Author: Juliet Nicholson
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Source: Audiobook from Audiobook Jukebox‘s reviewer program
Audiobook reader: Carole Boyd
Audiobook length: 10 hours and 49 minutes
First line: On a gloomy February afternoon in 1936 a young woman of nineteen years brought the dark blue Rolls-Royce slowly to a halt.
Goodreads blurb: England, 1936. The year began with the death of a beloved king and the ascension of a charismatic young monarch, sympathetic to the needs of the working class, glamorous and single. By year’s end, the world would be stunned as it witnessed that new leader give up his throne in the name of love, just as the unrest and violence that would result in a Second World War were becoming impossible to ignore.
During the tumultuous intervening months, amidst the whirl of social and political upheaval, wise-beyond-her-nineteen-years May Thomas will take the first, faltering steps toward creating a new life for herself. Just disembarked at Liverpool after a long journey from her home on a struggling sugar plantation in Barbados, she secures a position as secretary and driver to Sir Philip Blunt, a job that will open her eyes to the activities of the uppermost echelons of British society, and her heart to a man seemingly beyond her reach.
Outwardly affable spinster Evangeline Nettlefold is a girlhood friend to the American socialite Wallis Simpson, a goddaughter to Lady Joan Blunt and a new arrival to London from Baltimore. She will be generously welcomed into society’s most glittering circles, where one’s daily worth is determined by one’s proximity to a certain H.R.H. and his married mistress. But as the resentment she feels toward Wallis grows in magnitude, so too does the likelihood of disastrous consequences.
Young, idealistic Julian Richardson’s Oxford degree and his close friendship with Rupert Blunt have catapulted him from excruciating hours in his mother’s middle-class parlor to long holidays spent at stately homes and luxurious dinners in the company of a king. But even as he enjoys his time in this privileged world, his head cannot forget the struggles of those who live outside its gilded gates, and his uneasy heart cannot put aside his undeclared affection for May.
May, Evangeline and Julian will all become embroiled in the hidden truths, undeclared loves, unspoken sympathies and covert complicities that define the year chronicled in Abdication.
Ever since watching the brilliant film The King’s Speech last year, I have been fascinated by King Edward’s abdication of the English throne. In this novel, Juliet Nicolson has taken that period of history and explored it through the lens of three very different characters.
Evangeline is the poor relation of the Blunts, a family in the upper echelons of British society and politics. She is a school chum of Wallis Simpson’s, and so has a front-row seat as David (the new King Edward) and Wallis fall in love. Their relationship is very odd, with Wallis most definitely holding the reins over the new monarch. It was fascinating to read about how the most powerful man in England was willing to give over control of so many areas of his life to this American woman.
Evangeline herself is not a pleasant character. She has a propensity for self-pity and self-indulgence. Some of her feelings are warranted, as Wallis takes advantage of her and treats her as a lady-in-waiting rather than trusted friend, but not enough to make me feel sorry for her much. Her character was necessary, though, as a way for the reader to spy on the inner workings of the relationship between Wallis and David, and the events that led to his giving up the throne. Evangline’s portions of the story dragged a little bit for me, but didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of the book.
The true main character, however, was May, the young woman from Barbados. I adored her. She was strong and spirited and brave, even when she didn’t think she was. She takes a job as a chauffeur for the Blunt family, working at a profession typically reserved for men, and endearing herself to the whole family. Her friendship with Julian, a Blunt family friend, is complicated and tender, and I fell in love with both of them.
Nicolson deals not only with the abdication, but with the rising tensions in the country as Hitler gains power in Germany, and anti-Semitic feelings come to the forefront in England. I did not know that there was actually support for Hitler within the British government, and a Black Shirt party that rose up in support of his aims. The author does a wonderful job of weaving history into the stories of these characters, so that you’re reading their stories, completely unaware of how much history you are absorbing in the process.
Carole Boyd was a wonderful narrator. Her rich, accented voice brought all of the characters to life. She imbued each character with an individual quality that completely fit my mental image of every one of them. I would love to listen to more of her work.