Christine Wells has a gift for digging out history’s hidden stories, and her latest book, The Royal Windsor Secret. is the perfect, delicious mix of fact and speculation that her readers have come to love.
In it Christine asks the question “What if it Edward, Prince of Wales, the man who briefly became King Edward VIII, had a love child?”
Hi there. I’m your host, Jenny Wheeler, and a chance remark from a friend suggesting Edward sowed wild oats during his stay in Australia in his youth. got Christine thinking.
The result is another of her engrossing historical fiction tales, with plenty of fascinating historical fact spiced up with some “what if” suggestions.
Encore is the show for returning authors, and this is Christine second appearance on the Binge Reading podcast. She was last on back in 2020 talking about her World War II spy stories, like The Juliette Code and Sisters Of The Resistance, the last one featuring Catherine Dior’s little known wartime activities.
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A rancher faces a trumped up murder charge. His beautiful French neighbor has facts that will clear his name, but she can only speak up at the risk of her own life.
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She’s a traveling singer. He’s an Aussie adventurer. Together, they’ll dig up the secrets of a deadly gold mine.
Links to things mentioned in the episode
Marguerite Meller: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marguerite_Alibert
Duke of Windsor: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marguerite_Alibert
Wallis Simpson: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wallis_Simpson
Elizabeth Peter’s Amelia Peabody Mysteries:
Elizabeth Peters: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbara_Mertz
Special Air Service History: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Special_Air_Service
The Cartiers: the Untold Family History by Francesca Cartier Brickell:
Cartier designers: https://www.madridluxurydistrict.com/en/asociado/cartier-2/
Paddy Bennett: Ian Fleming’s Secretary, the model for Miss Moneypenny:
Mick Herron: https://www.mickherron.com/
Natasha Lester: The Disappearance of Astrid Bricard:
Where to find Christine Wells online
Introducing historic fiction author Christine Wells
But now here’s Christine. Hello there, Christine. And welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us.
Christine Wells: Hi Jenny, thanks so much for having me.
Jenny Wheeler: The last time we talked together on Binge Reading was in May, 2020, and a tremendous amount of stuff has happened since then, including a pandemic.
At that time, you were writing about World War II women spies, and this latest book changes things up a bit, doesn’t it? It’s not about spies anymore. It’s about possible secrets in the royal Windsor family.
Tell us a little bit about The Royal Windsor Secret.
Christine Wells: The Royal Windsor Secret is a story about Cleo Davenport, a young woman who’s grown up in Cairo in Egypt, who lives at the luxurious Shepheard’s Hotel. And she comes to believe that she is the secret illegitimate daughter of Edward VIII, who abdicated the throne to marry Wallis Simpson. And so, she goes on a quest to find her true parents.
There’s also a thread about jewellery and Cleo’s love for jewellery. Of course, Wallis Simpson loves jewellery too. That plays a big part in it. Cleo wants to design, to be a jewellery designer. So that’s another thread to the story.
Jenny Wheeler: Fantastic. Now you take some early true events in the Prince of Wales’s life, and then you add a little bit of your own speculation to those events, don’t you? Tell us a bit about how you wove fact and fiction into your story.
Christine Wells: Well, a little bit of a kernel of an idea came to me when a friend said that one royal personage, I think it was Edward VIII, had been out west in Queensland as part of their early Commonwealth visits.
The young royals would come out to Australia for a while, and there were an awful lot of children born to families in that region who looked very much like Edward VIII. the Duke of Windsor.
And that, that set a little kernel of “what if” in my mind.
Enter Marguerite, the French courtesan
But the early events you’re referring to, the Duke of Windsor, who was the Prince of Wales at the time, was stationed in France in World War I, and probably his first real affair as such was with a French courtesan called Marguerite Meller, as she was at the time.
And in those days, it was still the days of the high class courtesan a la Gigi, somebody who was very refined and skilled at all different things, conversation and knew about politics and could be more than just a mistress, but a real companion to the men that they liaised with.
Marguerite was in this old school style of courtesan and he had an affair with her. It’s pretty well accepted that he did, and she wrote a memoir.
We don’t know if we can really trust Marguerite but… there are references to her in his letters as well. I started to think what if there was an illegitimate child who was the product of this liaison?
And that’s where Cleo Davenport comes in.
Jenny Wheeler: What sort of age difference was there between the two of them when they met? I got the impression that Edward was quite young and inexperienced in terms of sexual matters at the time that they met. Was that a correct idea?
Christine Wells: Yes. It’s not really clear when Marguerite was born, but I think she would have been in her 30s and he would have been very young, around 20.
There was a big age gap and it was really, at least to him, not serious, he, would say he loved her and spout all of these romantic things in his letters, no doubt, but in reality, it wasn’t like Wallace Simpson.
I don’t think he ever was serious about her. He was quite besotted with her at the time.
Jenny Wheeler: Is there any indication that she was his first lover? It sounds like the Queensland experience might put the lie to that for a start.
Rueing the day he ever met her
Christine Wells: No, I think she was probably, maybe not his first lover, but his first ongoing lover. very early.
He was very naive and I think there was some kind of racy novel that he had been given to read by an older man and, it opened up an entirely new world to him and then he started pursuing romantic relationships when he was away from scrutiny from his family. In France what goes on in France stays in France.
But of course, the royal family has always been quite permissive in respect to the men of the family’s affairs.
The only thing you have to do is be discreet and usually they would choose married women. Any children of the relationship would be just accepted as a legitimate child of that marriage. Usually it wasn’t even an issue to have illegitimate children around.
A number of them have been taken care of financially and so forth. So that’s where Cleo growing up quite privileged came from.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes. I gather Marguerite has a very colorful life. We’re not going to do any spoilers by giving away too much information about what happens later in her story, but potentially she becomes an embarrassment to the Duke in her later life.
And I gathered that he actually destroyed the pages of his diary that related to those earlier years. He definitely tries to obscure the trail of it. Is that factual?
Christine Wells: Yes, I believe that’s the case. Andrew Rose, who wrote a couple of non-fiction books about Marguerite and her affair with the Prince of Wales, as he was then. The Duke of Windsor. He got permission to look at the archives.
And that was his finding, that they’d been ripped out of the diary of the time, no doubt either he’d done that after their affair ended quite acrimoniously, or later on when, when other things unfolded and Marguerite came back to haunt him.
Marguerite was an extremely tenacious and strong-minded woman and she could definitely make a lot of trouble for anyone if she set her mind to it.
The Royal Windsor Secret – great reviews
Jenny Wheeler: The book’s had some great reviews. I’m just going to quote from a Washington Post one where it says “an absorbing novel that wends its way from Cairo to Paris, then onto London, Lisbon, and the wilds of Scotland; a globe-trotting trail of romance and mystery wrapped in historic detail.”
The reception of the book must have pleased you.
What’s the most exciting thing for you about the things that have happened so far?
Christine Wells: Oh look, that was a bit of a highlight, the Washington Post but the highlight to me is hearing from my readers, because they’re the people I write the books for in the first place.
The feedback is just starting. It’s just been released in the United States. It’s yet to be released here. In Australia
That release date is on the 4th of October. You just love hearing once the readers start reading and getting all these lovely messages from people.
That’s what really is the reward for me. I love writing and I would probably do it even if I didn’t have any readers, but it’s really nice that all that hard work is appreciated.
Jenny Wheeler: A large part of the book does take place, as you’ve mentioned, in the Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo, which I must admit, I didn’t realize existed, but it’s got a really famous history of its own, hasn’t it?
What attracted you to set part of the story there and tell us about Shepheard’s?
Christine Wells: Well, Shepheard’s Hotel, I first read about Shepheard’s Hotel in Elizabeth Peter’s amazing Amelia Peabody Mysteries, which if you haven’t read them, you must. they’re just fabulous. And it’s about a Victorian young lady who inherits money and decides that she’s going to take off to Egypt and meets an Egyptologist.
It’s a series about how they dig up mummies and solve mysteries, but it’s just so witty and wonderful.
Shepheard’s Hotel – a famed watering hole
And they always stay at Shepheard’s Hotel. But I didn’t think much more about that. I think I came across Shepheard’s, probably when I was researching the The Juliet Code because the SAS, the Special Air Service, was actually, conceived and planned in Shepheard’s Hotel,
When I was writing about, the SAS, I was learning about Shepheard’s and all the famous people who would stay there.
There was Winston Churchill and Josephine Baker, Mark Twain. All of the Europeans, and a lot of Americans too, used to winter in Egypt.
Shepheard’s played host to royalty and movie stars like Rita Hayworth, and the Aga Khan. It was full of these interesting people.
Lawrence of Arabia used to sit in the foyer dressed up as a sheik and jump out the window when the press came after him.
There’s all of these wonderful stories. There’s a story about how the keeper of the left luggage room would know exactly where your thing was years later when you came back. Winston Churchill left a book of poetry there in World War I, and he came back in World War II and it was there waiting for him.
It’s just all these wonderful stories that came out of it. And I really wanted to set a book there.
Jenny Wheeler: how did it come about that the SAS was actually conceived there though? Was it just a coincidence? There were a lot of influential men there at the same time?
Christine Wells: All the officers used to stay there in World War II and that’s where the heads – now their names are escaping me – but the men who set up the SAS, because it was basically an initiative of the officers who were in another regiment and they decided that what needed to happen was to go in behind enemy lines and, and sabotage the Germans and the Italians defences in the north of Africa.
SAS was born in the North African desert
And they really had to do rigorous training. They had to be able to, march long distances with very little water. There was a story actually of one fellow who survived he was abandoned or everybody else died or something happened on his mission and the way he survived on his way back to civilization was drinking the water out of radiators of abandoned vehicles on the way.
They were incredibly tough and just these amazing men and they go out on missions and they come back, heads full of sand, long beards.
And they go and stay at Shepheard’s Hotel in between missions.
Jenny Wheeler: And one of your main characters does have some time in the SAS during war, doesn’t he?
Christine Wells: Yes, Cleo’s love interest, Brody joins the SAS. We see that the other side of the action, the anxious waiting while he’s on missions, while Cleo waits for him to come back.
Jenny Wheeler: Now, Cleo, as we’ve mentioned, she’s passionate about developing a career as a designer of high fashion jewelry.
And you have a lot of fascinating detail about the top jewelers and the fashions of that time, the 1920s and 30s. I wondered how you researched that aspect of the story.
Christine Wells: Oh, it was a tough, tough job. No, there’s a wonderful book about the Cartiers by one of their descendants, and so I learned a lot about how they worked at the time because that era was really their heyday. They’ve never gone away and I’m sure they go from strength to strength.
But the connection with Cartier is that Wallis Simpson bought a lot of her jewelry there and was given a lot of jewelry by the Duke of Windsor. And it was very personal jewelry. She had a bracelet full of crucifixes that marked a different special occasion in their relationship.
And of course, her engagement ring came from there. So that was a theme I really wanted to explore because, of course, the Windsors are part of this story. And the Cartier connection really connects the two.
Wallis Simpson and her Cartier jewels
Jenny Wheeler: You mentioned also a famous flamingo brooch?
Christine Wells: Oh, yes. It’s in a style called the Tutti Frutti, but it actually wasn’t called that at the time, unfortunately. I had to call it what they termed it then. Pierre de Couleur.
It’s emeralds, rubies, and sapphires, so it’s all this multi coloured, amazing, and the designer, Pierre Lemarchand, who is also in the book, used to go to the Paris Zoo and study animals just to make sure he got their anatomy really right. Especially with the panther, which is the icon of Cartier.
If you look at his bracelets, for example, this sinuous panther just wraps around your wrist and it looks like it could easily jump off your wrist and come to life, they’re just so beautifully done.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes. And Le Marchand, he was a bit subversive, wasn’t he? He styled a liberty bird, which got up the Nazi’s noses and got himself into trouble with them, didn’t he?
Christine Wells: Yes. He and Jean Toussaint, who was the Cartier creative director at the time were hauled in for questioning because they had made this brooch that had a caged bird and it was seen to be subversive.
It really did symbolize the French under German occupation, but they were able to say that this is a motif had been before, and they got away with it. There is a story that Coco Chanel intervened on their behalf, whether that’s true or not, I don’t know.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s interesting, because I was going to ask you, in all the research you did in this period, and with all these famous people, what was the most surprising piece of information that you uncovered? And perhaps something that didn’t even get into the book, but were there any surprises for you amongst the things you learned?
Christine Wells: I was very surprised, and this did make it into the book, about the attitude of Edward VIII slash the Duke of Windsor towards the Nazis.
The shocking reality of Edward’s political views
I had known that he was a sympathizer, but until I started researching this book, I didn’t quite realize the extent of it. There are arguments both ways, but I think there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that he probably, if the Nazis had occupied Britain, they would have made him King and made Wallace Simpson Queen.
And that was quite shocking to me because looking back now, and knowing what the Nazis did, you can’t imagine anybody who would, in their right mind, support them. Especially not their occupation of your country.
But it seems that the Duke of Windsor might have. Yeah, I found that incredibly shocking.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes, it showed him to be a remarkably short sighted guy, really, didn’t it?
Christine Wells: I think as I say in the book, he loved Germany because A, he had a lot of relatives there and B, he spent a wonderful time there with his cousins when he was a young man.
He was fluent in German. Obviously, the royal family and the aristocracy were a little bit taken with fascism because the alternative at that stage was communism, which meant that they’d be out of a job and out of a position and possibly taken against the wall and shot.
They were extremely affected by the Russian family’s demise. but I think that by the time we’re talking about it was pretty clear that Hitler had an agenda that was going to put Europe into a darkness. Even at that stage, they were persecuting Jews and Poland had been invaded, all these other countries had been occupied.
I think I get that they were starting to sympathize with the fascists early in the 30s, but not later on when it became clear that this was how they were going to operate.
Jenny Wheeler: Last time we talked, we did talk about the Juliet code. And since then, you’ve written a book about the “Real Miss Moneypenny.” Tell us a bit about that book and any other things you think of are of interest in the last couple of years. I wonder how the pandemic affected you, for example
The ‘real’ Miss Moneypenny – Paddy Bennett
Christine Wells: First question. That book, One Woman’s War, I had such a good time writing this book.
It was inspired by a real woman called Paddy Bennett. And she was secretary to Ian Fleming who wrote the James Bond novels. She worked for him during World War II in naval intelligence. A lot of people don’t actually know that Ian Fleming was involved in intelligence.
He wasn’t an agent himself. He was rather higher up in the food chain. He was the assistant to the head of Naval intelligence.
And in those days, the Navy really had the most sophisticated intelligence service because they would be in charge of monitoring all of the communications on the ships.
Paddy was involved in Operation Mincemeat, which you might have seen the movie or heard about it.
It was a scheme to fool the Germans into expecting the Allies to invade in the wrong place, in the south of Europe.
They fooled them into believing that it was going to be the Balkans or Greece rather than Sicily, which was the obvious place and which ended up being the place they did invade.
I just found her so fascinating. She’s such a redoubtable woman and it was a real joy to write about her in One Woman’s War.
Jenny Wheeler: fI did see the trailer for Operation Mincemeat and I thought it looked fabulous. I was just a bit sad that I didn’t quite get to see the full movie, but it looked fascinating.
Christine Wells: I went to see it and Paddy wasn’t even in it, they kaleidoscoped her role with the role of another woman who was involved. I was a bit sad about that, but anyway that left me some room to tell my story, too.
Jenny Wheeler: And how about the pandemic? Did it make it difficult to do research?
What Christine Wells is reading right now
Christine Wells: Yes, actually, it did. For One Woman’s War, there was an archive that I would have loved to have had access to, but it was in England, in the Winston Churchill archive, and you couldn’t even contact someone there to look it up for you because they were all shut down.
That was a shame because it was a scrapbook of Paddy’s husband. It wouldn’t have been vital to the research, but it would have been really great for some background. and I think it had letters and things like that in it too.
In a way it was it’s good for writers to be stuck at home because there wasn’t much distraction, and when my children were homeschooling, we would all go off to our offices and rooms to do our study for the day and me writing my books and then we’d meet up for lunch and then we’d go back again, and it was quite a nice routine, but not that I would wish that on the world, for that reason
Jenny Wheeler: We always like to check with our writers about the books they’re reading at the moment. So just to check back in with you, what have you been reading over the last couple of years? And is there anything that you’d like to recommend to listeners?
Christine Wells: I have been binging on Mick Herron’s Slow Horses series.
Jenny Wheeler: Aha. Yes.
Christine Wells: You might know the, the television series on Apple TV and which really is a brilliant adaptation, but the books are just fabulous.
And I think one thing I noticed with Mick Herron is he has to describe the same place. It’s in every book, and in every book, he manages to find a new way to describe it.
The books are about the misfits from MI5 in London who bungle their way through all of these cases and end up saving the day.
It’s funny, and it’s clever, and I love a spy novel, so those ones are great.
And then just recently I read an advanced copy of Natasha Lester’s The Disappearance of Astrid Bricard, which I highly recommend if you love all, the fashion and the history, and there’s a real feminist theme through this book.
What’s next for Christine Wells author?
Jenny Wheeler: I love the authorial comment about Mick Herron because a lot of readers may not even quite think of something like the fact that he’s describing the same places, but finding something fresh to say about them.
Christine Wells: Yes, it’s a real skill when you’re writing a series to come up with something new every time.
Jenny Wheeler: We’ve had Natasha on the show, at least once, maybe more than once and I love her work too. She’s another Australian author doing wonderfully internationally, isn’t she?
Christine Wells: Oh, yes, she’s amazing and we actually have the same literary agent. When she was last in Brisbane, we met up and had a lovely time. She’s a lovely person as well.
Jenny Wheeler: What’s next for Christine as author? What have you got on your desk over the next 12 months? What are you working on at the moment?
Christine Wells: At the moment I’m finishing the first draft of a book called The Paris Gown, which is about three young women in 1950s Paris who share a Dior gown.
It’s a bit of a harking back to Sisters of the Resistance, which was about Catherine Dior, a couple of books ago, and we did an interview on that one and yes, and then the next book I’ve also sold to the same publisher, so that will be following up.
It’s tentatively titled The Lost Perfumes of Paris. So that’ll be a lot of fun to go on to next.
Jenny Wheeler: You always seem to find such fascinating aspects of this history to bring out. it’s wonderful.
Christine Wells: Oh, thank you very much. They really fascinate me, so hopefully they fascinate readers too.
Where you can find Christine Wells online
Jenny Wheeler: Yeah. Look, we have come to the end of our time, but we always do like to ask, do you enjoy interacting with your readers and where can they find you online?
Christine Wells: Oh, I love hearing from readers, yes. I’m mostly on Instagram and Facebook. If you go to my website, Christine-wells. com, you’ll be able to click through to any of my social media. That’s probably the easiest way.
Jenny Wheeler: that’s wonderful, Christine. Thanks so much for your time. It’s been wonderful hearing about all this research and what we’ve got in store in the future. Thanks so much.
Christine Wells: Oh, thank you very much for having me, Jenny. It’s been a pleasure.
If you enjoyed Christine Wells you might also enjoy…. Natasha Lester
American ex-spy Alix returns to Paris in 1947, determined to build a new life for herself, with a fascinating job in the house of Christian Dior.
But among the bolts of silk and Ritz cocktails an old enemy lies in wait. Alix must reach back unto her wartime past to try and trap her enemy. hoping it is not too late to build a new future out from under his shadow.
Next Week on Binge Reading
Next week on Binge Reading, Kate Gray and a stunning psychological thriller, The Honeymoon. Newly wed couples on their honeymoon meet casually in a Bali bar. It’s a trip of a lifetime… until they find the body. Married life wasn’t meant to start like this.
That’s next week on Binge Reading. And remember if you enjoy the show, leave us a review, so others will find us too. Word of mouth is the best way for others to discover the show and great books they’d love to read.
That’s it for today. See you next time and Happy Reading.