What if Wallis Simpson had died in December 1936, removing the need for Edward VIII’s abdication and consigning the Duke of York and his family to a country house on the fringes of history. This is the switch in history that triggers D.J. Taylor’s reworking of events during that most dark period of British history, the winter months of 1939 and 1940. The Phoney War is underway – war has been declared but hostilities have yet to break out between Nazi Germany and Britain. But while we know that this state of affairs was brought to a fiery conclusion with the Blitz, in this alternate reality forces are at work to put pressure on the damaged, shadow of the man who is king, to make peace with Hitler. A plot is forming, the conspirators’ influence is growing, as men and women struggle in secret. It isn’t peace that’s at stake, it’s appeasement, the spreading stain of anti-Semitism, the smug arrogance of the aristocratic far right.
To work for peace against the authority and wishes of Parliament is treason and so while one side works itself into a strong position, the other watches and listens. All of it set against an increasing atmosphere of gloom, uncertainty and blackened windows. London is almost deserted of its rich. They have fled the capital for their country houses and it is in their grand and precious dining halls that dangerous talk takes place, in between hunting forays and mouthfuls of rich food and wine. Far more shabby is Buckingham Palace. Its furnishings are tired, tatty and depressed, just like the King who haunts it, surrounded by portraits of Mrs Simpson, bullied by his private secretary and obsessed by memories of the pretty and proud Grand Duchesses of Russia, now shot by the hands of Hitler’s greatest enemy, the Communists.
The Windsor Faction is a clever read. After a prologue that grabs one’s intention instantly, it takes a step backwards and begins to paint, with great care and thought, a portrait of the men and women caught between factions in these early days of the war. Some are pawns, others are players. There are also victims. This is a world of indolent arrogance – intellectual, aristocratic, nationalistic. If your face doesn’t fit, then God help you.
The story is told from a variety of perspectives, with shifting tenses and styles. The main figure is arguably Cynthia. We are introduced to her in Sri Lanka where she lives among the privileged, a life that contrasts with her own sense of worth. A tragedy takes place that will haunt her throughout coming events. Back in London, she works for a new arts publication, Duration, which soon finds itself embedded in the greatest issue of the times. Other perspectives come from the journal of effete writer and friend of Noel Coward, Beverly Nichols, who is given the opportunity to write Edward VIII’s Christmas speech, the hired muscle of Rodney, and then there is the King himself. Moving through all the circles are key players from M16 and members of the King’s Party, soon to become known as the Windsor Faction. Hovering around the dark fringes is Hitler.
As the matter becomes more urgent, the pace of the novel increases and moves away from fascinating depictions of these interconnected circles of almost bored aristocrats and intellectuals – they are portrayed so vividly, you can almost hear their voices – becoming a fast-moving, tense political thriller. At this point reality hits for many. What was a game for some becomes very dangerous indeed.
The Windsor Faction is extremely intriguing, not least because it is not at all straightforward. It avoids the obvious twists and turns and instead presents a far more complicated picture. Comparisons with the other recent alternate history Dominion by C.J. Sansom seem inevitable but personally I found The Windsor Faction more engrossing and believable. There was a real danger from the right during the 1930s and the early days of World War II – this book looks at what would have happened to that threat if there was one shift of events. As a result, this isn’t the story of the Gestapo taking over the police stations of the UK, it’s a much more subtle investigation of the struggle that might well have gone on between different influences on the king. It could have gone either way and, because this is alternate history, you have no idea at all how it’s going to turn out.
Well-written and clever, with an interesting structure and range of perspectives, peopled by a whole host of fascinating personalities (many real), The Windsor Faction really got under my skin and I couldn’t put it down.