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The Woman Before Wallis

By Linda Ulleseit
December 4, 2020



My husband and I recently binged watched three seasons of The Crown on Netflix. We enjoyed it very much. Of course we finished it before season four began. To fill the time while we waited, I read The Woman Before Wallis by Bryn Turnbull. I’ve long been intrigued by the romantic story of David Windsor (King Edward VIII) and Wallis Simpson, and I’m an unabashed fan of British royalty. I found it interesting that two of the most well-known scandalous events of the 1930s had the same woman dancing in close proximity–Thelma Morgan. 

The Woman Before Wallis is based on the true story of Thelma Morgan Furness, the American woman who lost Edward, Prince of Wales, to Wallis Simpson in 1934. It centers on Thelma’s real-life involvement in The Matter of Vanderbilt, a trial which saw Thelma’s twin sister, Gloria Vanderbilt, sued for custody of her daughter on charges of negligence, unfit parenting and homosexuality. As her sister gains international notoriety, Thelma looks on, knowing that her own fall from grace might not be far behind.

Thelma Morgan was the twin sister of Gloria Morgan, who married Reggie Vanderbilt and after his death became caught up in a spectacular custody battle for their daughter. Thelma is there by her sister’s side during most of it. Thelma had married Viscount Duke Furness and lived in England. Through her husband, Thelma met David, Prince of Wales. They fell in love. She asked her friend Wallis Simpson to watch over David while she went to New York to support her sister. The reader, of course, knows where that will lead. The story, though, is not about David and Wallis. It’s about Thelma and Gloria, a story about the bond between twin sisters.

The Morgan twins

The Morgan sisters were daughters of a diplomat, at home in high society. They both married wealthy men and each had a child they mostly ignored. Gloria’s daughter, who would become the famous fashion designer, becomes the focus of the custody battle between her mother and the Vanderbilt family, but the contest seemed more about the money than the child. Thelma reacted to her husband the duke’s infidelities by embarking on a passionate affair with Prince David. While the average reader knows a lot about Wallis Simpson and something about the Vanderbilts, Thelma Morgan Furness has become a bit lost among the scandals. In this novel, which covers about ten years of her life, we learn that Thelma and her sister value their relationship more than anything. You might argue that it was this very relationship that cost Thelma her relationship with the prince. The novel portrays the events of high society, the bitterness of the Vanderbilt case, and the royal scandal as background to Thelma’s support of Gloria. 

I enjoyed the characters of the two women in this novel even as most of the society figures seemed rather shallow and out of touch, as you might expect, I guess. The story jets between New York, England, and Paris, always moving in the most glittering circles. No matter how elegant the surroundings or the people she encounters, Thelma always puts Gloria first. When Gloria experiences her darkest days, she calls Thelma first. The bond is real and relatable, and it grounds the entire story.

Read about author Bryn Turnbull.

Linda Ulleseit
Written by Linda Ulleseit

Linda Ulleseit writes award-winning heritage fiction set in the United States. She is a member of Historical Novel Society, Women’s Fiction Writers Association, and Women Writing the West as well as a founding member of Paper Lantern Writers. Get in touch with her on Instagram (lulleseit) and Facebook (Linda Ulleseit or SHINE with Paper Lantern Writers).

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