Review: The Mountbattens: Their Lives and Loves by Andrew Lownie
Andrew Lownie’s book on the Mountbattens is a blend of political, military, and personal historyUpdated: Feb 14, 2020 19:45 IST
The Mountbattens have been a subject of great interest both in England and in South Asia for their historic roles in shaping the region. A number of books have already been published on their lives. Aside from being influential people of historic importance, they also evoked tremendous curiosity for their social lives, marriage, and friendships. Some of the stories continue to animate social conversations. After all, tales of love and betrayal are always subjects of special interest. So what can another book offer?
The Mountbattens: Their Lives and Loves is a fine blend of political, military, and personal history. It does not suggest that historical figures are always morally upright and ethically sound. Nearly all historical figures are people with limitations. It is utopian to expect them to be saints just because they have played a big part in a historical moment.
Lord Mountbatten’s story cannot be told without including his influential wife, Edwina, who has been the subject of myriad rumours about her private life. Much of this has to do with patriarchal attitudes that judge the choices made by independent women. It is crucial to bear this in mind while reading such accounts. The Mountbattens first met Nehru in 1946, when he visited them in Singapore, and they remained great friends. When the Mountbattens arrived in Delhi, Nehru and Edwina spent much time together. According to the author: “Photographs of the time show her looking lovingly at him (Nehru) at a Red Cross meeting. At the Mountbattens first garden party, Nehru sat cross-legged at Edwina’s feet during a dance recital with few chairs for guests, and after the party she returned to his house, unaccompanied by her husband but with her daughter, for a night cap.” The friendship between Nehru and Edwina had the approval of Lord Mountbatten. When she passed away, Nehru, by then India’s Prime Minister, wrote a deeply moving letter to Lord Mountbatten describing her as a radiant personality. “She came as a star brightening our lives and giving us generously and abundantly a bit of her rare and precious self. There is no way for me to express the depth of my gratitude for her,” he wrote.
Lord Mountbatten was a closeted gay man. Andrew Lownie arrives at this conclusion after looking at FBI files and from interviews with many of Mountbattens’ close associates. The chapter on Lady Mountbatten’s relief work dwells on a little known aspect of her life. Her husband was so impressed by her sincerity and commitment that he said he would have offered her a high rank in his office, something he admitted he would not have said of any other woman. The book is rich with such accounts, which makes it an interesting read.
In a fascinating chapter entitled, Ireland, Lownie details Mountbatten’s violent death on 27 August, 1979. Mountbatten decided at breakfast that morning to go out in a 29-foot Donegal fishing boat, Shadow V. He was joined by his daughter Patricia, her husband John, his 83-year-old mother, Doreen, and Patricia’s twins. At 11.45, the bomb was activated. Only a fragment of Mountbatten’s jersey with the badge of HMS Kelley was found floating. The Provisional Irish Republican Army took responsibility for Mountbatten’s execution through Republican News in Belfast.
We learn that Lord Mountbatten often joked that he would be sad to miss his own funeral. He did receive a grand one. The guests at Westminister Abbey included the Queen of Great Britain, the Duke of Edinburgh, the Prince of Wales, most of the crowned heads of Europe, Margaret Thatcher, and four former prime ministers. Televised in 20 countries, it was watched by 50,000 spectators. This is how the life of the prominent historical figure, who oversaw the Partition of India, itself accompanied by violence at an unprecedented scale, ended.
Also recounted is a fascinating episode pertaining to Mohammed Ali Jinnah. After the uncovering of an RSS plot to throw a bomb at Jinnah’s car during the three-mile state procession, Mountbatten volunteered to ride with him. They sat side by side in an open Rolls-Royce and the procession was peaceful. As the day ended, Jinnah placed his hand on Mountbatten’s knee and congratulated him on bringing the Viceroy home safely. The incident reflects both Mountbatten’s bravery and Jinnah’s sense of humour.
Of the book’s 29 chapters, Duty, Divergent Paths, A Poisoned Malice, A Tyrst With Destiny, Relief Work, and Ireland are the most interesting.
The book presents a comprehensive portrait of the couple with Lord Mountbatten coming across as a caring, even compassionate, man, on occasion.
Sheikh Mujibur Rehman teaches at Jamia Millia Central University, New Delhi, and has recently edited a volume, Rise of Saffron Power( Routledge 2018)