The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Raven's Study of the Crown

Since last December, I've been on a bit of a Simon Raven tear, re-reading Alms for Oblivion and now the first of two novels linking that sequence with his last major work, the seven novels collectively called The First Born in Egypt. Raven's cynicism, joie de vivre, despair, and stubborn clinging to a shredded sense of honor in what he viewed as a deeply dishonorable age has moved me in a way it didn't first time around. He was a man who loved pleasure too much, but hoped for more than pleasure, only to find himself profoundly at odds with his own times. As I mentioned last post, the barely suppressed rage at what he saw as the decadence of his times, even as he sought to enjoy them, sometimes surfaces in his works, and when not overly didactic, adds a power to the books. He's like the guest at the funeral meal who drinks too much, and shares his grief and fury too freely.

Meanwhile, I had been watching Netflix's The Crown, which I found very interesting, in part because so many of the casting choices were risky, but they all work--John Lithgow is superb as Winston Churchill, Matt Smith is showing a whole new level of depth as Prince Philip, and Claire Foy and Vanessa Kirby are magnificent. (By praising these actors, I don't mean to slight the rest of the cast; the quality of the performances is admirable throughout.)

But I was particularly grabbed by Alex Jennings as the Duke of Windsor and Lia Williams as the Duchess. Williams in particular manages to make Wallis a powerful presence even before she is given any spoken lines. Their complex portrayal of the almost-royal couple piqued my interest in the real people, and with my copies of Ziegler's and Donaldson's biographies unavailable to me just now, I went online, and came across the 1980 drama, Edward and Mrs. Simpson, written by--of course--Simon Raven.

It too is brilliantly acted--Edward Fox has never been better, and Cynthia Harris--now here's the odd bit: At first, I didn't see what she was doing with the part. She seemed too sweet, too deferential for Wallis Simpson, as I have read about her (admittedly some 20 years ago). But as the story unfolds, I began to grasp it.

The Wallis Simpson of popular imagination s not the woman we first we meet. Indeed, the Wallis we see in newsreels is not who we first meet; the experience leading to the Abdication changes her public persona, and she becomes what we think we know in stages. Beyond that, there is an interesting meditation going on in Raven's script about sexuality and power. Everyone defers to Fox's David, except for his parents, and Wallis. And David likes her lack of deference, her assumption of prerogative. Their relationship has a reality for him that neither of his other amours can provide.

Waris Hussein paces the unfolding story just right--slow enough to create the world of 1930s upper-class Britain, and yet brisk enough to not flag. The beauty of many of the sequences is sumptuous, creating the reality of the world depicted.

I'm struck by the parallels between David and Wallis as conceived by Raven and his Alms characters Gregory and Isobel Stern. Like David and Wallis, Gregory and Wallis are seemingly ill-assorted (he, a Jewish publisher of serious literary fiction, she, the daughter of a very establishment, and thus Anglican, Tory power-broker--not nobility, but very upper class), but they form the one enduring and mutually satisfactory relationship in the series. As with Wallis and David, power within the relationship is very much at issue with Isobel and Gregory; they shift roles depending on circumstances, and with mutual trust (and occasional teasing). The failed relationships in Raven's depiction in Alms are those which try to hew too closely to the conventional molds of the 1950s and 1960s.

Not unlike the world of Alms for Oblivion, that of Edward and Mrs. Simpson is profoundly compromised and tainted; the Archbishop of Canterbury winks at David having a mistress, husbands are complicit with their wives' affairs and vice-versa. Edward, in inviting Thelma Furness to come on safari with him, is reassured by her telling him that her husband Duke will find his own distractions in her absence; he answers almost wistfully, "I like everyone to be happy."

Whether anybody in this glib, glittering world is happy is the unanswered question of Edward and Mrs. Simpson; there is significant reason to doubt that all the high-living elite characters chasing distraction and fearing boredom above all other evils are. It's based closely on Frances Donaldson's biography, Edward VIII (Donaldson was an adviser for the series), but it is very much steeped in Raven's tragic-comic weltanschauung. As in Alms, one feels the old order cracking up, while those who ostensibly rule it close their eyes to the slowly building and approaching avalanche that will bury their world forever.

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