It is a fascinating genre. Both science fiction and literary novelists have experimented with this “what if” form, among them Philip K. Dick, D. J. Taylor, Doris Lessing, Philip Roth, Jo Walton, Pamela Sargent, and Joanna Russ.
I have just reread D. J. Taylor’s The Windsor Faction, a finalist for this year’s Sidewise Awards for Alternate History.
Taylor, whose novel, Derby Day, was nominated for the Man Booker Prize in 2011 and whose biography of George Orwell won the Whitbread Biography Award in 2003, is a versatile, brilliant writer of fiction, biographies, and literary criticism.
In this elegantly-written, suspenseful page-turner, set in England from 1936 to 1941, King Edward VIII did not abdicate the throne because his mistress, Wallis Simpson, whom he intended to marry, died in 1936.
And, at the beginning of World War II, the King has fascist sympathies. A group of powerful men who oppose the war and are mostly pro-Hitler call themselves “The King’s Party” or “the Windsor Faction.”
Taylor’s novel is told in multiple forms–traditional narrative, diary entries, notes, and newspaper articles. His vivid understanding of the details of the period gives the book a striking hyperrealistic tone, though, of course, the subtle changes of history are factored in to the plot.
The most sympathetic character is Cynthia Kirkpatrick, an intelligent young woman who is bored by life in Colombo with her parents in the late 1930s. When we first meet her, she is dreading a dinner party with her parents’ friends, the Bannisters, and knows she will be expected to entertain their son Henry, who has a reputation as an “awful young man.”
Taylor portrays the atmosphere perfectly:
There was not a great deal to do at the villa during daylight hours. In fact, there was not a great deal to do at any time. The garden, which had been cool and mysterious by night, turned hot and noisy, and the Bougainvillea burned so bright in the sunshine that it might have been overlaid with poster-paint. Mr. Kirkpatrick went off to see his broker at Galle Face Green. Mrs. Kirkpatrick had herself driven to Madame Bandaraike’s salon in Barnes Place, where the assistants had names like Evangeline and Margot and spoke in passable imitations of Home Counties accents.
Cynthia’s reluctant relationship with the Bannisters is cemented after the Henry dies in a car crash on an after-dinner drive. This cements the reluctant Cynthia’s relationship with the Banniser family. Back in England, Mr. Bannister joins the Windsor Faction.
In 1939, after the Kirkpatricks return to London, Cynthia escapes from the strict conventions of colonial life and is thrilled by her job at a literary magazine in Bloomsbury, which is “bound to be a success, people said, because the cinemas were closed and there was nothing for pleaure-seekers to do in the evenings except read.”
Taylor writes sharp, funny office scenes: Cynthia types, her friend and housemate Lucy translates French, and Desmond, the talkative editor, corners people to gossip about the glass panes of a dog track roof’s being painted over for a blackout.
But there is an office spy: don’t all literary magazines have one? (Well, I’m thinking about Peter Matthiessen, the CIA spy at the Paris Review.) Anthea, a bright, bohemian woman who seems to know everybody, is a spy who casually, informally “conscripts” Cynthia to get information about the Windsor faction: Cynthia’s boyfriend, Tyler Kent, is a cipher clerk at the American Embassy; and then she also knows the powerful Nazi sympathizer, Mr. Bannister.
Beverley Nichols, the English writer of humorous garden books, journalism, and novels, is another vivid, often endearing, character, a Pacifist who collaborates with the King on his Christmas speech. From Beverley’s diaries, we learn not just about his pacifist politics; he also shares literary gossip, and writes about his homosexual encounters with young men. Nichols is hilarious: He says of the King’s room, covered with mementos of Wallis everywhere: “Definite air of Miss Havisham in her chamber, so that one almost expected to see ancient wedding cake sunk under cobwebs.”
A fascinating unputdownable book: really a great summer read, and if we Americans don’t all know our English World War II history as well as we should, I recommend you start with the Author’s Note at the back of the book.
All will become clear.