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Wallis Simpson: Unhappily ever after

The fascination with the British royals and those in their circle continues unabated, whether through the extraordinary box-office success of The King's Speech, or the glossy magazines' silly, drooling obsession with royal bridesmaid Pippa Middleton's singularly unremarkable bum. Frankly, you'd see better on Grafton Street.

But Wallis Simpson: The Secret Letters offered a genuinely new and revelatory take on a tired old tale. While researching a new biography of Simpson -- the twice-divorced American socialite whom Prince Edward, Duke of Windsor (formerly King Edward VIII), abdicated from the throne to marry -- historian Anne Sebba came across a cache of 15 intimate letters Wallis wrote to her ex-husband, Ernest Simpson, for up to two years after her marriage to Edward.

The letters, eloquently written, brutally honest and previously unseen by the wider world, shattered the popular image that she and Edward were the devoted partners in one of history's great romances.


Instead, they revealed Wallis to be a deeply unhappy woman who felt she'd allowed herself to become trapped in her relationship with Edward, a clinging, cloying man-child she scornfully nicknamed "Peter Pan", because of his nauseating habit of communicating with her in simpering, infantile language -- a family trait, it would seem, carried on by Prince Charles in his infamous letters to Camilla Parker Bowles while he was still married to Diana.

It's clear from the letters that Wallis still carried a torch for her ex-husband, although whether they prove, as Sebba suggested, that the real love of her life was Ernest and not Edward is questionable. After all, if she didn't feel anything for Edward, why didn't she just divorce him? God knows, she'd already had plenty of previous experience of the divorce courts.

But they're certainly the writings of a woman who felt frightened and suffocated, and was fully aware that she'd allowed herself to become deeply entrenched in a situation from which there would never be any escape.

In her early days as Edward's mistress, she fully expected he'd eventually drop her for a younger model. Edward, however, who was by some measure Wallis's intellectual inferior as well as emotionally retarded, frequently threatened to kill himself if she ever left him.

Even as Wallis's divorce from Ernest was being finalised, she was planning to flee to Paris to escape marrying Edward, who she'd never wanted to give up his throne. But the very day before she was to make her break for freedom, on the pretext of going to Paris buy some hats, details of their long-running affair exploded in the British press.

Edward immediately whisked Wallis out of the public spotlight -- to a chateau in France, ironically -- and had one of his staff babysit her while he went about the business of abdication. Thus, Wallis spent the rest of her life in a virtual prison, effectively isolated from the big-city whirl of London, Paris and New York that she loved, and with a husband stuck to her like a limpet.

It's to her credit that she carried the charade of blissful happiness off so stoically, even after Edward's death in 1972, yet this excellent film never let you forget that she and the men in her life inhabited a privileged, hypocritical world where morality was bankrupt and the usual rules didn't apply.

When Ernest and Wallis Simpson were first introduced to Edward, they shamelessly used their royal connection as leverage up the social ladder. Ernest actively encouraged Wallis to spend more time with the prince.

Wallis -- who was regarded by many in their social circle as a shameless gold-digger who seduced men with the sexual tricks she'd learned hanging around brothels in China -- arranged for her best friend, who would later become Ernest's wife, to keep him amused while she cavorted with Edward.

There was a sense here that everyone got what they deserved. And who they deserved.