The Woman Before Wallis by Bryn Turnbull: King Edward VIII’s Devotion to Thelma Furness

In her novel The Woman before Wallis (Mira, 2020), Bryn Turnbull has written about the life of Thelma Furness (née Morgan), twin sister of Gloria Vanderbilt, great aunt of CNN news anchor Anderson Cooper and mistress of Edward VIII, former king of the United Kingdom.

Thelma Morgan led an illustrious life as a socialite in 1930s New York and Europe, eventually marrying Viscount Marmaduke Furness, a British shipping magnate. Shortly after she arrived in England, her husband introduced her to the Edward VIII (Prince of Wales at the time) and she became his mistress. When her sister Gloria Vanderbilt needs help during the infamous custody trial involving her daughter and the Vanderbilts, Thelma gets on a boat, but only after asking her friend Wallis Simpson to take care of Edward VIII in her absence. Soon after,  Edward  and Wallis became lovers, which ultimately led to his abdication of the throne so he could marry Wallis.

The story is well-known among history buffs, but Turnbull offers up a completely new perspective on Wallis’ predecessor. She explains:

“The parallels between Wallis and Thelma spoke to me. Both American; both divorcees. What was it about Wallis that was different? Through marriage, Thelma was part of the British aristocracy, and had a healthy respect for the institution of the monarchy. Wallis, the consummate outsider, didn’t share that respect, and was therefore willing to let Edward do what he wanted from the outset: renounce his claim to the throne.”

Once Turnbull started her research into Thelma she realized that: “Thelma’s story was about so much more than her relationship with Edward. Writing a novel about, say, Freda Dudley Ward would be interesting because of her years-long romance with Edward, but it would be a story only about that relationship. Thelma, through her twin sister, was peripheral to not one, but two major historical events: the abdication, and the 1934 Vanderbilt custody trial. When I realized her story intersected with ‘royalty’ on both sides of the pond, I was hooked.”

In her research, Turnbull stuck to non-fiction (biographies, court transcripts, history books and newsreels) in order to ascertain who these people were.  She dived into the era’s music, clothing, jewelry, books, newspapers, film reels, and other cultural artifacts to get a further sense of Thelma’s world. She also visited most of the sites she was depicting: both in the UK and Gloria’s townhouse in New York. She even managed to visit the place in the Supreme Court where Justice Carew presided over the infamous custody battle of Vanderbilt. Once Turnbull dove into the newspaper archives she realized how much the Vanderbilt custody case reverberated across the world.

The more Turnbull learnt about Thelma, the more apparent Thelma’s vibrant life became. “Women throughout history are so often reduced to a soundbite,” she says. “Despite the vibrancy of a character like Thelma, she’s written into the history books, quite literally, as the woman before Wallis Simpson – her life outside that one label simply hasn’t mattered. Far too often, women in history weren’t able and still aren’t able to control their own narratives. Wallis is remembered as a scheming villain; Gloria is regarded as an unfit mother. Thelma is seen as the runner-up to Edward’s affections. I wanted to look at the origins of those destructive labels, and question why we remember these women in such a reductive way. My title is meant to draw you in, but when you read the book, I hope you come away with an understanding that she was so much more than that.”

One pertinent fact that the novel uncovers is that Edward VIII was looking for a reason to abdicate the throne. “He didn’t want the responsibility of ruling, and if Wallis hadn’t given him the excuse to abdicate, I think he would have found it elsewhere.” Turnbull reflected.

Turnbull draws a clear distinction between Wallis’ and Meghan Markle’s situation. “It’s fair to make comparisons between Meghan Markle and Thelma Furness and Wallis Simpson  as women who diverted royals from their prescribed paths, but to conflate Meghan’s experience with Thelma’s (and especially Wallis’s) negates the very real and destructive influence racism has had on how Meghan Markle is perceived by the public. Unlike David, who was already king when he abdicated, Harry is fifth in line to the throne and therefore the stakes of leaving ‘The Firm’ are much lower; he’s not causing a constitutional crisis by giving up his position as a royal. Further, Harry’s ‘abdication,’ if we want to call it that, appears to be externally motivated – he’s driven by the desire to protect his family from what he sees as a toxic lifestyle, whereas Edward, I believe, was driven by much more selfish motivations.”

When reading the book, one cannot help but wonder if Thelma Furness was the lucky one as she managed to avoid the brunt of the scandal, and could go on living her own life in California.


About the contributor: Helen Piper is a freelance journalist, and currently working on her first novel. Previously she worked as a lawyer.

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