Normally it would sound dismissive and rather uppity to begin a review by saying the book in question had appeared just in time to be taken to the backyard hammock for leisurely and undemanding summer absorption. Yet ABDICATION fills this role so perfectly that to say so is to reveal one of its undisputed virtues.
Juliet Nicolson’s imaginative and warmly woven first novel, set during the year of Edward VIII’s infamous retreat from kingship, is a daring diversion from her widely respected factual social histories like THE PERFECT SUMMER: England 1911. Throughout its pages, arranged in seasonal segments spanning the tumultuous year of 1936, Nicolson traces the mundane, cathartic and transformative personal journeys of three composite characters whose lives, loves, beliefs and aspirations gently intertwine on the periphery of British titled society.
"In every nuance of ABDICATION, Nicolson’s subtle layering of relationships attests to her innate facility in capturing even the smallest details of class-regimented British society during its last dance of self-indulgence before the cataclysm of World War II."
Chauffer May Thomas, Oxford grad student Julian Richardson, and American social-climber Evangeline Nettlefold in turn touch the lives of several dozen others, both actual and fictional, including, of course, HRH Edward VIII and his twice-divorced American mistress, Wallis Simpson.
By far the most engaging character for me is 19-year-old May, whose upbringing on a failing Barbados plantation by ex-pat Scottish parents has endowed her with independence, ancestral mystery, and skills beyond her years, the most unusual being her love of driving and maintaining automobiles. Discretion, loyalty and acute observation enhance her multiple roles as chauffeur and secretary to a leading politician thrust into the agonizing mess caused by the Edward-Wallis affair.
For anyone fortunate enough to follow the outstanding British TV series “Foyle’s War,” set only a few years later, May reflects the resourceful and competent Samantha Stewart (actress Honeysuckle Weeks), assigned to the non-driving Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle (Michael Kitchen). Weeks’ character is almost a dead-ringer in both appearance and demeanor for the young Queen Elizabeth II, whose military service was also spent in vehicle maintenance and driving; I suspect this was hardly an accident of casting.
In every nuance of ABDICATION, Nicolson’s subtle layering of relationships attests to her innate facility in capturing even the smallest details of class-regimented British society during its last dance of self-indulgence before the cataclysm of World War II. In those moments of contact with Britain’s growing currents of labour rebellion, fascist sympathies, anti-Semitism, political uncertainty, and fear of Germany’s unpredictable Fuhrer, accurate historical detail becomes the deep underpinning of a story that is necessarily fragmented and often discontinuous. Most enigmatic and discontinuous of all are the real-life historical figures whose scandalous and turbulent affair resulted in a traumatic change of course for the British monarchy.
True to her primary vocation as a historian, Nicolson preserves much of that enigma, keeping Edward and Wallis at arm’s-length, mainly compiling their descriptions from glimpses and innuendos that trickled into print and broadcast media of the day. In doing so, she has preserved for contemporary readers the bittersweet atmosphere of nostalgia, gentility, betrayal and hope that brought an age of royal innocence to a crashing close.
And out of the abdication turmoil came HRH Elizabeth II, the longest-reigning and most beloved monarch in history. Happily, that part isn’t fiction.
Reviewed by Pauline Finch on June 29, 2012