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Bryn Turnbull
Photo: Louise Claire Johnson

Bryn Turnbull

An interview with Bryn Turnbull

Two Interviews with Bryn Turnbull: The Last Grand Duchess, which chronicles the fall of the Romanovs, and The Woman Before Wallis, the story of Thelma Furness, the woman who lost Edward Prince of Wales to Wallis Simpson.

The Last Grand Duchess

Why write about Olga, rather than her better-known sister Anastasia?

As a frequently impersonated historical figure (the subject of an animated Fox movie) Anastasia holds a lot of interest to modern audiences—but as the protagonist of a book which focuses on the political dynamics surrounding the fall of the Romanovs, she's less compelling. Anastasia was a sixteen-year-old girl when she died, and an incredibly immature sixteen-year-old at that. Unlike her eldest sister Olga, who wrote frequently in her diaries about the political climate in Russia, Anastasia had teenage preoccupations: crushes, gossip, and lessons. By contrast, Olga was ideally situated not only as an intellectually engaged spectator to the last days of the Empire, but also as an active participant: of her siblings, she had the closest relationship with her father, giving her in-the-room access to the abdication and its aftermath, and her war-work as a Red Cross nurse gave her a unique perspective on how the war impacted not only the nobility, but the Russian population at large.

And of course, as a more mature young woman, Olga's personal life provided a real fascination as well. A grand duchess who falls in love with an officer? What author could resist?

Why was Alexandra so enthralled with Rasputin?

Given her popular reputation as a morose and withdrawn woman, it is perhaps surprising to learn that Alexandra's childhood nickname was "Sunny" – but by the time we meet Alexandra- also known as Alix - in The Last Grand Duchess, the weight of the world has fallen on her shoulders. Though her marriage to Nicholas II was absolutely a love match, by 1903 she'd failed in her one task as empress: to produce a son and heir for the Russian throne. She'd given birth to four daughters, of course, but Russian law barred them from the line of succession.

Alix was an insecure woman at the best of times, and the fact that high society had begun to mutter about whether Nicholas had chosen the wrong wife surely weighed on her mind. She loathed public events, never made much of an effort to ingratiate herself with the St. Petersburg elite (preferring to see herself, in a romantic and patronizing way, as the mother of the low-born Russian peasantry), and was awkward in a crowd: moreover, she'd never managed to get much of a handle on the Russian language, which further alienated her from the high society women who would otherwise have been her friends and confidantes.

Given the pressures of her public role and her private insecurities, it's not surprising that a man like Rasputin – who was pious, low-born, willing to say what Alix wanted to hear, and able to help her vulnerable son – was able to become such an invaluable support.

Did the scene with the seer actually happen?

Yes. Alexandra's visit to the seer at Nizhny Novgorod is well documented, and absolutely eerie – in her diaries, Olga writes of the patchwork curtain that covered the seer's cot, and describes the seer as wearing iron fetters, claiming that she looks "107 years old."

The seer's warning to Alexandra – "Behold the martyred Empress" – comes to us from a couple of different sources. Olga herself notes in her diary that the seer told Alexandra that it would "all be over soon" and that "everything would be all right"; Anna Vyrubova and Ida Buxhoeveden, who both accompanied the Imperial family on the trip, recount the moment more dramatically: both of them state that the seer cried out "Behold the martyred Empress," though Buxhoeveden claims that Alexandra didn't hear the warning. In my retelling of the scene, I wanted to strike a chord between Olga's recollection and the retainers' more melodramatic descriptions – especially given the fact that both Vyrubova and Buxhoeveden wrote about the visit after the fact, and most certainly with an eye to posterity.

You wrote The Last Grand Duchess in 2019/2020. How did the pandemic affect your research process?

I began working on The Last Grand Duchess at the end of 2019, and as with The Woman Before Wallis, I'd planned on visiting the locations where the book takes place. To that end, I was in the process of arranging a research trip to St. Petersburg when the first lockdown threw my plans into disarray.

As much as I would have liked the opportunity to visit Russia, research can always be done from the comfort of home – thank you, internet! Given the amount of documentation on the Romanovs – memoirs, documentaries, newsreels, diaries, historical accounts, and more – there was more than enough to go by to come to an understanding of the characters. In terms of location-scouting, I was lucky enough to have Youtube – so many people have posted their videos of Alexander Palace and the Winter Palace online, so there was plenty for me to work with in the absence of physically going there myself.

Strangely enough, the pandemic also led to new insights about my characters. In Ontario, we went through an extended at-home lockdown, and while the lockdown in no way resembled the house arrest that the Romanovs endured for the last months of their lives, it did give me an appreciation for the monotony and uncertainty of what their days must have been like.

Do you think Nicholas II understood how he'd failed Russia as an emperor?

Historically, Nicholas II was an ineffectual ruler, one who believed that his birthright gave him carte blanche to do and say what he liked. According to him, as emperor he was God's chosen representative on earth – therefore, he believed that any conclusion he made on Russian government policy was, by definition, God-given.

Of course, this meant that Nicholas was incredibly susceptible to manipulation by his advisors. It was said that the last person who spoke to Nicholas on a given topic tended to get their way; paradoxically, he was also known for being incredibly polite and accommodating to his advisors, then turning around and doing whatever he'd planned to do in the first place. He also insisted on having final say on pretty much everything that went on in Russia, whether or not he had any real understanding of the issue at hand, which meant that government moved agonizingly slowly: how could it not, when Nicholas was bogged down in the minutiae of so many different portfolios? As a result, it was very difficult to get anything done in the court of Nicholas II, which absolutely contributed to the destabilization of the country in the early days of the First World War.

The real tragedy about Nicholas was that, as ill-equipped as he was to be Emperor, he never truly wanted to the job in the first place: he would have been content as a gentleman farmer, or as a minor Russian nobleman. To Nicholas, the only thing that mattered, both before the Revolution and after, was his family. Had he been able to live a quiet life as a family man, he would have been quite content.

What did you enjoy most about writing this book?

As a student of history, I'd been familiar with the story of the Romanovs for a long time, but the thing I enjoyed most about writing this book was coming to a deeper understanding of who the family was, not as symbols but as individuals. Olga's passion, Anastasia's impishness, Maria's good nature and Tatiana's practicality… so often, the Romanovs are seen as tragic figures, and of course they were, but they were also living, breathing people: a devoted, loving, family that shared jokes, played games, had disagreements, and enjoyed each others' company. The circumstances of their deaths notwithstanding, this was a deeply committed family with their virtues and flaws, just like any other. I hope that I managed to reflect who they were as people.

The Woman Before Wallis

Everyone knows the story of Edward and Wallis. What drew you to Thelma's story instead?

Thelma's affair with Edward is only aspect of her story because she was not only on the periphery of the abdication crisis, but also the biggest custody battle in U.S. history to date. She can easily be dismissed as a socialite—famous for being famous—but she was also strongly principled, and willing to stand up for those she loved. Other people have written beautifully about Wallis and Edward, but Thelma's story deserved to be told on its own merits.

This novel contains the real-life stories of real life people—some of whom have living descendants. How did you balance the drive to tell a good story against the historical record in terms of character development?

It's a tricky balance to strike, but at the end of the day my job is to tell a good story, taking as much historical fact into consideration as I can without sacrificing the plot. I spent a lot of time researching the people who make up my book: luckily, Thelma and Gloria wrote a memoir, and we have plenty of letters, biographies, and recordings of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, so by the time I started actually writing, I had a very good sense of who they were. Wallis in particular leapt out of the pen, and I think that's because she's left such a legacy behind. I certainly hope that they would see themselves in the characters I've created, but at the end of the day these are fictional representations.

How did you find Thelma's story?

I'd long been interested in the abdication crisis and had read biographies of Wallis Simpson before, but I'd never really picked up on Thelma's story until I watched W.E., a movie directed by Madonna about Wallis and Edward's relationship. In the film, we see Wallis and Thelma have the conversation where Thelma asks Wallis to "take care" of Edward for her while she's travelling, and I remember thinking it was such a strange request to make of a friend—even one as close as Wallis was to Thelma. After watching the movie I found myself down a bit of a Wikipedia rabbit hole, where I discovered her connection to the Gloria Vanderbilt trial and recognized that this was a story that ought to be told.

One of the major relationships in this novel is between Gloria and Nada. Why was it important to you to show a relationship between two women in the 1930s?

I truly believe that Gloria loved Nada, and had they lived in a different time period their story would have ended quite differently. What's more interesting to me is the fact that their relationship was permitted because of social privilege—and when Gloria lost that privilege, their relationship fell apart.

How does Gloria's experience as a queer woman shape Thelma's actions?

To me, The Woman Before Wallis is a love story—but it's not a royal romance. While the abdication crisis looms large over Thelma's life, this is a book about the love between sisters: Thelma supported her sister in a day and age when being gay was seen as unacceptable—except, as Gloria points out, in the highest echelons of society. In the history books, Thelma has often been dismissed as a lesser socialite, but when it comes down to it, she was a deeply principled woman, and her experience as an ally spoke to me.

After spending so long with his character, how do you feel about Edward VIII and his decision to abdicate?

I think Edward VIII would have found an excuse to abdicate, regardless of whether Wallis Simpson had come into his life or not. He was a fundamentally weak man, and would have made a fundamentally weak king—and while in my novel I have him discuss the sort of king he wants to be with Thelma, I don't think he ever honestly intended to take up his crown. If it hadn't been Wallis, he would have found another excuse to abdicate.

That said, Thelma was genuinely in love with him. It was important for me to find a way into that love, and to be able to portray him with some compassion.

Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson are known to have been Nazi sympathizers. Why don't you address this in your book?

I don't address it for three reasons. First, Thelma and Edward's relationship ended in 1934. Hitler only became chancellor in 1933, so while he would have been a topic of conversation around the dinner table, he wouldn't have been the main topic of conversation. Second, Thelma was not a political person. One of the biggest complaints the government levied against Wallis Simpson was her political activism—in fact, when it became clear Edward wouldn't give Wallis up, the government floated the idea of inviting Thelma back to England to catch Edward's eye again because she wasn't seen as someone who would interfere in politics the way Wallis did. Finally, the sad fact is that many members of Britain's upper crust had extreme right-wing leanings in the 1930s, and many were generally supportive of Hitler's policies. At the time, socialism was seen as a far greater threat than fascism, particularly because the General Strike of 1926 had been so successful in disrupting industrial production. Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists had 50,000 members at the height of its popularity in the 1930s.

In the end, I find it incredibly interesting that history shook out in such a way that Britain had the king it needed during the war. Could you imagine what would have happened if George VI hadn't been on the throne during the Blitz?.

Do you think Wallis intended to replace Thelma?

I don't think she did. Whatever else has been written about her—and there has been a lot written about her—Wallis was extremely ambitious. I believe that Wallis was genuinely trying to keep Edward's eye from straying, for Thelma's sake, but when it became clear that his affection had transferred to her, she didn't feel too much guilt in taking advantage of the situation.

She certainly didn't intend to marry Edward—that much is clear. In 2011, Anne Sebba published a biography of Wallis Simpson which contains previously unpublished letters between Wallis and Ernest Simpson—she wrote to him until the end of his life, and expressed regret at having ended their marriage. I believe that Wallis had hoped to take advantage of Edward's attraction to make new friends and move in the highest social circle in Britain. She genuinely believed that Edward would tire of her before too long—when he didn't, I think she was as surprised as anyone else.

What did you enjoy most about researching this book?

I wasn't on any fixed timeline to complete this book, so I was able to spend two full years researching—just researching!—the time period. I particularly enjoyed researching the fashion of the 1930s– the attention to detail is incredible, especially for someone who had Thelma's budget. I was able to access a lot of newspaper articles about the Vanderbilt trial at the New York Public Library, which really helped me understand the frenzy that the trial had created. A photographer actually did try to rappel down the side of the courthouse to get a picture of the proceedings! The trial reached newspapers in Pakistan! I went to London and walked Thelma's neighbourhood—while Duke's Arlington townhouse is no longer there, I visited her home in Mayfair and had drinks in the Ritz.

My favourite research moment, though, was finding Edward's plane, and while I wish I'd had the right place to put it in the manuscript, it did help me come to an understanding of who he was as a person. One of his planes is at the Vintage Wings museum in Gatineau, Quebec, and I was able to visit it: it's a beautiful little biplane with an open cockpit and a closed cabin for passengers. The plane itself looks like a Rolls Royce, with beautiful a chrome and indigo body and burgundy leather interior: but the best part of it is that Edward had a small generator installed on one of the wings so that he could power a wireless radio. While that sounds like a good idea, Vintage Wings was kind enough to take me up in a plane of a similar age, and I was struck by how unbelievably loud it was up in the air. Even with headphones on, it would have been extremely difficult to hear anything on a wireless.

I think this really sums up who Edward was. He was so concerned with his image—with looking and feeling like a modern royal—that he forgot to take into account the practicalities of the situation.

Also, see the Book Club Kit for a "Behind the Book" essay, discussion guide. recipes and a timeline.


Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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The Last Grand Duchess jacket The Woman Before Wallis jacket
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All the books below are recommended as readalikes for Bryn Turnbull but some maybe more relevant to you than others depending on which books by the author you have read and enjoyed. So look for the suggested read-alikes by title linked on the right.
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    Marie Benedict

    Marie Benedict is a lawyer with more than ten years' experience as a litigator at two of the country's premier law firms and for Fortune 500 companies. She is a magna cum laude graduate of Boston College with a focus in ... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
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  • Melanie Benjamin

    Melanie Benjamin

    Melanie Benjamin was born in Indianapolis, Indiana. An avid reader all her life - as a child, she was the proud winner, several years running, of the summer reading program at her local library - she still firmly believes ... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
    The Last Grand Duchess

    Try:
    The Aviator's Wife
    by Melanie Benjamin

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