11 March 2018

The Windsor Faction by D J Taylor

While out on one of our book buying trips to support independent bookshops, it was the cover that drew me to this book.  A black and white photograph of a woman wearing a hat low enough on her brow to hide her eyes, her lips are tinted red.  The blurb on the back was interesting and the setting is England, 1939.  On the way home, with a keener eye, I clued in that this was one of those 'in an alternative world' stories, which is not in my wheelhouse at all. There was a possibility this book could die a slow death on my tbr pile.  While in the mood for something difference a few weeks ago I decided to read the first few pages and found myself backing onto a chair.  This book is wonderful!

The scene described in the prologue features drizzling grey skies, dignitaries, policemen, and a Romanesque church with tolling bells.  The bells toll for Wallis Simpson, whose death from heart failure while on the operating table, has left the King despondent.  It's 1936, before the King's abdication and their subsequent marriage, which means that the course of history as we know it never happens.  Are you hooked yet?

Next in the cast of characters is Cynthia Kirkpatrick.  Barely into her twenties, she lives with her parents in Ceylon as her father is in the tea trade.  Politically, there is unrest in Europe centering around activitity in Germany's Nazi Party.  England is calling its expats home, which is just as well for Cynthia....

   'She was a tall, thin, pale-faced girls of twenty-one who, although she had been spoiled since birth, frequently told herself that she had not had much of a life.  Sometimes she thought she would like to mannequin in one of the big department stores in Oxford Street, and at other times she thought she would like to be an undergraduate at Cambridge and bicycle to lectures in a black stuff gown...'

A devastating accident while out with a young man her parents are keen to see Cynthia married to, drives a wedge between both families.  Change, even in the form of a possible outbreak of war, spares Cynthia from playing the role of heartbroken girlfriend.  Arriving back in Bayswater, the young woman takes a job at the office of a magazine located in Gordon Square, Bloomsbury.

Blending fictional characters with historically significant individuals, D J Taylor weaves an incredibly entertaining story.  I loved the office scenes, the cups of tea at Lyons, the strolls on Tottenham Court Road and cabs to Kensington, there's also dealings with Heywood Hill bookshop.  For someone whose experience with political thrillers is almost nil, I found myself on the edge of my seat at times.  Cynthia's relationship with Tyler Kent, working at the American Embassy, draws her into the world of spies, louche characters, and plenty of gin.  What she discovers once it's too late to remove herself will test her reserves of willpower and trust.

My notebook has pages full of notations marking atmospheric sentences, wonderful description, or witty sentences that made me read certain lines twice....

'People already talked about 'before the war' as if the phrase was a guillotine, severing at a stroke any connection that the past might have with the present'

'He wonders what Wallis would have made of all this.  Sometimes she was fascinated by the protocols of the life he loved; at other times merely bored.  He woke up the other morning trying to remember the last words she ever spoke to him.  He has a feeling they were 'I'm not having that bitch Lady Carpenter to dinner'.

'Mr Woodmansee's arrival in the outer office had had once unlooked-for effect, which was to dispel the faint air of moral laxity that had hung there since the previous autumn.  In fact, the girls were quite daunted by his presence.  For some reason nobody, seeing him at his desk in the far corner of the room, felt like discussing the party they had been to the previous night or the man they had danced with the previous weekend.  Conversation either became anodyne or lapsed altogether.  For his own part Mr Woodmansee ate occasional pink-wafer biscuits out of a tine kept in his briefcase, looked at the cartoons in Punch with an expression of absolute passivity and did his best to laugh at the jokes.'

'As Cynthia went to follow her, Mrs Bannister laid a restraining arm on her elbow.  'My dear, you mustn't mind Hermione.  She isn't quite herself.'   This warning had been uttered so many times during Cynthia's adolescence, had been pronounced over so many variegated female heads, that its implications were unguessable.  It could mean that the person referred to was clinically insane, mildly unwell, or simply in a bad temper.'

The Windsor Faction is heartily recommended for anyone drawn to fiction centred around London and /or World War II.  Not exactly a 'Home Front' novel but a fabulous way to introduce a bit of British Secret Intelligence, as well as background into Mosley's Fascist Party into your feminine middlebrow-style fiction.  Wonderful!

Tower Bridge by Eve Kirk


  1. This sounds fascinating! I love alternate histories so that alone had me interested but the WWII-setting clinches it for me.

  2. Hi Claire! An excellent blending of something familiar to readers of Persephone titles and a Simon Mawer novel. The rating for this book on amazon isn't very high but I really enjoyed it and will hang onto it for a reread. Let me know how you get on with it!

  3. Oh my stars, this sounds absolutely rivetting!

    I loathe The Duchess of Windsor and her tame poodle with all my being, EXCEPT that it was that Shakespearean turn of affairs that saved Britain, and indeed all of us, from making "peace" with Germany and letting Hitler proceed with his 1000 year Reich.

    1. Hi Susan! I love discovering treasures like this, that fit like a glove when you bought on nothing more than a whim. Hopefully the TPL has a copy....