If one positive thing came out of Madonna’s disastrous 2011 Wallis Simpson biopic, W.E., it’s that the film introduced Toronto writer Bryn Turnbull to the story of Thelma Morgan Furness. The American socialite had been relegated to footnote status as aunt to fashion designer Gloria Vanderbilt (and great-aunt to broadcaster Anderson Cooper) and former mistress to King Edward VIII. The world doesn’t need another book about Simpson and how her engagement to Edward led to his abdication of the British throne, but there’s been a sore lack of storytelling around Furness’s fascinating life and her role in two of the biggest scandals of the 1930s.
Turnbull’s debut novel focuses on a 10-year period in Furness’s life, moving non-linearly through major historical events. The daughter of a divorced American diplomat, the future Thelma Furness was brought up in a stratum of society in which marriage breakdowns and open infidelities were not just accepted but seemed de rigueur. By the time she was 20, she had already been divorced once. Soon after, she married Viscount Marmaduke Furness, with whom she had a son.
Although Furness is presented as affectionate with her child, she treats him more like a favourite zoo animal she visits on whims. It’s a similar child-rearing tactic to that adopted by Furness’s twin sister, Gloria, the widow of millionaire Reginald Vanderbilt and administrator of the $2.5 million trust left to her daughter, also named Gloria. With the kids out of the way, the twin sisters are regulars on the European high-society party scene, which is where Gloria meets a new companion, Nada, a Russian aristocrat married into the Mountbatten family with whom she is later accused of having an affair. Furness, on the other hand, copes with rumours of the Duke’s infidelities by engaging in her own open tryst with Edward, then Prince of Wales, whom Turnbull portrays as mercurial but magnetic, with the sulkiness of a child used to getting his own way – especially with women. And so when Furness must travel to America to support Gloria in a notorious child-custody battle that was later referred to as the infamous “trial of the century,” she asks her friend Wallis to keep an eye on philandering Edward. The rest, as they say, is history.
Although the book’s title suggests that the Simpson connection is the core of Turnbull’s story, it’s the sisters’ relationship and their commitment to each other that anchors the novel. While their pedigrees and social connections afford them shelter from the realities of the post-Depression world, Turnbull shows empathy for her characters, avoiding the clichéd trap of the “poor little rich girl.” While she never goes deep into Furness’s motivations or the class-driven politics, those looking for a plot-driven narrative and juicy scandal probably won’t notice.
The Woman before Wallis marks a promising new voice in historical fiction. Turnbull has clearly done her research and does a fine job capturing the attitudes of the era without letting her knowledge bloat the story or become too expository. While royal junkies and those who miss the socialite reporting from the old Vanity Fair will be attracted to this fictional retelling, Turnbull’s debut is also an ideal read for those simply in need of a little escape and distraction.