International excitement over Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee in June coupled with the current popularity of the television show “Downton Abbey” and, really, all things British, make this the ideal time for the release of Juliet Nicholson's Abdication.
It's the first novel written by the British historian and, like the 2011 Academy Award winner The King's Speech, it is set in 1936 England and involves King Edward VIII's love affair with married American Wallis Simpson. However, the novel has less to do with the royals themselves than with the lives they touch.
Edward, Wallis and the scandal their relationship caused serve as the backdrop for Abdication, which focuses on three characters: 19-year-old May Thomas, who grew up on a Barbados sugar plantation and has come to work as a secretary for Conservative Party official Sir Philip Blunt; Blunt's goddaughter and Wallis' school friend Evangeline Nettlefold; and the handsome and idealistic Julian Richardson, a recent Oxford graduate who both May and Evangeline are attracted to.
The granddaughter of famed British poet and novelist Vita Sackville-West and daughter of British author and politician Nigel Nicholson, Juliet Nicholson does an exquisite job bringing her engaging characters to life. She provides the details and backgrounds that show not just who May, Evangeline and Julian are, but how and why they're impacted by—and react the way they do to—the unease felt in Britain over King Edward's increasingly public personal life, as well as to the corresponding unease felt in Britain and throughout the world over the rise of German leader Adolf Hitler.
The author of three works of nonfiction about Britain in the early 1900s, Nicholson has used her vast knowledge of the time and its people to create a compelling story that takes readers from the bustling, crowded streets of London to the stately, luxurious gardens where Edward and Wallis host cocktail and dinner parties. In Abdication, even some of the homes and buildings have personalities as real as the people who inhabit them, though not all are likeable. The balding, overweight Evangeline is more grating than gracious, but interacting with people like her is part of real life, which Abdication does not shy away from. The novel is more focused on real life than idealized love.
Those hoping for an intimate, bedroom view of Edward and Wallis' relationship (factual or fictional) will not find it here. What they will find, however, are strong characters, a strong plot and a most enjoyable way to brush up on British history.