The success of Crown on Netflix has shown, yet again, the potential of the British aristocracy – as an idea – to weather in public perception all manner of progressive thinking, anti-imperial or anti-class, post-colonial or post-Church, that would blanket banish them, Sue Townsend-style, to some remote council estate or other. Apparently, the clothes, the butlers, the rambling estates with horses and dogs, and, naturally, the fairy-tale beginnings of royal weddings, win over dull theories every time, hands down.
Daughter of Empire: Life as a Mountbatten, the memoir of Lady Pamela Hicks, younger daughter of Louis and Edwina Mountbatten, has a liberal sprinkling of all the above – the clothes, the estates, the royal anecdotes and enough drama. Fortunately, it also has a refreshing dash of humour and is recounted in a bright engaging voice.
So much so you find yourself easily able to suspend the progressive deluge that your brain was threatening to send your way, chiefly as a reaction to the nauseating title (the author’s son had suggested it as a joke but I wonder why none of her editors stepped in to remind her that the connotations of “Empire” are – or at least ought to be – ghastly, to most right-thinking people).
That said, even if, like me, you begin reading Daughter of Empire with po-co angst, eventually you will find yourself enjoying the book exactly as it is: a chatty, charming summer read.
Meet the Mountbattens
Though back in England he was renowned for his exceptional naval career, in India, Lord Louis Francis Albert Victor Nicholas Mountbatten, First Earl Mountbatten of Burma, and invariably called Dickie, is chiefly remembered as a statesman, the last Viceroy of British India, and the first Governor General (by invitation) of independent India, though not of Pakistan, where Jinnah retained the position.
His glamorous wife, Edwina, is most remembered for her relationship with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, stories of which greatly outstrip any anecdotes of her months of hard work in the refugee camps across the sub-continent in the aftermath of Partition.
Accompanying Dickie and Edwina during the India posting was the author, at the time a seventeen-year-old straight out of school, blessed with a happy open-ness to experience, and a writer’s eye for detail.
It is believed by many that Mountbatten’s massive haste in handing over power to India and Pakistan led to the very horrors – the genocides that the partition of the subcontinent resulted in – he had wished to avoid, at least on British watch. However, the fact that Dickie and Edwina were Indophiles was accepted even by their detractors.
(In fact, for both, India held a special karmic connection. It was in India that their courtship really began when Dickie accompanied the Prince of Wales – the future King Edward VIII – as his personal aide-de-camp on the 1921 Royal Tour of India and Japan, and Edwina had followed them, staying in the Viceregal Lodge. It was at the Viceregal Lodge, in Edward’s room, that he had proposed to her.)
After their arrival in Delhi in late March, 1947, the Mountbattens met nationalist leaders across the ideological continuum, travelled a fair bit, and regularly invited Indians to gatherings at the Viceroy’s House, often as many Indians as Britishers. This last caused a great deal of racist mutterings within Angrez circles. Pamela writes:
“I was shocked as I overheard two guests say how ‘monstrous’ it was that ‘all these filthy Indians’ should have been invited, and when I told my father later, he was so incensed that he told the Military Secretary that if he ever heard anyone making a racist remark they should be asked to leave immediately.”
The meaty India segment in the book is what lent itself for cinematic adaptation (the book inspired Gurinder Chadha’s film Viceroy’s House, due to be released in India in August), while her anecdotes from the Commonwealth Tour with Elizabeth II have found their way into Crown. But it is really Pamela’s account of her parents – and their unique marriage – that, to me, provides the most fascinating element of her memoir.
Welcome to the Roaring Twenties
When they got married in July 1922, Dickie and Edwina were, arguably, the most glamorous, not to mention good-looking, couple in England at the time. He was a promising naval officer, had distinguished himself in the First World War although very young, and was related on his mother’s side to “most of the royal courts of Europe,” including the soon-to-be-executed Romanovs of Russia. Despite his aristocratic antecedents, though, Mountbatten, himself, was impecunious. At the time of his marriage, he drew an annual salary of about £610 (roughly £20,000 pounds in today’s England).
Edwina was as rich as she was magnetic. Her maternal grandfather, the Jewish financier and magnate Sir Earnest Joseph Cassell, one of the richest men in London, had left her a sizeable inheritance of nearly two million pounds (about 80 million pounds today), in addition to various estates, including the uber posh mansion, Brook House, in Park Lane.
Consequently, this legacy allowed the young couple to live an indulgent life, befitting the Roaring Twenties, after their marriage. Pamela writes:
“This was the extravagant time in my parents’ lives – they had a cinema screen installed in Brook House and hosted regular parties at which princes, even kings and queens, could rub shoulders with the likes of Noël Coward, Cole Porter and George Gershwin. By playing it at her parties, my mother made The Man I Love an overnight hit in England after Gershwin told her how upset he was that it had flopped in the US. She danced the Charleston with Fred Astaire, and the rumours that Queen Mary didn’t approve of this kind of behaviour made the dancing all the more delicious.”
However, after the initial euphoria of the extended honeymoon, Dickie had to leave for extended naval tours and Edwina “was bored alone – her childhood demons coming to haunt her – and so became increasingly reliant on her loyal ‘ginks’ or admirers for entertainment. She began to collect young men in a way that raised many eyebrows.” This is how, gently, sensitively, Pamela explains her mother’s predilections, going on to share a lighter moment or two that ensued as a result of her hectic love life.
While Brook House was large enough, at some point it began to run out of rooms as Edwina’s lovers multiplied. Once, she returned from a shopping expedition to find her housekeeper flipping out, as no less than five gentlemen admirers were waiting on her.
“Mr Larry Gray is in the drawing room, Mr Sandford is in the library, Mr Ted Phillips is in the boudoir, Señor Portago in the anteroom and I don’t know what to do with Mr Molyneux!”
In fact, at the heart of Hicks’s memoir is the arresting presence/absence dichotomy of Edwina, complicated and neurotic, now-generous, now-jealous, now full of recriminations, now full of ideas – and utterly bewitching to anyone. She goes on to explain Mountbatten’s response to her many affairs:
“Of course, the ramifications were messy and complex. When my father first heard that she had taken a lover, he was devastated. But eventually, using their reserves of deep mutual affection, my parents managed to negotiate a way through this crisis and found a modus vivendi.”
It meant that they had an open marriage of sorts (though Edwina would often be consumed by jealousy at Dickie’s affairs), and eventually a stable “menage a quartre” emerged – a thoroughly unconventional arrangement, of course, but one that the daughters came to accept and even appreciate.
Mountbatten’s long-time lover was the French gamine Yola Letellier, the wife of a much older businessman, who is believed to have inspired Collette’s famous novel Gigi, and Edwina found happiness and adventure with Lieutenant Colonel Harold “Bunny” Phillips, a “thrillingly handsome” colonel in the Coldstream Guards, who became a great favourite with Pamela and her older sister Patricia (“quite simply, he made my mother easier to be around”), and with whom Edwina went on fabulous travels around the globe.
On one occasion, “Patricia and I remained in Malta, collecting the stamps and postcards they sent from Bangkok, Angkor Wat, Hawaii, Bali, Java, Suva, Borneo, Sarawak, Bangkok (again), Calcutta, Jodhpur, Baghdad, Cairo and Budapest”; on another, “they travelled through China, by the Trans-Siberian railway, through the Philippines, Celebes and Moluccas, then on to Bali, Java, Hong Kong and Japan, when they finally turned for home via California”. They would bring back exotic animals as gifts for the girls: a Malayan honey bear called Rastus and a pair of orchid-eating wallabies!
Towards the end of the Second World War, however, more than a decade after they’d first met, Bunny announced his engagement to Gina, a distant relation of the Mountbattens, sending Edwina into a spiral of despair (“she took endless dismal walks alone down the river path, when my father and my sister feared she might drown herself”).
This dark phase, combined with her “serious” turn at wartime when she would find “her purpose in life”, contributing long hours every day to Britain’s war effort, prepared her for her Indian sojourn – and her friendship with Nehru. This relationship, kept up mostly through letters, deepened into love in the hills, and the book ends with a remarkable image: after Edwina’s sudden death at the age of 58, her burial at sea was conducted by the family from the frigate HMS Wakeful.
“Waiting a respectful distance away was the Indian frigate INS Trishal, and as we steamed away she took our place and, on Panditji’s instructions, marigolds were scattered upon the waves.”
Despite this stiff-upper lip thing
Edwina might well be the complex throbbing heart of this story, but what truly makes Daughter of Empire so eminently readable is that it’s packed with anecdotes (ranging from the soon-to-be-canonised Aunt Ella singing ‘Hail Gentle Light’ sweetly while the Bolsheviks throw her down a mine shaft, to Jinnah’s exquisite annoyance at his carefully prepared line – “a rose between two thorns” – falling apart when a photographer insisted that he and not Edwina was to be in the middle for the formal photograph after his meeting at the Viceroy’s House), and eccentric characters.
There are memorable portraits of Pamela’s inimitable grandmama (a robust “blue-stocking” who, in the words of Prince Philip, loved “not just arguments but arguments about arguments”); a distant relation, Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveen or “Isa”, formerly lady-in-waiting to the Tsarina, and a magnet for disasters that could later be re-cast in comic tones; a large number of opinionated servants – in England and in India; several trying-too-hard American heiresses; the boisterous Prince Philip, her cousin, the inventor of dangerous on board games; Queen Elizabeth, serious and unrelenting in her pursuit of duty; and, of course Nehru (Pamela had, briefly, named him AMOT since he constantly used the phrase “all manner of things”).
But when it comes to sensitive family matters, Lady Pamela is as stiff upper lip as it gets. There is no talk of financial matters except in the most benign terms. After recounting a few instances of her mother’s cruelties, she quickly says something like, “For all this, though, Patricia and I never felt unloved,” or, “All this is not to say we didn’t have a family life. We did – when my parents were home – and on those special days we would all spend a great deal of time together outdoors, having lunch or playing with the Sealyhams.”
Of course, the decades that have gone by must have soothed the smarts as well. Pamela Hicks is now nearly ninety, and most of the events covered in this book happened seven decades or so ago.
In the final analysis, those looking for sensational details (exactly how intimate were Edwina and Nehru? was Mountbatten bisexual?) or historical insights on the Raj might be disappointed; those looking for the literary equivalent of afternoon tea – vital, British, and just the right mix of sweet and savoury – are to be perfectly satisfied.
Devapriya Roy is the author of three books and one nearly abandoned PhD thesis on Bharata’s Natyashastra from JNU. She worked on developing a new language policy for the country. She tweets @DevapriyaRoy.
This article originally appeared in Scroll.in, and has been reproduced with permission.