The other night, I took pleasure in watching the 2011 Netflix W.E. It’s a romantic historical drama, directed by Madonna, that sheds a different light on the famous love story between King Edward VII and the American socialite, Wallis Simpson.
King Edward is known as the intrepid man who gave up the monarchy in order to marry the twice-divorced woman he loved.
Sounds romantic, yes?
History paints a picture of a man who wooed someone tirelessly, who sacrificed his royal status in order to be in the company of the woman he adored.
Madonna’s portrayal of that history offers an entirely different perspective: Wallis Simpson’s.
According to both the historical film, W.E. and historian Anne Sebba, (That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor), Wallis never wanted to leave her second husband and marry King Edward. She was content to be the King’s mistress. She neither wanted King Edward to upend the British monarchy nor be the cause of it.
What fascinated me about this story is the why behind Wallis’s actions, the why behind her choices. Why did Wallis agree to marry someone she was content to be mistress to? Why did she want to be a mistress in the first place?
Unearthing the why of our actions is the bedrock of change.
Wallis’s father died a mere five months after she was born. Subsequently, her childhood involved watching her mother’s dependence on the Warfield’s (Wallis’s paternal side of the family) fortune. The purse strings were manipulated by a controlling uncle.
As an outsider, the why behind Wallis’ actions grows clearer as we look at those early years: Wallis grew up dependent on men for money. It is what she knew. It is no wonder then, that she used her quick wit and independent nature to attract affluent men with power.
Yet if we look closer, there is a paradox in each of her romantic relationships:
Husband #1: Earl Winfield Spencer Jr., a US Navy aviator. Externally, the aviator held a position of power and respect. Behind closed doors, Spencer Jr was an abusive alcoholic.
Husband #2: Ernest Simpson, described as an ironically “dependable” man who asks for Wallis’ hand in marriage while he is still married to another. Wallis, most interested in security, agreed.
Husband #3: King Edward VII is described by a staff member (Hon. John Aird) on vacation with the King and Wallis, “the prince…lost all confidence in himself and follows W around like a dog.” Again, there is this need for power and stability—both of which the King fulfills due to status and their seemingly co-dependent relationship.
A trove of affectionate, candid letters between Wallis and her second husband exist between 1936-1937. In these secret letters, both Wallis and Simpson refer to King Edward condescendingly as “Peter Pan.”
An excerpt from one of Wallis’ letters to Simpson stands out:
“I don’t understand myself, which is the cause of all the misery. Give me courage. I’m so lonely.”
Wallis wrote the above just days before King Edward VII abdicated the throne, for her. She was living with a man who adored her and yet she felt “so lonely.”
Chances are, you are not an American socialite nor married to British royalty. However, its’ likely there are patterns in your personal relationships. Wallis offers a cautionary tale to pay attention to our whys, so we can change our patterns and experience different results.
Wallis was a paradox: her independent spirit that men found attractive is what they wanted to possess. Her hunger for financial security and power caused her to sacrifice emotional freedom.
When we place our financial or spiritual well-being onto another, we are limiting and serving a detrimental dish to ourselves and others.