Abdication, by Juliet Nicolson
Abdication is the first work of fiction by historian Juliet Nicolson. The novel is set in a turbulent time, in which Edward VIII has been crowned as the new king of England after the death of his predecessor George V. This was a period in which Oswald Mosley’s fascist party was deemed to be on the rise, and the Nazi Party under Adolf Hitler was also gaining momentum in Germany. Averse to rumours, Sir Philip Blunt swears May to secrecy about meeting Wallis and the King, and May readily agrees: ‘Keeping secrets had been a way of life for May for as long as she could remember’.
The novel opens on a ‘gloomy February afternoon in 1936’, introducing us immediately to one of the main protagonists, nineteen-year-old May Thomas. May is a chauffeuse working for the prominent Sir Philip Blunt at Cuckmere Park in Sussex and, due to her position, her ‘eyes are opened to the upper echelons of British society’. Born to Scottish parents on the island of Barbados, May has experience of driving for her father, the owner of a once prosperous sugar plantation, which was passed from one generation to the next.
Other characters are soon introduced. We meet Evangeline Nettleford, a Baltimore native, and Wallis Simpson, who feels ‘overwhelmed by the British’. The stylish yet penniless Evangeline, a friend of Wallis’, whose outer persona hides many secrets – alopecia and obesity, for example – has ‘come to live with her brother Frank and his family at their invitation’ following the death of her mother. Elements of her character are incredibly interesting and she seems far more well thought out than the majority of the other characters in the novel.
Nicolson’s character descriptions have been fashioned well on the whole. The butler at Wallis Simpson’s residence is ‘cigarette-slim’ and Wallis herself is described as having ‘an unnaturally wide smile, a doll-like body, high little shoulders and a perfectly enormous head’.
The social history of the 1930s is well evoked, and Nicolson’s descriptions and explanations of place and society are the strongest elements of the novel. A wide scope of period details have been included – the Suffrage movement, the ways in which the First World War affected both soldiers and civilians, fashions, the vast divide between rich and poor, the status and rights of employees and the ‘dirt and chaos’ prevalent in London and the rising stature of women in society, amongst other elements.
A third person perspective has been used throughout. Whilst this technique is useful in allowing Nicolson to follow more than one character, it does distance the reader from the story somewhat. Sadly, the dialogue, particularly the exchanges in which Rachel Greenfeld, the mother-in-law of May’s cousin speaks, often seems overdone and rather clumsy. The novel does feel a little repetitive at times, particularly with regard to the way in which some occurrences are unnecessarily mentioned more than once in more or less the same turns of phrase. It is not clear how much of the plot used in Abdication is taken from historical records, and how much has been imagined or partially constructed by the author. The ambiguity as to the truth of many of the occurrences throughout does detract from the story, and it would have been incredibly helpful for the author to outline in an introduction or afterword how much of the plot was based on incidents and how much she crafted herself.
Abdication is not an overly absorbing novel, and some aspects of it certainly fall flat at times. The plot itself is interesting, but the story is not executed or written as well as it could have been. Many of the characters are flat and rather lifeless, and whilst the plot itself works well, no real empathy for or knowledge of the characters is gained as the novel progresses. Indeed, Abdication reads as more of a social history at times, and Nicolson’s factual narrative style does not quite work for a story of this type.