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Book facts
“The Windsor Faction”
by D.J. Taylor
376 pages, $25.95

Novel offers alternate telling of WWII

“The Windsor Faction” is a “what if” book about what would have happened had King Edward VIII of England not abdicated so that he could spend the rest of his life as the duke of Windsor with the woman he loved. 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 of peritonitis, leaving the king to fall back on his own resources, bereft and heartbroken, his only companion his stern private secretary.

Remember, this is England in the 1930s, with Hitler flexing his muscles and polishing his rhetoric, and Mussolini doing the same in Italy. Plenty of people all over Europe admire Hitler greatly, and feel that if war did come, Germany would be bound to win. What if the king could have been prevailed upon to throw his support to Hitler – or, at the very least, become a fervent advocate for peace?

We see the plot unfolding through two very different but equally engaging characters. The first, Cynthia, a nice, intelligent English girl in her 20s, is stuck out in the then-British colony of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) with her parents, who are dead set on marrying her off to Henry, from another colonial family as stuffy and pompous as any in English literature.

One fateful afternoon, they send her driving in the jungle with Henry. She reluctantly accepts and then accepts again when he suggests getting out and stretching their legs, which really means having sex on the floor of a deserted temple. During their rather unpleasant lovemaking, Henry remarks – apropos of nothing – “Of course, Father’s in the faction now,” to which Cynthia can only answer, “That’s good.” On their way back, Henry dies in a car accident, and soon Cynthia’s family is called home. Cynthia finds herself in shabby London, carrying Henry’s meaningless remark about “the faction” with her.

The other protagonist is Cynthia’s opposite in almost every way: Beverly Nichols (a man) is a columnist for a major London newspaper. He often writes about gardens but is a fervent pacifist and writes occasional columns deploring the possibility of a World War II. Having served in the previous war, Nichols can’t see the point of further carnage.

Nichols lives for bridge games, luncheons and cocktail parties. And when a member of the House of Commons, an avid supporter of peace, seeks him out, he’s thrilled. The House member wants access to the king. If only he would say something, take a side! Of course, the king doesn’t have that in his power. Nichols is captivated by this intrigue, and soon finds himself writing a Christmas speech for the king, a speech just on the edge of treason.

Meanwhile, in a London that seems ever more cold and damp and lonely, the mysterious “faction,” which the king might not even know about, shifts and plots and grows. War has been declared, but nobody is fighting much yet.

How far will Taylor take this engaging conceit of his?

But that would be giving away the plot.

Carolyn See regularly reviews books for the Washington Post.