What is it about British history that holds us in such wonder? Even adoration?
So many talented authors have mesmerized us with their historical fiction; Phillipa Gregory, Patrick O'Brian, Jane Dunn, Kathleen Winsor (I read her 'Forever Amber' under the covers at night when I was but twelve years old) and, most recently, Hilary Mantel's 'Wolf Hall', the winner of the Man Booker literary prize. And don't forget all of the fantastic mystery stories written by England's finest.
Perhaps we yearn for a monarchy. Or perhaps we just love the pomp and circumstance. But when more current events color new British history novels, the skies darken when Hitler is mentioned.
And he is an unseen presence in 'Abdication', the new novel by Juliet Nicolson.
In 1936, when Herr Hitler is coming into power in Germany, a young woman is hired to be a chauffeur and secretary for Sir Philip Blunt. May Thomas is just nineteen years old, but an expert in driving and all things mechanical. When the story opens, she is driving an American woman to 'the fort', the country home of Prince Edward and his mistress, Wallis Simpson. The American visitor is Wallis' school friend from years past; out of sympathy, Wallis has invited Evangeline Nettlefold for a visit. Evangeline is plump, almost bald, and a bumbler when it comes to English manners and protocol. But Prince Edward doesn't seem to mind; his attention is thoroughly focused on the skinny Mrs. Simpson. The story centers around May and Evangeline, and their mutual attraction to Julian Richardson, a friend of Evangeline's godmother's son, Rupert. Of course, we all know that Edward becomes king after his father's death. And then abdicates for the woman he loves. But the scenes with Evangeline and May are the true centerpieces of this novel, and inevitable secrets are soon uncovered.
While one wants nothing but the best for May, one only feels sympathy, almost pity, for Evangeline. May is young, bright and beautiful, and has the whole future ahead of her. But, I must confess, I was more interested in Evangeline. You feel her discomfort. You feel sympathy for her awkward mistakes. Although I was a bit put off by her, I still felt bad for her situation. Ms. Nicolson has done a wonderful job in conveying the mood of the country and its culture. Her characters are sharply drawn, and the descriptions of Jewish persecution in England were terrifying. But, as we all know, the citizens of England pulled together and protected each other.
So, yes, I'll admit it here. I'm mesmerized by all things British. Their courage, their patriotism, their sadness when a beloved figure gives up the throne for love.
Even the pomp and circumstance.
And, might I add, Monty Python and Doctor Who.