by D.J. Taylor

Pegasus Books


376pp/$25.95/September 2013

The Windsor Faction

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

In December, 1936, King Edward VIII abdicated the throne of Great Britain in order to marry the American widow, Wallis Simpson.  In D. J. Taylor's version of history, Simpson died from a botched surgery and December 1936 saw her funeral, and led to King Edward becoming a reclusive monarch shortly before Britain was about to become embroiled in the second World War.  Although Edward plays a role in the novel, Taylor prefers to focus his attention on two private individuals, Cynthia Kirkpatrick and Beverley Nichols.

Much of the novels is set against the banalities of life.  Cynthia finds a job working for a start up magazine, Duration, founded by the milquetoast Desmond, which serves as a literary center for the action of the novel.  Desmond's staff and partners attempt to continue their life-as-normal despite the privations of the war, and must battle government censors and deal with the inflated coast of paper in order to publish their issues. Cynthia also finds herself embroiled with Tyler Kent, an American cipher clerk who may be involved in unwarranted activities in support of the Germans.  The scenes of her life depict a London suffering from the distant war, with rationing, blackout curtains, and foreign airman who are fighting, or hoping to fight from England rather than their own occupied countries.  Nevertheless, the London she moves through feels more empty than a city at war.

Nichols's story is told in the form of entries in his diary, from the banal hobnobbing with celebrities and writing his columns for various publications to his being summoned by King Edward VIII to ghost write the King's Christmas address for 1939. While the counterfactual history of Cynthia's storylines tends to be subtle, Nichols's collaboration with King Edward opens a door for Taylor to provide a look at the changes that Simpson's death brought about in this timeline.

Perhaps one of the books strongest points is the insidious growth of Archibald Ramsay's movement.  When the book opens, Ramsay is merely an anti-Semitic conspiracist who happens to be a back bench member of Parliament.  As the book continues, his continual appearances within all of the story lines, focusing on King Edward VIII, Cynthia, and Nichols reflects his slow, but inexorable rise to greater influence.  Taylor's refusal to incorporate Ramsay as a point of view character, but ":merely" a support character, lulls the reader into underestimating his importance.

One of the strengths of The Windsor Faction is that although there is a war on, Taylor eschews descriptions of battles and military action, instead focusing on the way life is altered, or not altered, for those on the home front.  The change is subtle, but it does exist, and as the novel begins its final chapters, the change becomes more pronounced and begins to influence the common people more and more.  The death of Wallis Simpson expands from being a personal loss to the king to having more political impact, not just on who rules the kingdom, but on the way the members of Parliament are able to push their agenda.

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