Today I have a guest post from Juliet Nicolson, author of the recently released Abdication: A Novel.
Certain years, 1066, 1492, and 1914 for example, establish themselves in schoolroom text books as pivotal in the world’s historical chronology. But there are some years that escape such close scrutiny, years that can slip between the margins but ones during which events of huge significance occurred
1936 was not just the year of the first and so far only abdication of a reigning British monarch. It was also the year in which Adolph Hitler broke the rules of the treaty that concluded the First World War by invading the Rhineland. This was territory that had been removed in 1919 by the Allies from Germany’s custodianship with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. In 1936 Communism came to the heart of Europe when The Spanish Civil War broke out, while at the same time Oswald Mosley was still trying to cement the power of the British Union of Fascists by marching on London’s Jewish East End.
In 1936 a literary giant Rudyard Kipling, died, Charlie Chaplin released his first talkie, Modern Times, a new bestseller by Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind was published in America, and in Swing Time Fred Astaire sang his Academy Award winner about how he was smitten with the way Ginger Rogers looked that night.
It seemed to me that the creation of fictional characters would allow me an intimate entry into places where historians may not venture. Through fiction I would be able to sit down in the drawing room at Fort Belvedere, the miniature castle just outside London where Edward Vlll spent much of his time, the place where he courted Wallis Simpson. Through fiction I could become a member of a Jewish family fearing for their lives as Mosley and his Blackshirts invaded their streets. Through fiction I could stand on the Southampton dock and watch the huge Cunard liner, The Queen Mary, as she set off on her maiden voyage across the Atlantic to New York. Through fiction I could attend the funeral of George V at the beginning of 1936, and towards the end of that momentous year I could listen with the rest of the shocked audience to the wireless as Edward Vlll explained to his subjects why his love for a divorced American woman meant that he could no longer serve as their King.
1936 was a year so rich with historical and social material that it proved irresistible to a novelist.
The year began with the death of a beloved king and the ascension of a charismatic young monarch, sympathetic to the needs of the working class, glamorous and single. By year’s end, the world would be stunned as it witnessed that new leader give up his throne in the name of love, just as the unrest and violence that would result in a Second World War were becoming impossible to ignore.
During the tumultuous intervening months, amidst the whirl of social and political upheaval, wise-beyond-her-nineteen-years May Thomas will take the first, faltering steps toward creating a new life for herself. Just disembarked at Liverpool after a long journey from her home on a struggling sugar plantation in Barbados, she secures a position as secretary and driver to Sir Philip Blunt, a job that will open her eyes to the activities of the uppermost echelons of British society, and her heart to a man seemingly beyond her reach.
Outwardly affable spinster Evangeline Nettlefold is a girlhood friend to the American socialite Wallis Simpson, a goddaughter to Lady Joan Blunt and a new arrival to London from Baltimore. She will be generously welcomed into society’s most glittering circles, where one’s daily worth is determined by one’s proximity to a certain H.R.H. and his married mistress. But as the resentment she feels toward Wallis grows in magnitude, so too does the likelihood of disastrous consequences.
Young, idealistic Julian Richardson’s Oxford degree and his close friendship with Rupert Blunt have catapulted him from excruciating hours in his mother’s middle-class parlor to long holidays spent at stately homes and luxurious dinners in the company of a king. But even as he enjoys his time in this privileged world, his head cannot forget the struggles of those who live outside its gilded gates, and his uneasy heart cannot put aside his undeclared affection for May.
May, Evangeline and Julian will all become embroiled in the hidden truths, undeclared loves, unspoken sympathies and covert complicities that define the year chronicled in Abdication. In pitch-perfect prose, Juliet Nicolson has captured an era in which duty and pleasure, tradition and novelty, and order and chaos all battled for supremacy in the hearts and minds of king and commoner alike. As addictive as Downton Abbey, as poignant as The Remains of the Day, Abdication is a breathtaking story inspired by a love affair that shook the world at a time when the world was on the brink of war.