Voices from the Wallis collection

THE LAST OF THE DUCHESS Caroline Blackwood Macmillan £16.99 Lucy Hughes-Hallett enjoys a wicked, scurrilous but scintillating account of the Duchess of Windsor's later life
This book, written 15 years ago but for unassailably good reasons hitherto unpublished, is wilfully malicious, and packed with scurrilous and entirely unfounded speculation. It is carelessly written and apparently unedited. Its tone is frivolous, cynical and louche. The author never meets her ostensible subject: indeed she is so resoundingly unsuccessful in all attempts to find out anything verifiable about the Duchess of Windsor that she wonders (incorrectly) whether the Duchess might be already dead at the time of writing. The book is a self-avowedly botched construction made up of journalistic assignments which don't come off and interviews which reveal nothing. It is also a fierce, scintillatingly funny report on a dying social circle, and, more soberly, on dying.

Caroline Blackwood never laid eyes on the Duchess because Matre Blum forbade it. Matre Blum, who emerges from Blackwood's flagrantly biased account as a gerontophiliac sadist, a vain, snobbish toady, a potential homicide and a stranger to the truth, was the Duchess's lawyer and, during her last years, her guardian in both senses of the word, being both her protector and her jailer. According to Matre Blum, visits from old friends were detrimental to the state of the Duchess's blood pressure, so for ten years before she died at the age of 90 she saw and was seen by no- one but her doctors, her servants and Matre Blum. Gruesome rumours circulated. A South American baron who had known Wallis Simpson in her glory days claimed to have penetrated Matre Blum's defences and glimpsed the Duchess lying paralysed, as wizened and blackened as a prune, before he was bundled off the premises by the butler. Meanwhile Matre Blum told the world, via press conferences, that the Duchess was getting better. When Caroline Blackwood interviewed her, she further claimed that her employer-cum-prisoner was radiantly lovely still; her octogenarian body unlined, she talked a lot and listened to Cole Porter.

None of this obstructiveness and obfuscation presents much of a problem to Blackwood, who is anyway not particularly interested in the Duchess of Windsor. One of the most acidulous passages in a corrosive book is where Blackwood consults the writer Peter Coats ("self-important, silly old character"), who directs her to read a story about one of the Duchess's brooches in his book Of Generals and Gardens ("absurd title") while lamenting that it had not received much public attention. Mercilessly, Blackwood quotes the inane anecdote in its entirety, concluding: "I was relieved to learn that people were not discussing it with the fervour Peter Coats demanded". This is not the book of a reverent royalist. Blackwood's attitude is closer to the aristocratic indifference of Lady Diana Cooper who, irritated by someone's repeatedly referring to the former Mrs Simpson as "our Duchess", remarked tartly that her own particular duchess was her mother.

Unable to interview her subject, Blackwood interviews her subject's friends. The book is full of old ladies or rather Ladies - formidable, batty, pathetic or all three at once. The first person Blackwood telephones has no memory left, the next is stone deaf, another refers to the Duke of Windsor in the present tense, apparently imagining him to be still alive. The ordeal of aging is this book's real but covert theme, the sombre, chill undertow beneath all its froth and glitter.

Blackwood's own prose is often shockingly lazy (she describes a house as "comfortable and pleasant") but her ear for other people's good lines is sure. Her interviewees all talk like duchesses in pre-war drawing-room comedies. Their voices combine with their reminiscences and Blackwood's account of the life and loves of Wallis Warfield to create an impression of a social world where one man might be extravagantly praised for his "kindness" because he "opened the doors of cars to people of no importance" and another tolerated albeit he had "inadvertently killed a waiter''. It is a picture all the more fascinating for the corruption and silliness it reveals. Laura, Duchess of Marlborough, tells Caroline Blackwood she intends to go to Paris and see if she can rescue her old friend Wallis. She really means it. She books her flight. But in the end she doesn't go. "She had to restring her pearls."

The interviews with Matre Blum are more bizarre. All Blackwood's wildest fantasies and most impudently hilarious juxtapositions are grouped round the figure of this old woman, whom she obviously found as fascinating as obnoxious. Blum informs her that the Duchess mixed only with "the highest and the best". Blackwood recalls how the Duchess's lover, Woolworth's heir Jimmy Donahue, once purchased a cow's udder and walked up Fifth Avenue with one of the teats protruding from his fly. Blum asserts that the Duchess was just like her mother-in-law. Blackwood tries and fails to picture Queen Mary drunk, "quite old and frenetically doing the Twist all alone in the centre of some nightclub" as the Duchess was once photographed doing.

Stalled by Blum's determination to reveal nothing but her own fictions, Blackwood begins to indulge in some of her own. She imagines Blum tiptoeing up to the Duchess's room, lifting the bedclothes and gloating over her supposedly still lovely (or prune-like) body. She imagines the Duchess howling all night like a wounded animal because Blum, who has an exaggerated veneration for physical courage, has denied her analgesics. She persuades herself that Blum's husband, a former general, has been made miserable because Blum has refused him sex. None of these speculations has a smidgen of basis in fact.

Blackwood has broken every rule governing responsible journalism or honourable biography. She has indulged her own prejudices and given rein to her most spiteful imaginings. But the candour with which she acknowledges what she's up to redeems her from any allegations of dishonesty, and any further doubts about her book's value are stilled by her brilliance as a raconteur. Her last interviewee, Marchesa Casa Maury, sums up the story, which she finds wildly funny: "a horrible old lady being locked up by another horrible old lady". This is pretty close to Caroline Blackwood's reading of the situation, but out of this unpromising material she has managed to make a wonderfully entertaining book.