London, 1936. Edward VIII is on the throne. The Nazis were gathering strength in Europe. And the world was on the cusp of WWII. A year full of change and unrest, uncertainty and brewing scandal. Juliet Nicolson has captured the time and the place beautifully in this novel rife with complicated undercurrents swirling around and ultimately forming historical fact.
May Thomas is a young woman from the Barbados who is newly arrived in Britain following the death of her mother. She's come to the UK with her brother, moving in with her cousin, his wife, and in-laws. She soon finds work as a secretary/chauffeur to Lady Joan and Sir Philip Blunt and gains entre into the inner workings of the aristocracy and the British government. May is a discreet driver and she has a front row seat watching new King's thus far secret devotion to Wallis Simpson thanks to the arrival of one of Lady Joan's goddaughters, Evangeline Nettleson, a school friend of Mrs. Simpson's from America.
When Evangeline comes from America to spend time with her godmother, May drives her around, including to Fort Belvedere to see her old school chum Wallis. Because of May's position in the household, she is privy to the inner world of both the upstairs and the downstairs. And because of Sir Philip's place in the government, she hears much about politics and the state of the nation that is sensitive and privileged. Her job is a strange mix of business and pleasure for the Blunts and those in their sphere. Julian Richardson, a school mate of the Blunt's son, who spends a lot of time with the Blunts in order to avoid his own ailing mother and his less illustrious origins, finds himself attracted to May and manufacturing reasons to spend time with her despite his own confusion about what he most desires out of life.
There are many different story lines going on through this novel, often seemingly insignificant but all tied to the major events of the time period. May's cousin has married into a Jewish family so the rising anti-Semitism of the times hovers menacingly and very real in the background of May's inside look at the King and Wallis Simpson's affair and the political implications around it. The focus here, though is not so much the high profile relationship that the British government was trying hard to keep under wraps but instead the effect of the time and each little thing on the common man in England. It is a look at relationships, love, misunderstandings, and sacrifice. From illicit relationships to friendships, depth of feeling is explored and examined as a driver for action. The characters are well drawn, interesting, and intricately human. The history is authentic and more boradly focused than the title would imply but the story is all the better for its wider lens and awareness of the world outside the royal cocoon. Anglophiles of all stripes will certainly appreciate this broad picture of England during the short reign of Edward VIII.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book to review.