Earlier this week I had the opportunity to interview Bryn Turnbull, the author of The Woman Before Wallis. In the novel we meet Thelma Morgan Furness, the woman who captured the heart of Edward Prince of Wales. While we know he went on to marry Wallis Simpson, The Woman Before Wallis centers around Thelma’s involvement in The Matter of Vanderbilt.
During our chat, Bryn shared about her inspiration for the novel, some of the interesting finds she made during her research including one that shed some light on one character in particular, her opinion on how the custody trial for Little Gloria turned out and which actress she imagines in the role of twin sisters Thelma and Gloria.
What first intrigued you about the historical fiction genre?
I have always been a historical fiction reader. I remember when I was a kid, about 11 or 12 years old, my parents introduced me to a book called, The Sky is Falling by Kit Pearson. It was about children who had been evacuated from London during WWII and they come to Canada and billet with a family near the Great Lakes. I remember that was the first time I’d read historical fiction and it just captivated me and from there the love of the genre has just grown. It’s what I love reading above all else.
The interesting thing for me is being able to just inhabit another world so entirely. I have so much respect for people in the science fiction or fantasy genres who can create a whole world from their imagination.
I find that having a base to start from, to be able to draw inspiration from past historical time periods and stories is so interesting.
Who are some authors who inspiring you the most right now?
I would say, Taylor Jenkins Reed. Everything she writes is just incredible. I read Daisy Jones & The Six last year, and it just stuck with me. It’s such a good book, and such a neat interpretation of historical fiction. It takes us into this new kind of historical fiction world.
David Mitchell. I finished Utopia Avenue which is his most recent and adored it… and of course Kate Quinn. She’s one of the historical fiction masters and I’m looking forward to reading her upcoming book, The Rose Code which is coming out in March.
Every time a book by one of those three authors arrives on the bookshelf, I will elbow people out of the way to get to it.
What is one of the books you’re reading?
I am reading a ARC (Advanced Reader Copy) of The Last Debutantes by Georgie Blalock. It about the debutantes in England in 1938, which were the last cohort of debutantes just before the start of the war that shut the whole social system down. I am loving it and I certainly love the interwar period because of my book. It’s interesting reading about stories with all of this culture and vibrancy where we know what’s going to happen, but we’ve growing attached to all of these people and we wonder what’s going to happen to them and where they will all end up once the war spins their fates in a different direction.
Do you have a particular spot you like to write either at home or outside the home pre-COVID?
Pre-COVID I had this coffee shop circuit set up. I’d leave the house and I would have go to three or four different coffee shops during the course of my day. I would order a latte, sit down, work for three hours and then move onto the next. I just love the energy there and being around people and drawing on that energy.
During COVID I’ve been writing in a couple of different spots at home trying to recreate that buzz. Music really helps. Right now I’m writing at a desk in my bedroom and during the summer, I was able to go my families house in the Great Lakes and I had a really good set up on the screened in porch at this big table where I could watch the waves.
Prior to writing The Woman Before Wallis you were inspired by the film W.E. that was directed by Madonna. When did you first start coming up with the storyline for the novel?
It’s wasn’t too long after that. It was very much a lightening bolt moment when I watched W.E. and saw her interpretation of this character, Thelma Furness, who I’d never heard of before. I’d read autobiographies about Wallis and Edward and knew about their story and the abdication process. I even knew about her niece, little Gloria Vanderbilt and was mildly aware of the custody battle, but I’d never come across Thelma’s story before.
When I watched the movie, I kind of fell down a Wikipedia rabbit hole. I started researching who Thelma was, and I found out she’d written an autobiography along with her sister Gloria. As I read that and started to connect the dots on who this woman was, she just didn’t leave me alone. That was the moment where I really started to craft the story.
The very first draft I wrote started when they were sixteen years old and it was a completely different structure to what the book ended up being. I came up with the structure of the book when I was living in Scotland doing my Masters in Creative Writing. It was at that point that I realized that the tension in the book and the central action had to be around her relationship with Edward and the custody trial as opposed to an overall treatment of her life which was what I had originally started writing.
When I figured out those two pillars that were going frame all the action, the book really started to come together and it felt really exciting to see where it was leading. Of course, because I did it that way, I ended up with 180 pages of essentially backstory that didn’t make it into the book.
What were some of the places you visited and your most treasured finds during your research for the book?
One of the books that was the most valuable during my research was Thelma and Gloria’s autobiography, Double Exposure: A Twin Biography. It was really interesting to read it, because they were very fashion focused and they would talk about the dresses and fashions they wore. So when I reference fashion in the book, more often than not, it’s related to an actual dress they talk about in autobiography or in their letters. Being able to pick up those fashion finds was really exciting for me, because I love fashion and Deco fashion in particular.
When I was in Scotland, I was able to go to London to find Thelma’s homes. Her place on Arlington Place isn’t there anymore, but walking through that neighborhood and getting the sense of the places that she walked. I found her apartment on Grosvenor Square and Wallis’ apartment as well. So it was interesting to do that ‘on the ground’ research.
Also, a week prior to moving to Scotland, my parents were at a cocktail party and they were telling someone that I was working on a book about Edward, Wallis and Thelma. As it turns out, the man worked at a plane museum in Gatineau, Quebec called Vintage Wings. So he said to them, “We have Edward’s airplane. Does Bryn want to come see it?”
My parents texted me and asked, “Do you want to go to Gatineau tomorrow?” It’s a seven hour drive from here, and I’m like, “Yes, I’ll be there.” So I hopped into the car and drove to Gatineau and sure enough they had Edward’s plane there.
As you may know, he was a pilot and he considered himself a very modern man and they had this incredible Biplane that belonged to him. It’s just this beautiful plane that sort of incapsulated Edward for me, it was like seeing Edward. It also gave me a really interesting insight into his character because had had a generator installed on one of the wings so that when he was in the cabin he could listen to a wireless radio. He wanted to be a modern man, and be up to date on all the happenings in the world.
It was only when they took me up in a plane of a similar vintage, that I realized that there was no way that Edward would have been able to hear anything coming out of that wireless radio. He had it installed because he wanted to present himself as a modern king, but there was no substance behind it. Even if the radio was working perfectly well, you couldn’t hear anything over the sound of the engine. So, that became a real tell for him as a character, he was all about the flash and the substance just wasn’t there.
I love the descriptions of the fashions of the time. Tell me about some of the research that went into what the characters wore in the book.
It’s such an interesting time period for fashion. We’re in between the wars and there’s explosion of culture in a very broad sense, musically, architecturally and certainly in terms of fashion. If you look at the fashion evolution of the 1930’s, it’s women who are leading it. It’s kind of the first time in history where women are at the forefront of an incredibly dynamic industry. You’ve got Coco Chanel, Madeleine Vionnet all of the designers who are revolutionize the female form. They weren’t just revolutionizing the female form, they were also revolutionizing workplace culture.
Madeleine Vionnet was the first employer to bring in a nursery and healthcare for her workers. It was this woman who was doing it, and I think there is just such a fascinating element to revolution in both style and substance.
During my research, I found all of these old magazines, and textbook on fashions of the 1930’s and I could take these fashion plates to a tailor today and it would still be a beautiful dress. The styles and the silhouette that they developed were just so timeless.
What is your opinion on how the trial for custody of Little Gloria turn out?
It’s such an interesting trial. In many ways it was the first modern celebrity court case. This trial was being reported on as far away as Pakistan and it just hit the world. It’s like a Kardashian going up on the stand for custody of her child, and I think it hit the world so intensely.
It’s such a shame that the women involved in it really weren’t able to speak for themselves in so many respects. I didn’t want my characters come out as absolute heroes or villains because I don’t think that’s a dynamic that you’d find in real life.
In this court case we had a lot of miscommunication and smear tactics for the first time, which has to do with the fact that we were at the advent of the newspapers and gossip columns. The country was in the middle of The Great Depression, so there weren’t a lot of other things for people to focus on. This court case which should have been more toned down was essentially turned into a three ring circus. Reporters were repelling down the side of the court building it was big news to get photographs of the ‘poor little rich girl’ and ‘these women who were behaving badly.’
One of the interesting parts of this court case is that it all centered around the fact that Gloria Vanderbilt Sr. who was underage at the time Reggie died, so they set up the surrogacy and all of these structures around Little Gloria and the money that she had in trust. What they didn’t know, and what didn’t come out until years after the trial, was the fact that Momma Morgan had actually lied about her daughters age on their birth certificates. Thelma and Gloria (Sr.) thought that they were a year younger than they actually were. Their mother had done this so they would always be seen as young, pretty socialites, but if she hadn’t done that there would never had been the surrogacy because Gloria would have been of age. She was of age and she should been able to take care of her daughter in the way that she saw fit. So if Momma Morgan had admitted to this prior to Reggie’s death, none of this would have unfolded the way that it did.
If you could have met Thelma in real life what would you have asked her?
At first I might have asked if she truly loved the Prince of Wales, but I think she did truly love Edward. So, what I would ask her is, “Did I do you justice?” These are real people that I’m writing about, and I certain strove for as much accuracy I could. I certainly stayed as close to the historical record as possible, because these were real people with real lives and I wanted to be respectful of that. If could have ever met her, I hope that she would have understood the spirit in which I told her story and would be okay with way I portrayed her, her sister and loved ones in the book.
If The Woman Before Wallis were turned into feature film who would you envision to play Thelma and Gloria?
I love playing dream casting in my head. I love Florence Pugh. I think she is an incredible actor and master of her craft and I would love to see her as Thelma and Gloria. I think she would be incredible in that role.
Can we get a sneak peak at your next novel?
It’s about the Romanovs. It’s specifically about Olga Romanov the eldest daughter of Tsar Nicholas and Alexandra experiencing the revolution… So you know jewels, moonlight, snow, all the fun stuff.