The Mountbattens | Andrew Lownie in conversation with Narayani Basu
In the summer of 1922, St Margarets, Westminster played host to what was dubbed the wedding of the year. Attended by more than 8,000 guests, including the senior members of the British Royal family, the Mountbatten’s were the ‘It’ couple of their time. As I watched Andrew Lownie, author of the biography; The Mountbattens: Their Lives and Love talk to Narayani Basu about his critically acclaimed book at a session of the Jaipur Literature Festival 2022, I was drawn to find out more about the unique dynamism between the couple; their tumultuous lives and very public love affairs over the decades.
In an attempt to provide a more holistic insight to the Mountbattens, Lownie accessed numerous archives and filed a number of Freedom of Information requests. With much red tape and the suppression of available evidence, obtaining files of this nature proved to be a Herculean task. This compelled Lowney to launch several campaigns attempting to access personal diaries and letters belonging to the couple, and bringing them into the public domain.
Colonial rule in India or the Raj, with a primary focus on certain influential individuals, forms an extensive part of our country’s history, and not many individuals had as much of an aura about them or were possibly more influential than the Mountbattens.
The youngest child of a tight-knit loving family, ‘Dickie’ as he was affectionately called, lived the quintessential aristocratic life. Having the freedom to do or say as he pleased, many believe his cosseted and overindulged childhood had a huge influence on shaping his character. Like Dickie, Edwina too, came from a rich and wealthy background; but the similarities ended there. While Edwina had access to every luxury in the world, her childhood lacked the love and warmth of family life. The effects of this emotionally deprived childhood would play out in Edwina’s later life, greatly shaping the constructs of her personality as well.
Lownie’s treatment of his two protagonists is interesting. The book in many ways, is like a game of two halves, showcasing Edwina as a promiscuous and philandering villainess in the first half, who subsequently blossoms into a compassionate heroine in the second. In stark juxtaposition, Dickie is portrayed as a sensitive, vulnerable and cuckolded husband in the first half who morphs into a rather pompous and arrogant man in the latter part of the book. The narrative dwells on many events of their lives with their various love affairs taking centre stage. Mirroring the plot of a gossipy soap opera full of melodrama, Lownie tackles the individuals in question and their many indiscretions with humour and empathy. A crucial underlying thread of the book is the abiding love the Mountbattens have for one another, despite their unconventional relationship. It was a marriage that was built on mutual support and understanding, despite being plagued with infidelity.
Lowney sheds light on the paradox around Mountbatten and talks about how most people bought into the much publicised playboy image with the fast cars, royal yachts and the polo ponies. The glamour overshadowed the many professional achievements of the man who truly epitomised the modern day philosophy of ‘work hard, play hard’. Most observers would conveniently tweak this to work hard, play harder! Lownie seems to attempt to correct this perception.
The book covers the time period of the 1930s, set against the backdrop of many monumental world events. Ranging from the onset of the second World War to the dramatic abdication of King Edward VIII (or the Duke of Windsor by which title he was later known), we follow the lives of the Mountbattens in these trying times, their trials, tribulations and handling of these telling situations.