Prince Not-So-Charming

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Because I write about monarchs, people have sometimes asked me whether I’ve read Frances Donaldson’s Edward VIII. ‘Not my period,’ I would stupidly reply, but the historian’s get-out-of-jail card was a ruse: the fact was I doubted whether a book on the Abdication written back in the 1970s could still be of interest. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Elizabeth Longford once observed that Frances Donaldson’s biography of Edward VIII had more effect than any other book on the future of the monarchy. Edward VIII was explosive: it shattered the romantic myth of the golden prince who abdicated because he was unable to rule without the ‘help and support of the woman I love’. By revealing the real man as shallow and fickle, it demonstrated the worth of sterling work and devotion to duty. The book is also a tract for our times today. Watching the play Charles III – which hinges on the scenario of the abdication of a future King Charles – I was struck by the relevance of Frances Donaldson’s story. The king comes to the throne, stubbornly resolved on a fatal course of action, is betrayed (as he sees it) by his family, and his support melts away: it’s all here in Edward VIII, which should be required reading for anyone interested in the monarchy’s future.

The book was published in 1974, only two years after Edward’s death. It was not an authorized or official life. The author had no access to his papers, though she held some trump cards, such as the revealing letters and diaries of Edward’s equerry and closest male friend, ‘Fruity’ Metcalf and his wife Lady Alexandra Metcalf, and she interviewed Mrs Dudley Ward, the prince’s first mistress. Donaldson says in her introduction that the book was the product of four years spent thinking about the strange man behind the Abdication. Her thought processes, engagingly described, are what make the book remarkable. Reasonable, non-judgemental and, above al

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About the contributor

Jane Ridley has written a biography of Edward VIII’s grandfather, Bertie: A Life of Edward VII, and has just finished a very brief life of Queen Victoria for Penguin.

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