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This reading group guide forAbdicationincludes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Abdication takes place in a Britain broken from World War I, struggling from the subsequent crippling depression, and fearful at the possibility of renewed international conflict. At a time when the country desperately needed a leader, the new King, Edward VIII rejected his inherited position as head of state, threatening to leave his country in limbo. Juliet Nicolson plunges headfirst into 1936—a year defined by secrets and suspicions that resulted in Edward’s abdication of the throne to marry his American lover, Wallis Simpson.
Told from the perspective of those on the sidelines of a love affair that shocked the world—Wallis’s old childhood spinster friend, Evangeline Nettlefold; May Thomas, a young female chauffeur to Sir Philip Blunt; and Julian Richardson, an Oxford undergraduate and friend to Rupert Blunt—Abdication captures the tangled web of romance, loyalty, passion, and duty that defined a country.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Abdication adheres closely to historical fact and reimagines several historical figures as characters. How did the knowledge that this novel was based on fact influence your reading? What did you previously know of this time period and of King Edward’s abdication of the throne?
2. Nicolson chooses to focus on traditionally “secondary” characters in Abdication—the chauffeur, the friend of the scandalous socialite, the roommate of the politician’s son—while keeping the main historical players, like Wallis and Edward, in the background. Did you like this choice? What revelations or layers did it add to the novel as a whole?
3. Abdication is divided into four sections: Arrival, Discovery, Expectation, and Loyalty. Discuss each section’s title. How do these section titles apply to each character? To the section’s overall narrative?
4. May quickly learns that in England “different classes, like different nationalities, did not mix.” Discuss how social classes defined the relationships and interactions in Abdication. Did any particular scene or passage surprise you? What kinds of boundaries exist in our society today? How are they different from the boundaries described in Abdication?
5. Discuss May’s character. What motivates her actions? What are her strengths and what are her faults? How is she different from the other female characters described in Abdication?
6. How have societal expectations and social norms changed for women from 1930s to the present day? What was acceptable then that would be frowned upon now, and vice versa? If you could choose, which time period would you rather live in?
7. May and Sam’s mother often told them: “Nothing has really happened until you write it down.” Where else does this edict appear in Abdication? Consider the influence of the press, May’s diary, and the custom of letter writing in your response.
8. Do you think there is a main character in Abdication? If so, who is it? Discuss your answer.
9. British royalty, politicians, and the press tried to ignore both Edward and Wallis’s relationship and the growing threat of Germany. Were they shirking their duties to the public by withholding information?
10. Discuss Evangeline Nettleford’s character. What does she look like in your minds’ eye? How does her physical description compliment descriptions of her personality? Do you feel any sympathy for her? Why or why not? Do you think her condemnation of Wallis at the BBC recording was justified?
11. Julian believed that “a life formulated on self-indulgence was surely a wasted life,” while his roommate Rupert and his Bullingdon Club peers believed that “life was too short to devote to anyone but oneself and one’s friends.” What does this distinction say about Julian’s character? Which side do you agree with?
12. “So here is the story of my life as simply as I can set it down.”Reread the letter from May and Sam’s mother. Were you surprised by her revelation? How did it affect Sam and May?
13. Do you believe Wallis when she repeatedly said that she tried to do the right thing and leave the King? Or is Evangeline right—was Wallis “treacherous and dangerous,” manipulating her image to appear morally sound?
14. What do you ultimately think of King Edward’s abdication? Was it noble, foolish, romantic, selfish? In your opinion, do you think the author has any kind of bias? Discuss your answer.
15. At one point, May thinks to herself, “What a lot of luck you need to be born into happiness.” Is being born into privilege the same thing as being born into happiness? Discuss your answer.
16. Toward the end of Abdication, Nathanial says: “Love is one thing, I know, but sometimes it should take second place for kings.” Do you agree? Is it fair to impose such strict standards on an individual?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. The abdication of King Edward is a widely explored historical event in film and television. Consider watching one of the film adaptations listed below with your book club members. How does it differ from Abdication? Which representation did you prefer?
The King’s Speech: The Academy Award-winning film that chronicles King George VI impromptu ascension to the throne and the speech therapist who helped him overcome a debilitating stammer.
Wallis & Edward: A 2005 British made-for-television movie told from Wallis's point of view.
Edward & Mrs. Simpson: A 1978 seven-part British television series that dramatizes the events leading to Edward’s abdication.
2. Have each member in your book club pick a historical event mentioned in Abdication to research and bring your findings to share at your discussion. Topics to consider include Edward’s abdication speech, the spread of Nazi sentiment in 1930s Europe, the Jarrow march, the Bloomsbury group, the Battle of Cable Street, the role of the British press in the abdication scandal, Jewish life in 1930s England, or women’s expanding social roles after World War I.
3. Indulge yourselves with a royal book club meeting! Prepare appetizers or a meal like the ones Wallis oversaw, be sure to sip tea at every opportunity, and take pains to surround yourself with luxury and comfort—even if that simply means turning off cell phones and enjoying each other’s company. One needn’t spend a great deal of money to live like a king.
Juliet Nicolson is the author of The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm and The Great Silence: Britain From the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age. She has two daughters and lives with her husband in Sussex, England.