When Prince Harry and his wife Meghan chose to break away from the Royal Family, many media commentators likened the event to the Abdication crisis of 1936, even though none of them (including yours truly) were alive 85 years ago. Both Meghan and Wallis Simpson were, of course, Americans, which seems to have been part of the problem in both cases.
The decision of King Edward VIII to renounce the throne in order to marry the woman he loved is now part of British folklore. This historic episode endures for three main reasons, I think: because it is an intriguing love story in itself; because many people think that, in a democratic age, even a King should be allowed to marry the woman of his choice; and because of a general feeling that we don’t know what really happened or trust the versions of the truth handed down to us.
The last point, I feel sure, is valid. Many of the Palace papers of the time are still wrapped in secrecy. Television had just been invented and few people had sets in their homes for another 15 years, so Edward (or David as he was known to his family and friends) could not appear on the Oprah Winfrey show or in any form of the contemporary media.
In those days the press had even less direct access to the Royals than they have now to tell their readers what their king and his paramour were really like. These thoughts are prompted by reading the recently published diaries of Henry “Chips” Channon, who was close to events, both as a friend of the King and Mrs Simpson and also as an MP with an ear for gossip in the House of Commons.
Diaries are now my favourite reading, ahead of novels or biographies. I have all the good ones: Evelyn Waugh, James Lees-Milne, Duff Cooper, Harold Nicolson, Noel Coward, Cecil Beaton, Roy Strong, Richard Burton, Kenneth Williams, Chris Mullin, Alan Bennett and now, more recently, Sasha Swire.
Channon is unquestionably the best, to be compared only with Samuel Pepys and James Boswell. I thought so even when reading what we now know was an expurgated edition in 1967. The full diaries, edited by Simon Heffer and published this year in two parts (the first one alone is 1,000 pages long) put the claim beyond dispute.
“Chips” Channon was a rich American who despised his own country and his own family and settled first in Paris in his twenties and then, for the rest of his life, in London. He married into the Guinness family and died in 1958, aged 61. His diary entries from Paris read like Marcel Proust, mixing with Princesses and Duchesses, and indeed with Proust himself, whom he actually sat next to at a dinner party.
In London he seemed to go everywhere and meet anyone of any importance (upper classes only, of course, except for his Southend constituents and a few Labour MPs in the Commons). He was at grand dinner parties almost every night with titled men and bejewelled women, recording what he saw and heard, adding his frequently bitchy comments and revelling in the indiscretions of his friends and fellow guests.
His political judgement was sometimes shaky. He admired Adolf Hitler, for example, and fell hook, line and sinker for Nazi propaganda at the Berlin Olympic Games; he also regarded Neville Chamberlain as “the shrewdest Prime Minister of modern times.”
His entries for 1936, however, about the rising Abdication crisis and his comments on the main players in the drama, are riveting. But it is his portraits of the King and of Wallis Simpson that are the most surprising and revealing.
He repeats a conversation with the King’s brother, the Duke of Kent, in which Edward is quoted as saying that, while he knows he is an excellent Prince of Wales, he doubts if he can “stick” being king, because he could not tolerate the restrictions, the etiquette and the loneliness. Channon adds shrewdly: “So perhaps if this issue (Mrs Simpson) had not arisen, something else would have.”
He writes: “I have always thought that Edward VIII suffered from sexual repression of some nature,” adding that “he has always surrounded himself with extremely attractive men.” He describes the King’s love for Mrs Simpson as “an obsession, a kind of madness, shutting out everything else.”
Even so, Channon thought he could have married her if he had played his cards right: not taken her to Balmoral, for example, but kept her more discreetly as a mistress rather than as a putative Queen until after his Coronation and her second divorce, then sought a morganatic marriage.
He describes Wallis as “a woman of charm, sense, balance and wit. She has dignity and taste. She was never embarrassed, never ill at ease and could in her engaging drawl charm anyone. Her reserve and discretion are famous. She would have been an excellent Queen.”
He is rough on George VI, describing him as “completely uninteresting, undistinguished and a godawful bore.” Of his queen, our future adored Queen Mother, he writes: “She is fundamentally lazy, very lazy…She will never be a great Queen because she will never be up in time…She makes every man feel chivalrous and gallant towards her, but of late she has been growing too fat.”
To be fair to “Chips”, however, he is also very hard on himself at time, and his plain honesty is one of the diary’s strongest qualities. The full truth about the Abdication, especially the devious role of courtiers and the Archbishop of Canterbury, may never be known, just as we don’t know, for all the TV footage and the thousands of words written about it, the inside story of Harry and Meghan.
Come on, England!
CHEERS to the England football team, who carry all our hopes into Saturday’s Euro quarter-final against Ukraine. Even if England don’t win against a side that looked like a well-drilled outfit against Sweden, they can still take away the immense satisfaction of having beaten Germany. But I think they will, just.
Switzerland have shown that spirit and a refusal to accept defeat can be as potent as footballing skill. But I fear Gareth Southgate, the England coach, may leave out of his starting XI the two players in his squad who best illustrate those qualities – Jack Grealish and Phil Foden.
Time for Chris to be Sir
BOO to the anti-lockdown louts who have harassed Chris Whitty, the country’s Chief Medical Officer, four times in public and protested outside his London flat. This quietly committed public servant deserves better than this – in fact, he deserves a knighthood like his partner Sir Patrick Vallance. You wouldn’t knight Laurel without Hardy.