I'm an sucker for World War II history and fiction, and if it's alternative history, then I lose all resistance whatsoever. Robert Harris's Fatherland, Stephen Fry's Making History, Jo Walton's Small Change trilogy, Kate Atkinson's Life After Life; they're just a few of the books in this sub- sub-genre I've enjoyed, and I have C. J. Sansom's Dominion waiting.
Of course, then, when I hear about a book that imagines Edward VIII doesn't abdicate and is on the throne during the first year of the war (the period known as the Phoney War), I'm all in. You'll remember that Edward VIII, like many of his aristocratic pals, thought the Nazis were just swell and should be allowed free reign in central Europe. It makes for a compelling premise, then, to imagine the what-ifs of Edward VIII still wearing the crown.
The "Windsor Faction" is a group of right-wingers, including politicians, civil servants, journalists and military officers who are certain the Nazis can be dealt with civilly, and there is no good reason to go to war over the Slavs––and certainly not over the Jews. Many of the Faction's members––and a distressingly high number of ordinary Britons––have bought into the notion that this is a war engineered by Jews, for their financial benefit.
Author D. J. Taylor presents Edward VIII more subtly than I expected. He isn't written as the empty-headed socialite with anti-Semite proclivities who is often presented in literature and history. He is a World War I veteran and wants to avoid the senseless slaughter of that war. He hopes that actively engaging the Germans in peace talks will prevent the Phoney War from heating up into the real thing, with the price being, at most, giving Germany free reign in countries where there are large ethnic German populations, in exchange for their promise to treat non-Aryans humanely.
Taylor tells the story from several points of view, including the King, journalist and gay bon vivant Beverley Nichols, a shop clerk who passes messages for the Faction, an MI-5 agent, and Cynthia Kirkpatrick, a young woman just returned to England from several years living with her family in what was then the British colony of Ceylon. We follow Cynthia's reintroduction to London life, employment at a literary magazine, and acquaintance with characters who take different positions on the war. She is ambivalent, but she will be forced to choose, and this is what gives the story its thriller plot.
As with most historical novels, The Windsor Faction includes a mix of real and imagined characters. Here, though, Taylor takes the daring step of placing several real figures in the Faction. Captain Ramsay is based on Archibald Ramsay, the MP who led the "Right Club," a Fascist organization on which the Faction is based. Beverley Nichols was a real-life journalist, social gadfly and pacifist who, in The Windsor Faction, is represented by fictional journal entries detailing his helping the King insert peace propaganda into the monarch's traditional Christmas Day broadcast––along with asides about Noël Coward and allusions to Nichols's assignations with young men who make a habit of lifting his belongings. Tyler Kent was an American cipher clerk at the American Embassy who, in this novel, is part of the Faction and regularly conspiring with Captain Ramsay.
While I found the novel's ideas compelling, and its depiction of London during the Phoney War evocative, there are some weak points in the execution. The most significant is the Cynthia character. She's so ineffectual that I wanted to give her a kick in the pants. She has the puzzling habit of sleeping with men she doesn't like, apparently just because they want her to. I didn't expect her to turn into some kind of superhero in the thriller plot, but she was so passive most of the time that it was frustrating. While someone in her position was a good choice of protagonist, her weak-willed character was hard to respect or identify with.
The writing style is a bit uneven as well. There is some beautiful and imaginative writing, but then there are some real clunkers and oddities, like comparing things to gravy (of all things) so often throughout the book that it was distracting. The book is also very talky for about two-thirds its length, when it suddenly turns into a thriller––one that strains credulity at times.
The book is also likely to present some challenges to American readers, unless they have a depth of knowledge not only of the wartime history of England and its political figures, but also of cultural personalities. Most history buffs will know about Edward VIII, Churchill, Lord Halifax and a number of other less prominent characters in the story. But I doubt many Americans will have any idea who Archibald Ramsay, Beverley Nichols and Tyler Kent were, and they are major characters. While I don't think that is a huge problem, it makes for a layer of meaning and nuance that will be missing.
With these caveats, I would recommend The Windsor Faction to readers with a strong interest in World War II alternate history novels. Despite its faults, Taylor's evocation of London's atmosphere and the depiction of its citizens during the Phoney War is compelling.
Note: I received a free review copy of this book.