Most Americans have a collection of sense-memories from half-forgotten college courses, movies such as “The King’s Speech” and fragments of television documentaries that remind us that Neville Chamberlain worked terribly hard for peace, was denounced as an appeaser, and then relinquished his office to Winston Churchill, who told the English people he could promise them only “blood, toil, tears and sweat.” But that’s about as far as most American memories go. For that reason, “The Windsor Faction” will probably enjoy a wider, more knowledgeable readership in Britain than here. And that’s a shame.
We see the plot unfolding through two very different but equally engaging characters. The first, Cynthia, a nice, intelligent English girl in her 20s, is stuck out in the then-British colony of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) with her parents, who are dead set on marrying her off to Henry, from another colonial family as stuffy and pompous as any in English literature.
One fateful afternoon they send her driving in the jungle with Henry. She reluctantly accepts and then accepts again when he suggests getting out and stretching their legs, which really means having sex on the floor of a deserted temple. During their rather unpleasant lovemaking, Henry remarks — apropos of nothing — “Of course, Father’s in the faction now,” to which Cynthia can only answer, “That’s good.” On their way back, Henry dies in a car accident, and soon Cynthia’s family is called home. Cynthia finds herself in shabby London, working for a start-up literary magazine, carrying Henry’s meaningless remark about “the faction” with her.
The other protagonist is Cynthia’s opposite in almost every way: Beverly Nichols (a man) is a columnist for a major London newspaper. He often writes about gardens but is a fervent pacifist and writes occasional columns deploring the possibility of a World War II. Having served in the previous war, Nichols can’t see the point of further carnage.
Nichols’s public life is both elaborate and frivolous. He lives for bridge games, luncheons and cocktail parties. And when a member of the House of Commons, an avid supporter of peace, seeks him out, he’s thrilled. The House member wants access to the king. If only he would say something, take a side! Of course, the king doesn’t have that in his power. Nonetheless, the pacifists scheme and dream. Nichols is captivated by this intrigue, and soon finds himself writing a Christmas speech for the king, a speech just on the edge of treason.
Meanwhile, in a London that seems ever more cold and damp and lonely, the mysterious “faction,” which the king might not even know about, shifts and plots and grows. War has been declared, but nobody is fighting much yet. French and German soldiers are clustered on either side of the Maginot line.
How far will D.J. Taylor take this engaging conceit of his? But that would be giving away the plot — and what if I didn’t?
See regularly reviews books for The Washington Post.