Book Talk: A love that changed British royal history

A young Prince of Wales meets and falls in love with a beautiful, spirited commoner.

April 21, 2011 / 05:01 PM IST

A young Prince of Wales meets and falls in love with a beautiful, spirited commoner.

But Rebecca Dean's "The Golden Prince" is set nearly a century ago, so instead of leading to marriage -- as with Prince William and Kate Middleton next week -- the relationship between Prince Edward, later King Edward VIII, and Lily Houghton was doomed from the start.

Dean said her novel was an attempt to explore the idea, put forth by some historians, that a thwarted early love so changed Edward that it eventually led to his 1936 abdication of the throne in order to marry US divorcee Wallis Simpson.

Dean, who is currently working on a trilogy about Edward and Simpson, spoke with Reuters about royalty and her book.

Q: What inspired you?

A: "The questions have been asked endlessly, ever since the abdication. Why did he give up an empire for a plain, middle-aged, twice-divorced American woman of apparently doubtful reputation. But more intriguing to me was, why prior to his affair with her, had all his previous affairs been with married women? Never with anyone who'd have been remotely acceptable as a Princess of Wales and a future queen.

"I found the answer when I learned as a very young man, serving as an officer in France during World War 1, his first romance was with a single young woman. She was a daughter of the Duke of Sutherland, her name was Rosemary Lucent-Gore, and she was in France as a Red Cross nurse.

"I wanted to be able to write about Edward as he was then, as a young, golden prince with just everything to look forward to, who wanted to marry a girl who -- by our lights these days -- was of aristocratic birth, would have made an ideal queen, and then there would have been no Mrs. Simpson in the 1930s, no abdication and our entire royal history would have been different."

Q: Why are these two people so fascinating to you?

A: "Both of them were complex characters, and intensely interesting. I thought that when I started researching about Wallis, I would be writing a book that included Edward. But the more I read about her, the more I realized she was a stand-alone heroine if you like, deserving a book entirely to herself. She was, in the years before she met Edward, a Becky Sharp character. She was very sassy, not always someone you liked, but she had guts and determination to rise to the top. But you were always entertained by her. If it was fun, Wallis wanted to try it. If it was daring, she was willing to take the dare. And if it was exciting, she wanted the excitement.

"I also think as well that history's treated her very cruelly up to now, though I think there's a change in the air. She's been caricatured, demonized if you like, and made a scapegoat. And even in "The King's Speech" -- brilliant, brilliant film -- the slight shot that we get of both her and Edward isn't true to them... Well, I would like to alter all that. I would like the world to see her in a different light."

Q: What's writing fiction about people who existed like?

A: "The difficulties of writing a book about someone in living memory -- compared to writing, say, about the Tudors or some other historical personage who lived a long time ago -- is obviously huge. You're constrained by the knowledge that everyone has about where these people were at what time and what year, who they were mixing with. You've got to have every detail right.

"My problem when it came to Edward was, I had to be able to show this love affair that I think affected the entire rest of his life, and place it in context with where he actually was at the time, and what was actually going on in his life at the time. I realised I could only do that by shifting the years by about five years, so instead of being 23 when he meets this first love of his life who he was not allowed to marry, he's only 17."

Q: Where do you start from on a book like this?

A: "I read everything I could get my hands on about him as a character and saw how I interpreted the way he had behaved throughout his life. He was nearly three different people. He was one personality when he was young, when he really was the golden prince. He was another when he was king, and then when he was the Duke of Windsor he became a rather pathetic figure, and he was another person entirely.

"Edward and (Princess) Diana were very alike. The problem with them for the establishment was they both -- and I'm now talking about Edward as a young prince -- they both had huge charisma, huge charm, captivated masses of people wherever they went. They had the knack of connecting with common people. None of the other Windsors can do that, however dutiful and wonderful Queen Elizabeth is."

Q: What is the hold that royalty still has on us?

A: "There is a glamour attached to it still. Poor Prince Charles, he's done his best to hit glamour on the head, but has never -- at least in Britain -- been seen as a glamourous figure.

"But Prince William is just such a wonderful young man. It will restore the monarchy, I think, to a standing it had 20 years ago and unfortunately lost through so many royal divorces."

first published: Apr 21, 2011 04:00 pm

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