After his success with his 2011 Booker long-listed novel Derby Day, D J Taylor’s new novel, The Windsor Faction comes into the category of an “alternative history” novel – a historical novel in which some key event has been changed so that the author can explore what might have happened as events move into a previously uncharted course.
I find this sort of thing very interesting and have already this year read a novel on similar lines – C J Sansom’s Dominion, being a similarly well-written exploration of the political realities of the time. There have been many other books which examine similar scenarios, from Len Deighton’s SS-GB to Robert Harris’s book Fatherland.
With so many predecessors, one might think that D J Taylor would find it difficult to enter such a crowded market. However, in The Windsor Faction, he has taken a different approach to his more dramatic predecessors who described a full-scale invasion or occupation. Taylor has invented a far more subtle event than that; the death of Wallis Simpson just before the war, and the gradual out-working of the consequences as King Edward VIII remains on the throne (rather than abdicating) and provides a rallying point for those who wish to avoid war at all costs. While the death of Wallis Simpson is not exactly the flutter of a butterfly’s wing (so often quoted in the context of chaos theory), it turns out to be one of those relatively minor events, which works through the politics of the time to shift the course of governments.
The book opens in a villa in Colombo, Ceylon where Cynthia lives with her parents, her father a tea-planter and her mother an active member of the expatriate social scene. Cynthia spends her time playing tennis with the sons of government officials attending routine cocktail parties with her parent’s friends and passing the time with uninteresting sons and daughters of other colonial families. But war is looming, and the Kirkpatrick family return to Britain where Cynthia realises that her parents are at a loss as to how to fit back into London life. They suggest various options for their daughter such as a shooting trip to Scotland or visits to relatives in Yorkshire but . . .
. . . Cynthia, staring at them as they sat in their sun-haloes, white-faced, frightened and resentful, realised that she had no idea of the kind of people they were, or what they thought about anything, that there was a separateness about them that appalled her and in which, inevitably, she was complicit. I am a ghost, she thought, until the solidity of the room, the hardness of the chair in which she sat, and – a bit later – the distant whining of a siren broke the spell and drew her home.
She soon takes command of her own destiny and finds employment in the office of a new literary and arts magazine called Duration. Here she finds herself in a milieu of artists and intellectuals, many of whom are vaguely sympathetic towards Hitler and his Nazi party. Before long she finds herself invited down to Sussex to spend a weekend with friends of her parents, the Bannisters, and there she finds herself overhearing conversations between Mr Bannister, MP for a Sussex constituency and other guests which are profoundly anti-Semitic and highly supportive of Hitler’s need for Lebensraum and the idea of German “colonies” in Poland, Czechoslovakia and other surrounding nations.
. . . I mean, once you take away the fact of their invading Poland, and the bad faith, the whole thing simply becomes meaningless.’ ‘. . . Nobody grudges Germany Lebensraum, provided Lebensraum doesn’t become the grave of another nation.’ ‘. . . That’s right. What we need is a just colonial settlement. Just, mind you.’ ‘. . . If we’re going to have a negotiated settlement, which we certainly will have to fairly soon, why can’t we have it now, before any real damage has been done?’
Meanwhile, the death of Wallis Simpson has of course meant that King Edward has not had to abdicate and in other scenes in the book we find ourselves in the presence of King Edward and find him to be a man who has lost the focus of his life and is drifting along, reading letters from his subjects and being bullied by his staff. His sympathies towards Nazi Germany are widely known and a group of politicians including Mr Bannister and a number of enthusiastic supporters are grouping around the idea of a “Kings Party” of fascist peace campaigners. The King himself is not in touch with this group but when it comes to writing his 1939 Christmas speech, he employs the well-known journalist and writer of the time, Beverley Nicholls to help him. Nicholls’ sympathies are very much with the King’s Party people and inevitably the speech turns out to be highly controversial and not at all in line with the government line of preparing to resist the German threat.
I have only touched on the story in this description. This is a long book with many threads going on including Cynthia’s relationship with Tyler Kent who works at the American Embassy and dabbles in the fringes of British politics as a sideline. The picture of the King is finely drawn and the image of a lonely man suffering from a depressed languor chimes well with what we know about him. Taylor includes some wonderfully inventive pages from the diaries of Beverley Nicholls, a London homosexual socialite who’s scurrilous observations on London life contrast with his awe on finding himself a confidante of the King.
I have to say, this is a very good book indeed. Unfortunately at time of writing, the reviews on Amazon are not so great and I wonder if this is because the cover and the publicity are majoring too much on the “Nazi” theme and so attracting people who are expecting more WW2/Nazi content and are consequently disappointed to find a very restrained, more nuanced novel with barely any German characters and no Nazi horrors whatsoever. In fact, The Windsor Faction is extremely well-written and I found myself devouring long sections of it in a single sitting and looking forward to the next opportunity to dive back into its pages. Although the events described in it are dramatic at times, there is a sort of English under-statement about it all which makes it all sound very believable. Taylor does not write in vivid colours but chooses a more restrained palette which seems to match the atmosphere of wartime London with its blackout curtains and general air of cutting back on the essentials of life. It is the matching of style to period which takes the reader into the story so much more effectively than a more extravagant writing style would have achieved.
Other books by D J Taylor reviewed on A Common Reader: At the Chime of a City Clock