Their lives and loves
by Andrew Lownie
This absorbing biography has been thoroughly researched by Andrew Lownie and includes details from documents and private testimonies not available at the time of previously published works.In his preface Lownie quotes from Mountbatten,‘No biography has any value unless it is written with warts and all’. There are certainly plenty of warts but the lives of Mountbatten and his wife, Edwina, are also portrayed as being ones of huge contradictions.
Mountbatten’s fame as Viceroy of India and as First Sea Lord, a position he had passionately desired since his father’s ignominious resignation from the same post at the outbreak of the First World War, are set against descriptions of his disastrous failures of leadership, for example the sinking of HMS Kelly in 1941, the ill-fated Dieppe raid in 1942 and his handling of Partition in India.
Despite her lonely and emotionally starved childhood, which may help us to understand her constant search for affection in later life, Edwina is shown to be more than her husband’s equal in intellect and achievement. Her tireless war work, her humanitarian work in setting up and overseeing welfare clinics in India and her support of her husband during the difficult and often dangerous negotiations leading up to Independence in India, contrast vividly with Edwina’s apparent neglect of her two young daughters and, as a young wife and mother, her constant search for excitement and stimulation as she travelled across continents with a variety of dazzling friends and lovers in search of distraction.
The legion of lovers who played their part in the lives of Lord and Lady Mountbatten would seem to contradict the evidence of their dependence on one another in their thirty-eight-year marriage. Their open marriage seems to have worked for them, up to a point. Lownie suggests that Mountbatten’s personal sense of inadequacy in his private life found an outlet in his determination for public office and the great satisfaction he derived from all the pomp and ceremony which accompanied his high office. Lownie describes the five-year-old Dickie’s thrill on receiving his Christmas present from Tsar Nicholas: a replica uniform of the Chevalier Garde, complete with helmet, breastplate, boots, spurs and sword. ‘It was to be the start of a lifelong love of uniforms.’
Towards the end of his life Mountbatten wanted to make sure that his legacy matched up to his own idea of his life’s achievements. There were numerous criticisms of his vanity and mendacity from those who had served with him, as well as his tendency to re-write events in order to boost his own role in history.
General Pat MacClellan (military assistant to Mountbatten) noted in 1980, ‘His public image – far-sighted, imaginative, bold, dynamic, charismatic and vigorous – was not shared by many of those who competed with him and who regarded him as devious, vain, imperious, unscrupulous and unprincipled. In fact, privately he was kind, charming, sentimental, witty and magnetic’.
Andrew Lownie’s frank account of this fascinating couple, whose lives and loves spanned the twentieth century, makes compelling reading.
Review by Frances Walker, Sherborne Literary Society