World·Royal Fascinator

Royal fact and fiction — how do you draw the line?

Just as an unauthorized biography of Prince Harry and Meghan has hit booksellers, other books that had beginnings in royal fact are entering the literary fray, reminding those with an interest in such fare that there is a long history of using the royal world as fodder for fiction.

Recent novels featuring real royal characters join long literary tradition

Twin sisters Thelma Morgan Furness, left, and Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt feature in a recent novel that focuses on Furness, who had a role in one of the most notable royal stories of the 20th century, along with another high-profile scandal of the 1930s. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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One royal book has garnered a lot of attention lately, sparking debate over how much it reveals — or doesn't — about the reality of the lives of Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex.

But just as the unauthorized biography Finding Freedom has hit booksellers, other tomes that had beginnings in royal fact are entering the literary fray, reminding those with an interest in such fare that there is a long history of using the royal world as fodder for fiction.

In the case of Toronto author Bryn Turnbull, the beginnings of her book lie in her interest in the life of a woman not widely known, but who had a role in one of the most notable royal stories of the 20th century, along with another high-profile scandal of the day.

The Woman Before Wallis, published last month, focuses on Thelma Morgan Furness. The married daughter of an American diplomat, she had an affair with the Prince of Wales before he became King Edward VIII — and before another American woman, Wallis Simpson, came into the picture. 

At one point, Thelma asked Wallis to look after the Prince of Wales while she was away — and we know how that turned out, given Edward VIII's abdication for "the woman I love," in 1936. The fateful request Thelma made of Wallis caught Turnbull's attention.

"That just seemed like such a strange request to make of someone and … [it] sent me down a bit of a Wikipedia rabbit hole. I started looking into who Thelma was," Turnbull said in an interview.

King Edward VIII, formerly the Prince of Wales, abdicated in order to marry Wallis Simpson. The couple are shown on their wedding day, June 3, 1937, at the Château de Condé​​​​​​​ in France. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What she found fascinated her. Thelma Morgan was the twin sister of Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, whose daughter, Gloria, was at the heart of a sensational custody trial that played out in a New York courtroom in 1934.

"So here's this woman who is at the centre of two seminal events of the 1930s, both the Vanderbilt custody trial and the abdication, and she ... hasn't been written about on her own merits, so that was really where it all started," said Turnbull.

But once you start, how do you craft a novel around known individuals? Where does fact end and imagination begin?

"The beauty of working with these particular characters is … a lot of them wrote memoirs," said Turnbull. "From there, really, [for a writer] what it goes into is kind of a judicious use of creative licence."

Turnbull is hardly alone in using royal — or royal-adjacent — fact as a basis for fiction. Also published this summer is a novel based on the life of Marion Crawford, governess to the current Queen and her sister when they were young princesses.

The practice goes a long way back.

Morgan Furness, left, and Morgan Vanderbilt arrive at Southampton on board a cruise liner after their journey from the United States in August 1935. (Fox Photos/Getty Images)

"People have been making great fiction and theatre and drama out of the British Royal Family forever," said Robert Morrison, an English professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., who quickly pointed to one notable practitioner: William Shakespeare.

But how close did the Bard actually come to fact for the famous fiction in his plays of tragedy, comedy and history?

Take the tale of Richard III, noted stage villain.

"The Richard the Third of popular imagination is Shakespeare's Richard the Third, and he doesn't seem to bear too much of a resemblance to the actual historical character," said Morrison.

But does that really matter?

"That doesn't undermine, I think, Shakespeare's genius at all," said Morrison, who noted he tells his students "fiction is more powerful in many ways than fact."

What compels us more, Morrison suggests, is a great story.

Morgan Vanderbilt, left, and Morgan Furness attend the Arts Ball in New York circa 1935. (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

"I think a novelist or a playwright or a dramatist … is pretty free to move around as he or she sees fit to build drama and create a compelling story."

Rohan Maitzen, an associate professor of English at Dalhousie University in Halifax, also sees latitude for authors using historical figures in fiction.

"The best examples I've read recently of novels that are about real people have really used everything that [the author] can know for sure but then not been afraid to fill in what they don't know."

And that's OK, she suggests.

"I think people get really exercized about accuracy because they overestimate the degree to which even a biography is some kind of straightforward point-by point-explanation of somebody's life," she said. "There's always the facts that we have, and then there's the story that we tell about the facts."

While Turnbull's book may have been billed as a royal romance, she said it's really a love story between Thelma and Gloria. "It's about these two sisters who ... take on the world together."

She said she has another historical novel in the works, and "a number of other ones in my head. We'll see where they all go."

Fact and fiction on the small screen

Olivia Colman, left, portrays Queen Elizabeth in the third and fourth seasons of The Crown. (Netflix/The Associated Press)

Speaking of mixing royal fact and fiction, one of the more high-profile examples of that in recent years will return to the small screen in November.

Netflix said the other day that the next season of its drama The Crown will be released for viewing on Nov. 15.

The fourth season of the series exploring the years of Queen Elizabeth's reign promises to delve into events in the 1980s, and introduce viewers to new characters including Diana, Princess of Wales.

The series from creator Peter Morgan has nabbed numerous awards and nominations, and spawned much discussion over how much of it is actually true.

"We may feel we know Queen Elizabeth a lot better from watching The Crown, but of course we don't, really," said Maitzen.

Signs of the times

A woman walks past Buckingham Palace in London on March 18, the day that Queen Elizabeth moved to Windsor Castle, where she and Prince Philip isolated as the pandemic hit. The Queen is likely to return to Windsor later this fall rather than Buckingham Palace as she usually does when she returns from her annual summer stay at Balmoral Castle in Scotland. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Late August can be a quiet time for the royals, as they head off on holidays, although the pandemic has altered things to some extent this year.

Even so, there have been indications of various changes afoot — some in the shorter term, and some in the longer.

After Queen Elizabeth's annual summer stint at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, the Sunday Times reported she will return to Windsor Castle, and not Buckingham Palace, her usual London destination when she returns after her time in the Highlands.

The Queen and Prince Philip had been isolating at Windsor, reportedly her favourite residence, since before Easter.

The Sunday Times also reported she might commute into London for some events and is not expected to live at Buckingham Palace again "until the threat from coronavirus has lifted."

For Prince Charles, it was confirmed recently that he won't be committing to a new 20-year lease for a 400-hectare organic farm near his country home in western England.

He will continue to farm organically at Sandringham, the Queen's estate in Norfolk, north of London.

But word that he wasn't renewing the Home Farm lease was widely seen as a move in anticipation of his eventual role as king.

Royals in Canada

Robert Saunders, president of the Canadian National Exhibition, greets the Duchess of Kent and her daughter, Princess Alexandra, as they arrive at the grandstand in Toronto on Aug. 30, 1954. (Toronto Star/Getty Images)

When Marina, Dowager Duchess of Kent, visited Canada in the late summer of 1954, the trip had all the regular features of a royal tour, as she met local dignitaries, attended community events and so on. She even went to the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto — twice. 

The 24-day trip, from Aug. 22 to Sept. 14, took Marina and her daughter, Princess Alexandra, from Toronto and Niagara Falls to Windsor, London and Chatham in southwestern Ontario, as well as Dartmouth., N.S., and Montreal.

But Marina, an aunt to Queen Elizabeth, slipped away from official duties one day — leaving Alexandra at the Royal York Hotel in downtown Toronto — to visit with royal cousins living on a farm west of the city. 

Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna, the last member of the Russian Imperial family to hold that title, lived in Canada from the late 1940s until her death in 1960, at age 78. 

She was also a first cousin to Marina's parents, and news reports of the day noted the visit Marina paid to Olga and her husband, Col. Nicolai Kulikovsky.

Olga, the youngest daughter of Czar Alexander III, had fled from Russia during the revolution with her second husband and two sons, living for a while in Denmark, where her cousin was King Christian X. She and her family came to Canada in 1948.

Royally quotable

"Litter is an affliction of our society that causes all kinds of problems. It is not only that it ruins the look of many a street or village, but its negative effects reach much deeper." 

  • Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, on the website for CleanupUK, a charity that helps those who are most in need fight the litter problem in their communities. In a series of tweets this week, Camilla, who is president of CleanupUK, and her husband, Prince Charles, promoted community-led cleanup efforts.

Royal reads

  1. The first floating windfarm off the coast of Wales recently got the go-ahead from the Queen's property managers. [The Guardian]

  2. Meghan talked about the importance of voting and female representation when she met with activist Gloria Steinem. [Evening Standard]

  3. The fall from grace of former king Juan Carlos in Spain comes at a precarious time for monarchies around the world. [New Yorker]

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Janet Davison is a CBC senior writer and editor based in Toronto.

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