Before Wallis – Edward VIII’s Other Women by Rachel Trethewey

  • The History Press 2018
  • ISBN: 9780750985604
  • RRP $49.99 (hb)

Reviewed by Anne Henderson

Imagine our contemporary world of social media and paparazzi at the time of Britain’s aristocratic Bright Young Things in the 1920s and 1930s. What gossip might have emerged. What sensational headlines might have been splashed across the tabloid newspapers. Even more so, as the playboy Prince of Wales – later Edward VIII – danced till dawn and enjoyed the company of a growing list of mistresses, most of whom were married society hostesses.

That’s the question begging as Rachel Trethewey unfolds the private dramas of the key players in Before Wallis – Edward VIII’s Other Women. It’s an absorbing tale, long overdue, bringing into the limelight the three most important women – among the many – in the life of Edward Prince of Wales before he became besotted by Wallis Simpson and gave up the throne. In fact, it was the third of these mistresses, Lady Furness, who introduced Wallis Simpson to the Prince.

Trethewey’s achievement is bold and brings to life what, till now, have been but shadowy and two-dimensional images of these three women given a brief spot on the stage of history. Her account reveals strong individuals – more in charge of their destinies than the Prince himself. Rosemary Leveson-Gower, Freda Dudley Ward and Thelma Furness emerge from this book as figures of independence and courage in a world that both constricted women and relied on them to set standards.

It fell to Rosemary Leveson-Gower, an English rose in the best traditions as the daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland, to catch the eye of a young Prince Edward during a visit to the Front in northern France in 1917 where she was working as a nurse in a field hospital run by her mother Millicent.

The budding romance led to a proposal of marriage and an acceptance by Rosemary, only for the planned nuptials to be rejected by Edward’s parents – King George and Queen Mary – on grounds that Millicent’s family showed traits of eccentricity and bad form. Rosemary agreed to walk away from the proposal and, within a year, she had married William Ward, Viscount Ednam, with whom she was very much in love.

The king and queen were not to realise that their royal prejudices about unsuitable in-laws had set in motion a slow-burn future constitutional crisis. It would end with a radical change in the line of succession some two decades later. Rosemary Leveson-Gower, argues Trethewey, “was a match for the queen, and she could have been an ally in turning the Prince of Wales into a man fit to be king.” She adds:

The war had been a profound experience for both Edward and Rosemary and led to a strong bond between them. Although the Prince had not been allowed to run the same risks as his contemporaries, he had been there with them and seen for himself the horror of the experience. … As someone who had nursed in France, Rosemary understood and shared the Prince’s feelings. If Edward had married Rosemary their relationship would have been based on the most fundamental value of compassion.

Rosemary would have diminished the Prince’s selfish side, argues Trethewey. One journalist at the time described her as “… a radiant ozone in which nothing falsely silly could live. She killed all pretence and all shams, all wrong kind of nonsense; with her sun-like humour, but never with a hard body blow or a sharp upper cut.”

But that did not happen. According to Trethewey: The Prince of Wales’ parents’ opposition to the match was to have “fateful repercussions. Rosemary was the last aristocratic single girl he seriously considered as a possible wife; from now on his lovers would be married women.”

If World War I changed the Royal marriage market as the many descendants of Queen Victoria and their distant royal cousins went to war, it did not add to Edward’s chances of making a successful marriage. As if in rebellion at his parents’ interference in his choice of bride, after Rosemary Edward appeared to throw away any sense of duty to marry. He would spend the next two decades enjoying a playboy life among a narrow set of friends. As Trethewey notes, in these years before Wallis, the Prince was regarded as vulgar by the “old guard” aristocracy and known to have at least two mistresses on the go at any one time.

By making the women the focus of her study, Trethewey uncovers an emotionally needy man with a destiny he appeared not to want.

The most devoted mistress and longest serving was undoubtedly Freda Dudley Ward, wife of Liberal MP William Dudley Ward. Her affair with the Prince began in 1918. Described by Diana Cooper as “a dream of beauty”, Freda became what Trethewey describes as much more than a sexual partner. She was even more an emotional one:

…she was his confidante and he relied on her for advice. His letters refer to the pleasures of talking to her more often than they mention their sexual encounters. He described her as a real friend to whom he could say anything he felt. He became depressed and anxious if he could not unburden his soul to her regularly.

While the Prince succeeded in keeping their affair from his parents for some time, when they discovered the truth, eventually, and were shocked, their reaction was to belittle Freda’s family background, for all the good it did. As Trethewey makes clear, Freda’s pedigree may not have been aristocratic but it was flawless middle class; her father had raised the 1st/7th Battalion in the war and her mother had been recognised with medals for her war work.

While discreet, Freda was no doll on a string. And she had a rival lover – wealthy banker Michael Herbert – which the Prince knew. The tensions around the three is played out in a chapter titled “The Toxic Circle”. By 1927, however, Freda had tired of it enough to have a two-year affair with American polo player Rodman Wanamaker. It seems that this affair forced Edward to rethink his relationship with Freda, while Michael pursued her until his death in 1932 aged 39.

For all that, Freda’s friendship with the Prince continued. As he refurbished Fort Belvedere – his castellated folly at Windsor – in 1929, it was Freda he went to for advice not Thelma Furness, who by then had become his mistress. Thelma Furness, a Catholic and an American, was a fun time girl with all the excess of a rich adventurer, but she never fitted into his life as a true soul mate.

Seen from the perspective of these three women, Edward Prince of Wales emerges as part softie, part spoilt child. But, essentially, he was something of a narcissist. With the emergence of Wallis Simpson into his life, his old contacts were cut off hard and fast. The worst of this was his coldness to the Dudley Ward daughters. In the years he spent with Freda, the Prince had become something of a fond uncle to her two daughters. After Wallis, he allowed neither any contact with him.

Rachel Trethewey’s Before Wallis – Edward VIII’s Other Women is a revealing book. The second half of the book is devoted to chapters on Freda, Rosemary and Thelma and their lives beyond the Prince. Freda and Rosemary did charity work, they all raised families, had affairs and socialised with the rich and powerful. Their lives had both meaning and excitement.

Much has been written of the Prince who gave up the British throne in 1936 but most of that writing makes Wallis Simpson either the scarlet woman or the only great love of the Prince’s life. Trethewey spikes this myth sharply. The Prince had told his father in 1932 that of the women he loved, Freda Dudley Ward (by then divorced) was the woman he would marry. His father opposed it.

The Prince loved a number of women deeply and desperately long before Wallis Simpson. The women he loved were strong and independent with lives of their own. Yet only Wallis, for whatever reason, could bring this Peter Pan Prince to give up his throne.

Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History