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The American view of Wallis Simpson and my book

Three new reviews this March weekend.

Liesl Schillinger in the New York Times Sunday book review wrote: “Anne Sebba boldly recasts the relationship that was once considered the most romantic love story of the last century as “a tale of gothic darkness with a Faustian pact at its core.”

Sebba’s devourable feast of highly spiced history doesn’t try to hide Wallis’s cayenne bite. Here she retains the epithets customarily attached to her — temptress, social climber, tactless boor, gold digger. But she is granted another that, in light of this substantial new evidence, seems to make her a little more palatable: helpless pawn.

That Woman acquires the propulsive energy of a thriller as it advances through Wallis’s life, picking up speed as she and her royal suitor gain notoriety, then slowing as the couple’s courtship screeches to a halt at their sparsely attended wedding in France.” http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/11/books/review/that-woman-by-anne-sebba.html?_r=1 (March 10 2012)

Sandra McElwaine in the Washington Times described it as  “A delicious new biography… “That Woman” (the name the Queen Mother Elizabeth gave to the dreaded Wallis) is the reason she has returned to center stage  in myriad books pegged to the present queen and her upcoming celebration, this meticulously researched, newsy account may well be the sleeper of the lot.” http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2012/mar/9/book-review-that-woman/ (March 9th 2012)

Linda Lear in the Washington Independent Review of Books wrote:  “Sebba’s account, unlike others, succeeds in humanizing Wallis….A strength of Sebba’s work is the emotional and psychological context she provides for the remarkable character traits Wallis demonstrated as an aspiring, flirtatious, acquisitive adult. Sebba makes excellent use of newly unsealed letters from Wallis to Simpson before the 1936 Abdication crisis.” (March 8th 2012)

Sympathy for the devil-woman by Lesley McDowell, Independent on Sunday 22.01.2012

There have been several attempts to demythologise the relationship between Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII. It is variously alleged that she never really loved him and he never really loved her, or that theirs was a great love affair that the establishment tried to destroy. And of course, there is that photograph of the pair shaking hands with Hitler, making them not only a couple who perhaps weren’t in love but who were also fascist and treacherous, too.

Simpson in particular has always been demonised. A possible hermaphrodite who learned the ways of prostitutes while in Shanghai, her sexuality has been called into question, never mind what British biographers loyal to the Royal Family consider her “brash” American ways.

But in this commendably restrained biography, Anna Sebba creates some sympathy for a woman who endured a brutal and sordid first marriage before leaping into the comfort of a second, with Ernest Simpson, that, alas, could never save her. Sebba’s real coup, though, is the discovery of letters between Wallis and Ernest, dated long after she had become involved with Edward. Indeed, Simpson’s genuine sorrow at the loss of Ernest (“the grave of everything that was us”) and her terror at the Abdication show an ordinary woman caught up in events she couldn’t hope to control, and help to balance the damning indictments written even by some of her closest friends.

Pursuit of Beauty by Remote Control

Review by Peter Stanford, Independent on Sunday, August 15 2004

We are a society addicted to home improvements. With a sheet of MDF and a few relics rescued from the back of the garage, we have all been encouraged to believe by Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen and his acolytes that we can create our own Petit Trianon in Penge. William Bankes worked on a larger scale, but essentially shared the same dream.

Even before the death at 21 in 1806 of his elder brother, Henry, Bankes had been planning a makeover for Kingston Lacy, the family seat in Dorset. But as son and heir to the estate – as well as to Soughton Hall, a slice of north Wales owned by a great uncle – he quickly developed his own grand designs for changing both rooms and facades.

However, his remorseless pursuit of an eclectic artistic and architectural vision was interrupted by a moment of madness with a guardsman in some bushes in London¹s Green Park in 1841. Gay sex at that time carried the death penalty and Bankes was forced to flee into exile, pursued by a vindictive (Tory) government which declared him an outlaw and forced him to sign over all his properties to a younger brother to prevent them being seized by the state. For the last 15 years of his life, living in Venice, Bankes had to complete the rebuilding of Kingston Lacy by remote control, never seeing with his own eyes the achievement of his vision.

Anne Sebba tells this tale of talent and tragedy with great aplomb, producing in the process a wonderful hybrid of a book that is part biography, part tear-jerker, part lesson in art and architectural history, and part exquisite guide book to what is now one of the finest properties in the National Trust’s portfolio. She even manages to weave in some insights into the psychological make-up of the great collector of artefacts, contrasting Bankes¹s need for emotional support in an unfriendly world¹ with the motivation of history¹s other hoarders.

She is helped enormously by her subject¹s knack for rubbing shoulders with a succession of figures who have enjoyed a more enduring fame. Looming largest in Bankes¹ life was Lord Byron. They were close as students at Cambridge where their relationship caused such jealousy among Byron’s circle that they accused Bankes of attaching himself to Byron’s coronet. There was certainly an on-going rivalry between the two men, one flamboyant, the other arrogant, but both single-minded. Yet there was also an enduring friendship and respect. They both proposed simultaneously to the same woman – Annabella Milbanke. She said yes – disastrously – to Byron and no to Bankes who she rightly suspected as being half-hearted in his suit.

Sebba shows her mettle as a biographer (her previous subjects have included Enid Bagnold, Laura Ashley and Mother Teresa) by her handling of Bankes¹ sexuality. It would have been all too easy to make him a gay martyr and use the appalling nineteenth century prejudice he suffered as a stick to beat those who today still believe homophobia has any place in a civilized society. But that would have unbalanced the text. Equally she could have indulged the habitual prurience of contemporary readers with speculation about what exactly went on in the bushes in Green Park – or in the toilets behind Saint Margaret¹s Church, Westminster, where in 1833 Bankes was arrested with another soldier, but on that occasion eventually acquitted.

Instead Sebba conveys the facts, the context and the consequences with a benign detachment. Bankes, she shows, was bisexual. As well as his failed proposal to Annabella, he had a notorious affair with the Countess of Buckinghamshire. And Sebba is not afraid to explore ideas that for some might seem politically incorrect – like the suggestion that an artistic temperament and sexual orientation could be linked.

But this is absolutely not a psychologically intense portrait. Rather it hugely enjoys the wonderful detail of Bankes¹ life – his youthful shopping sprees in Spain buying Zurbarans, Murillos and Velasquezes for what became the ornate Spanish Picture Room as Kingston Lacy; his pioneering role in nineteenth century Egyptology and his jaunts around the Near East where he clashed with another formidable traveller, Lady Hester Stanhope; and his largely failed and often comical attempts as an MP to make a name for himself as an orator on the floor of the Commons.

His monument, however, is Kingston Lacy, preserved in aspic by successive generations of the Bankes family before being handed with its contents to the National Trust in 1981. The story of his work with Charles Barry, architect of the Houses of Parliament, to revive earlier plans that Inigo Jones had drawn up for the property is fascinating. In later years he would send off from Venice plans and drawings for a house he hadn¹t seen in years (and didn’t own) but over which he insisted on maintaining the most exacting control.

You end up yearning for there to be a happy ending. There were, Sebba recounts, local stories that he used to sail into Studland Bay at night and wander round his house, leaving before morning, but try as she might she cannot make them stand up to historical scrutiny. Perhaps we just have to let our imagination run away with us. That was after all the genius of William Bankes.

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Meet Mr Makeover

By Frances Spalding, Daily Mail, 30 July 2004

The portrait on the cover of this book is that of a sensualist. William Bankes, who had reddish gold hair, pale skin dark eyes and a rosebud mouth, was by all accounts a charmer. He was also a prodigious traveller who rattled with good talk.

Dinner parties began and ended with his conversation. ‘His voice’ a fellow aristocrat noted, ‘is painfully unpleasant but he is full of knowledge and originality.’ When he visited his friend Byron in Venice, the two men, gossipy and erudite, happily roamed the city together. The character uncovered in this brisk, authoritative and readily engaging book invites both admiration and pity. Bankes’ great achievement was Kingston Lacy in Dorset, the ancestral home he inherited n 1834 after the death of his father. Henry Bankes, a longstanding Tory MP who had directed government expenditure on the Napoleonic Wars.Few of the extensions and improvements done to the house in Henry’s day had met with his son’s approval. Once he came into his inheritance, William with his sensitive eye and full wallet, embarked on numerous alterations. He had already amassed a rare collection of Egyptian and European art. But in order to house it, Kingston Lacy had to become an Italian Palazzo.

To this end, Bankes imported cratftsmanship of the highest order. One gilt and coffered ceiling came from a Venetian Palace. His marble staircase he claimed had no equal in England and scarcely could be bettered in Italy. And so it continued as he lavished enormous attention on every detail.

But in the midst of this great project just at a time when he had become widely regarded as an arbiter of taste (and had even been invited to advise a Select Committee on the decoration of the new Houses of Parliament) Bankes was arrested for “homosexusalism”.

It was not the first time. Eight years previously he had been caught in a public convenience with a Coldstream Guardsmen. Because he was then an MP news of his arrest spread fast and 2,000 strong mob howling for justice gathered outside the police station where he was being held.

Sodomy was at that time a capital offence. The same year, 1833, a Captain Henry Nicholls had been hanged for it, while his companion, threatened with a similar conviction had committed suicide.

If good testimonials were obtained it was usual for a gentleman to be acquitted on his first charge of meeting together for unnatural purposes. Bankes was duly found not guilty.
But when eight years later, aged 55, he was caught in Green Park with a soldier from the foot guards he was in danger of losing his life. Anne Sebba is marvellously sure footed in her grasp of this tale. She has previously written biographies of a writer, a saint and a businesswoman – Enid Bagnold, Mother Teresa and Laura Ashley. Her journalistic skills enable her to extract information in a way that is both lively and illuminating.

Bankes’ antiquarian enthusiasm and legal problems are made transparently clear in this absorbing account of a most unusual life, the last part of which was spent in exile as an outlaw.
Before fleeing the country, Bankes went to see the family solicitor. He learnt that if the treasury outlawed him all the property he possessed in Britain would become forfeit to the crown.
He therefore followed legal advice and assigned to his two brothers and a nephew all that he owned, including the freehold and leaseholds of his estate Kingston lacy on which he had devoted the greater part of his career was no longer his.

But it remained his consuming passion. For the last fifteen years of his life he lived mostly in Venice searching out the best craftsmen and the finest materials.
Crateloads of marble were sent home as well as lengthy instructions as to how doorways were to be fitted or leather wall coverings treated.

He dwelt on the relationship between the house and the garden and advised on the planting, requesting that the border below the terrace be filled with violets. “Any flower that rises higher above the ground will distort the architecture, ” he wrote. It has been assumed that he never saw the house again for had he returned to England he would have been swiftly arrested.

But Sebba has found evidence which, though slight, makes it probable that he crossed the channel, landed one night on the beach where he had played as a boy and was hastily transported to Kingston Lacy for a quick inspection.

What remains certain is that the house still boasts his dream of beauty. It continued to belong to the Bankes family until 1981 when it was bequeathed to the National Trust.
Five years later it opened to the public. For many visitors it is the staircase and the Golden Room or Spanish Room which best convey the richness which, in Bankes’ opinion, was the touchstone of decorative success.

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