family and Sebba demonstrates that the insecurity that caused never left her.  She marries early, selling herself in marriage to a man she barely knows but one who offers glamour and some level of financial security.  Win Spencer was a pilot, in the US's fledgeling Naval Air Service.  He was also a cad and a drunkard, who set about boosting his own ego but undermining his wife's.  The marriage fails and Wallis goes looking for a new man upon which to hang her dreams, eventually meeting and marrying Ernest Simpson.  The rest of her story is fairly well known and is the focus for the majority of the book.

This is a book that is well written and well researched.  Where Sebba loses me is her argument that Wallis' flirtatiousness and childlessness was driven by a totally unfounded claim - that Wallis suffered from a Disorder of Sexual Development ("DSD"), possibly pseudo-hermaphroditism, where the sufferer is genetically male but grows up female because her body is insensitive to androgen  By advancing this argument, Sebba totally ignores the social mores of the time and the subsequent effects on all Wallis's girlfriends.  Wallis belonged to a class in which, during the early 20th century,  the only way to obtain security/wealth/position was to marry well. Having a career and creating your own financial independence was out of the question. Forget about marrying for love - those girls were bought up to consider a man's fortune and his prospects before they considered his personality.  It is, therefore, no surprise to discover that few of her contemporaries/friends had successful first marriages. 

How did you win and keep your man?  You had to impress upon him that he was the most important person in your world, strong, handsome, the focus of all your attention.  If you ever watch a flirt in action, that is what they do.  They bewitch you with their charm by making you feel wonderful.  As the poor relation in an upper-class world, Wallis had to master the art of flirtation because all she had to offer was herself.  The flip side was that flirting gave her a sense of worth; as long as men fancied her, she had value.  The only time in her life that Wallis felt fulfilled by things she did - as opposed to the attention she was paid - was during World War 2, when she volunteered for the Red Cross in France.

What about her childlessness?  Sebba contends that birth control was unreliable so there must have been something physically wrong with Wallis.  Rather than DSD, it is statistically more probable that either Win Spencer or one of her subsequent lovers gave her chlamydia or gonorrhoea, diseases which cause physical damage to the fallopian tubes and lead to abdominal adhesions, which may explain her later gastric problems as well as her inability to conceive.  In addition, by the mid-1920's, Wallis would have been able to obtain reliable birth control in the form of a diaphragm either from one of Marie Stopes' clinics or from a sympathetic gynaecologist.

Sebba's final argument in support of DSD, that Wallis is rather masculine in appearance ignores something she argues later:  that both Wallis and David suffered from anorexia nervosa.  Through most of her adult life, Wallis kept her weight below 7.5 stone (100lb).  If a woman has insufficient body weight, her ovaries will cease to function, causing infertility.  Additionally, how can your body lay down "womanly" fatty deposits (i.e. to soften the face) when there is no fat to spare?

I wish that, rather than waste her time finding arguments to support her flimsy theory of DSD, Sebba had spent the time and word count focussing on Wallis's life after the War.  Compared to the inter-war years, this period is glossed over completely.  I doubt that it is less well documented.

On the whole, I give this book 7 out of 10.

- Pam

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