The Windsor Faction: A Novel

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Overview

London, 1939: Journalists gather like vultures for the funeral of Wallis Simpson, and a mournful King Edward VIII sits on the throne . . .
If Wallis Simpson had not died on the operating table in December 1936, Edward VIII would not be King of England three years later. He would have abdicated for ?the woman he loves,? but now, the throne is his. If Henry Bannister?s car had not careered off the Colombo back-roads in the summer before the war, ...

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The Windsor Faction

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Overview

London, 1939: Journalists gather like vultures for the funeral of Wallis Simpson, and a mournful King Edward VIII sits on the throne . . .
If Wallis Simpson had not died on the operating table in December 1936, Edward VIII would not be King of England three years later. He would have abdicated for “the woman he loves,” but now, the throne is his. If Henry Bannister’s car had not careered off the Colombo back-roads in the summer before the war, Cynthia Kirkpatrick would never have found out about The Faction.
It is autumn 1939, and everything in history is just as it was. Except, that is, for the identity of the king in Buckingham Palace—and the existence of a secret organization operating at the highest levels of society and determined to derail the war effort against Nazi Germany. The Windsor Faction is an ingenious exercise in what-might-have-been that assembles a cast of real and imaginary characters in a horrifyingly plausible re-invention of history.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Taylor’s 11th novel presents an intriguing premise: Edward VIII’s mistress, Wallis Simpson, dies in 1936, preventing him from abdicating his throne for her. Instead, he remains the king of England, open to negotiating peace with Germany, influenced by a cryptofascist group called “The Windsor Faction,” headed by one Captain Ramsay. Our entry into this alternate history world comes through Cynthia Kirkpatrick, a young woman who survived the car accident that killed suitor Henry Bannister while they and their families were both living in Ceylon. Now she is in London, working for a small publication called Duration while still in the web of Bannister’s parents, who are connected to the Faction. Add to the mix bon vivant author Beverley Nichols, sympathetic to the Faction’s cause and tasked with helping the king prepare a live radio address to the nation. This background alone is interesting, but little happens amid the confusing shifts in tense and wall-to-wall dialogue until a climactic, out-of-place descent into gothic melodrama. What works best are the excerpts from Nichols’s diary—clear, funny, full of life and spirit, they fulfill the story’s promise in a way the rest of the book does not achieve. Agent: Gordon Wise, Curtis Brown. (Sept.)
The New York Times Book Review

Praise for Derby DayAn intricately plotted and stylistically burnished crime caper. Tantalizing—mysterious almost to the end.

The Washington Post - Jonathan Yardley
“Impressive and wholly engaging. The prose brings to mind Thackeray and Dickens. It is delicious fun. Derby Day is on every count a winner.”
Jonathan Yardley - The Washington Post
“Impressive and wholly engaging. The prose brings to mind Thackeray and Dickens. It is delicious fun. Derby Day is on every count a winner.”
Library Journal
09/15/2013
This alternate history fails to live up to its intriguing premise: What if Wallis Simpson had died in 1936, leaving Edward no reason to abdicate? In it, Edward becomes king and is bullied by his advisers, while secretly taking steps toward peace with Hitler. Meanwhile, readers are introduced to Cynthia Kirkpatrick, who moves back to London from Ceylon and finds herself drawn into the orbit of charismatic American diplomat Tyler Kent. Cynthia isn't sure if Tyler is pursuing her because of her work at a literary magazine, her circle of friends, or something far more sinister. And how might Tyler's agenda align with the king's? VERDICT Taylor (nominated for the Man Booker Prize for Derby Day) expends a great deal of effort creating elaborate scenes and multiple narrators, leaving the plot to limp on without much guidance. Even ardent alt-history fans may lose interest before the denouement.—Laurel Bliss, San Diego State Univ. Lib.
Kirkus Reviews
An amusing historical novel and piece of alternative history from Taylor (Derby Day, 2012, etc.). The book is set in England in the years leading up to World War II: Here, Wallis Simpson, the American woman Edward VIII abdicated the throne to marry, dies in December 1936. Edward remains king and participates in a conspiracy of British Fascists. Several real people have prominent roles in the novel, and their fates are not unlike what happened in real life. The plot is a plot, a conspiracy. Members of Parliament and lowly factotums in faux antiques shops all play a role, passing messages, delivering mysterious packages. Our protagonist is the plucky Cynthia Kirkpatrick, a young, fey colonial returned from Ceylon. She moves in the social circles of those who make history, but she's on the periphery. Back in London, Cynthia works for a new literary magazine called Duration. Here, she meets the mysterious Anthea Carey, the knowing and active opposite of Cynthia's naïve observer. Cynthia is drawn into Anthea's orbit and, finally, in a thriller-ish denouement, into action. A couple of dozen characters are sketched in, along with several daft pro-German organizations. Taylor's writing overflows with a fine excess. A group of partygoers is "this tatterdemalion horde." Another looked, "as if the bottle of wine is a prelude to some Barmecidal feast that will suddenly drop from the rafters onto a dozen gleaming golden plates." A yummy, multi-course meal.
The Richmond Times Dispatch
“Combines a chillingly plausible plot with a wealth of well-drawn characters, including historical figures as well as fictional ones. As Taylor spins his story, he draws on history as well as his fertile imagination to captivate the reader. For fans of what-if fiction, British history and intelligent entertainment, The Windsor Faction scores a trifecta.”
The Wall Street Journal
“The greatest pleasure of The Windsor Faction is the wealth of historical detail and the evocative descriptions of London at the beginning of the war. A fascinating glimpse into a murky part of British history.”
The Financial Times
“D. J. Taylor is of the finest of our 21st-century novelists.”
Carolyn See - The Washington Post
“D.J. Taylor asks us to imagine what might have happened if that famous (or infamous) two-time American divorcee and commoner had conveniently died, leaving the king, former playboy and bon vivant, to fall back on his own resources, bereft and heartbroken. How might history have played out?”
The New York Times (for 'Derby Day')
“An intricately plotted and stylistically burnished crime caper. Tantalizing—mysterious almost to the end.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781605984780
  • Publisher: Pegasus
  • Publication date: 9/25/2013
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 278,232
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

D. J. Taylor’s Orwell won the Whitbread Prize for Biography.
His most recent books are Kept; Bright Young People; Ask Alice; and Derby Day, which was nominated for the Booker Prize and was selected as a Washington Post Best Book of the Year.

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Interviews & Essays

D. J. Taylor: The Art of Writing Revisionist History

Most works of fiction are, on one level or another, about real people. Such are the depths to which the aesthetic imagination is occasionally reduced in its search for raw material that nearly every novelist ends up introducing some kind of roman a clef element into his or her books: many of the great English novels of the past century or so can be followed home to a creative rumpus room consisting of the author's friends (and enemies) and actual situations and emotional dilemmas which, if they are not straightforwardly filched from life, then have at least some vestigial grounding in a past reality.

The identifications that this authorial sleight-of-hand encourages can work in a variety of ways, ranging from a libel-writ to the self- congratulatory awareness that one has 'been put into a book.' I was once supposed to have featured in a novel by Sebastian Faulks, although I couldn't for the life of me detect a resemblance in the character I was alleged to inhabit. Back in the late 1980s, on the other hand, I used to go to parties given by the late William Cooper, whose trailblazing and autobiographical Scenes from Provincial Life (1950) had involved much discreet covering- up of tracks, if only because one of its themes was homosexuality, at that point illegal in the U.K. Predictably, these gatherings echoed to the sound of somewhat roguish-looking middle-aged men leaping forward to proclaim, "Of course, I'm Steve."

All this, naturally, is by the way: a routine creative device disdained, embraced or satirically conceded depending on the individual writer's point of view. Evelyn Waugh, taxed with introducing Nancy Mitford's husband Peter Rodd into his early novels as Basil Seal (who among other exploits dines off his own mistress at a cannibal banquet) used to say that you could write anything you liked about any man provided you made him attractive to women. But there is another kind of novelist wedded to this kind of subterfuge, who specializes in populating his work not with largely anonymous figures - only a tiny fraction of Black Mischief's readers would have heard of Peter Rodd - - but with celebrated historical personalities. At least half a dozen writers, for example, have produced fictional treatments of Charles Dickens. George Macdonald Fraser, alternatively, operated a curious kind of double bluff: a series of precisely rendered historical novels about a character borrowed from Tom Brown's Schooldays, but featuring walk-ons from, among others, Queen Victoria, George Custer, and Abraham Lincoln.

Never having taken much interest in the practical, let alone the moral, concerns that coil themselves around novels of this sort, I recently found several of them staring me square in the face. Last month, if you will pardon the self-advertisement, I published a novel called The Windsor Faction — an exercise in counter-factual history which, although set in the winter of 1939–40, finds King Edward VIII still on the throne, Mrs. Simpson three years in her grave, and a pacifist "King's Party" hard at work to derail the war effort. Quite apart from Edward VIII, the book is awash with real people. These include the deranged Tory MP Captain Ramsay (1894–1955), Tyler Kent (1911–88), a cipher clerk at the American Embassy, and Beverley Nichols (1898–1983), novelist and newspaper columnist, a faked volume of whose journals offers several chapters' worth of material. There are also cameos from Sir John Betjeman, the Sinhalese poet J. M. Tambimuttu, and the cabinet minister's son John Amery, who later made propaganda broadcasts on Nazi radio and was hanged for treason in 1946. The ethical issues at stake here are rather serious ones. Is it 'fair' to send figures from history spinning around the pages of a novel while attributing to them statements they almost certainly did not make and opinions they may very well not have held, and, in particular, to establish an entire plot hinging on the possibility that Edward VIII might have displayed a rather more equivocal attitude towards continental dictators than his younger brother?

My own view, naturally enough, is that it is. Plenty of people in the period 1939–45 were worried by the Duke of Windsor's political opinions, and each of the jobs found for him during the war years was accompanied by terrific behind-the-scenes maneuvering lest he should make a fool of himself, or worse. Tyler Kent — an isolationist who deplored the prospect of U.S. involvement in European wars — did indeed pilfer presidential telegrams in the manner described, and Captain Ramsay, founder of an immensely sinister antiwar ginger group called the Right Club, really did believe that most of the world's problems were the fault of an international Jewish conspiracy. Similarly, the reader who enters the hothouse world of Beverley Nichols's diaries — samples may be inspected in the late Bryan Connon's wonderful Beverley Nichols: A Life (1991) — may conclude that he gets off rather lightly.

In other words, the real people on display here may, at certain points, find themselves being mocked or satirized (or at times only naturalistically drawn), but on the existing evidence of their behavior, they are not being traduced. I cannot prove that they would have behaved in the manner set out, but it seems perfectly plausible that they might have done. And besides, this is a work of fiction with the word "novel" stamped on it in large letters, although this declaration never stopped a percentage of George Macdonald Fraser's American readers from believing that Harry Flashman was a bona-fide historical personality and the conversations he conducted with Lord Palmerston pieces of genuine reportage.

There is a wider theoretical point here, for the boundary between fact and fiction (never very reliably established) has been blurring for decades. It can be seen in everything from that minor vogue for "experimental biography" in which fiction takes over once the fact runs out to televisual love-romps at the Tudor Court, and provided no one is being deceived by the labeling, very often creates an intriguing creative landscape in which make-believe, imaginative truth, and hard fact do battle for supremacy. The Queen Victoria who chatters her way through Balmoral tea parties in Flashman at the Charge seems just as convincing as the subject of Lytton Strachey's biography. Who is to say which is the more contrived?

D. J. Taylor

D. J. Taylor is a novelist, critic, and biographer whose Orwell won the Whitbread Prize for biography. He is also the author of Kept; Bright Young People; The Rise and Fall of a Generation; Ask Alice; and Derby Day, which was nominated for the Booker Prize and was selected as a Washington Post Best Book of the Year.

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