The Woman Before Wallis: A Novel of Windsors, Vanderbilts, and Royal Scandal by Bryn Turnbull
Publication date: July 21, 2020
Genres: Debut, Fiction, Historical
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My love of British royalty is old news. Earlier in the month I read, The Heir Affair, about the fictional modern-day travails of a newly married Prince of Wales and his American bride. I loved it and am happy to be back today with historical fiction about the real royal family. Bryn Turnbull’s The Woman Before Wallis is the best of both worlds—scandal encompassing the royals and America’s wealthy commoners. At the heart of the novel is Thelma Morgan, the young American woman who captured the heart of the Prince of Wales.
Thelma was the daughter of a diplomat raised to marry a rich man. In 1922, at age 17 she did, but the lavish life she and her husband loved rapidly decimated his inheritance. With no money, the glow quickly wore off the marriage and by 19 she was divorced and penniless.
What Thelma did have was an important family connection. Her twin sister, Gloria, married Reginald Vanderbilt, catapulting her to the highest echelons of NY society and money. Thelma stays with them in Paris and little more than a year after her divorce, she marries Lord Furness, a man twice her age, whose shipping business makes him one of the richest men in the world.
Thelma now moves in aristocratic circles. She also learns the rules of marriage to powerful men—there is nothing to be done about the mistresses except ignore them and carry on. Unlike America, divorce is not an option. So, when Edward, the Prince of Wales, shows interest in her, she reciprocates and they embark on a four-year affair.
Much like the sisters themselves, The Woman Before Wallis, intertwines Thelma and Gloria’s lives. As Thelma adjusts to her new life, Gloria becomes a widow. Her daughter, Little Gloria, is well provided for, but Gloria is broke. At twenty she’s not old enough to be trustee for her daughter’s estate so must live with the child on an income provided by appointed guardians. The situation soon becomes American tabloid history as one of the most vicious, highly publicized custody battles in the world. Thelma’s love for her sister propels her back across the ocean to be Gloria’s side as every intimate detail of her personal life is brought to light. It also takes her away from Edward.
Setting aside the tawdry side of wealthy people behaving badly, The Woman Before Wallis is riveting for its glimpse into the different attitudes and games played by both rich and royal. Thelma carries on with Edward even with her husband’s knowledge because he’s the future king. At the same time, the novel (and the real events it’s based on) prove that what’s given can be taken away just as quickly. A love Thelma believes to be invincible crumbles when there’s any chance of embarrassment for the royal family. Which is pretty damn funny, when you consider the consequences of Edward’s next relationship.
I always enjoy reading how the other half really lives, but what doesn’t work for me is bad writing and that can happen in novels on sensational subjects. Thankfully, The Woman Before Wallis is a sharp, tightly told story of twins who, before they even reached 21, were married off to older men and became mothers. Living with extraordinary wealth and privilege, but also far beyond their emotional maturity. The tale of Thelma and Gloria is exciting and enjoyable for readers, but the reality of life in the public eye and what they lived through seems less fun and more exhausting.
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*I received a free copy of this book from MIRA publishers in exchange for an honest review.*