When infamy seeps into royalty
Andrew Lownie’s latest book is an account of an almost failing royal marriage in the backdrop of a tumultuous subcontinentUpdated: Oct 31, 2019 16:56 IST
On September 1939, when the Second World War broke out, a certain 39-year-old Louis Mountbatten was handed the reins to HMS Kelly — a K-Class destroyer of the Royal Navy. He, then, went on to captain the aircraft carrier, HMS Illustrious, and one fine day (when stationed in Virginia, USA), on a morning of relative inactivity, during on one of his flying sojourns, he paid a visit to the Pearl Harbor. Appalled by its unpreparedness, he predicted a Japanese attack in the foreseeable future. And sure enough, the Japanese would attack, altering the course of the war and that of the Japanese themselves.
These pursuits of his would make him former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s favourite. Churchill would make him Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia Command (SEAC) with promotion to acting full admiral. But for British biographer Andrew Lownie, the intriguing charm of ‘Mountbatten’ pales when compared to ‘the Mountbattens’ — Louis and Edwina. His latest book, The Mountbattens: Their Lives and Loves is a fascinating study of how love, fades with time.
Lownie says when he read previous books written on the couple, he felt there was something definitely missing. “I felt there was a gap. One could look at the private man and, in particular, look at his marriage which was unusual in being loving but beset with infidelities,” he says.
The couple, whose relationship initially seemed to be going down the drains, thanks to infidelities and Edwina’s dreary towards Louis (slowly, with time, she began thinking of him as insipid) came to a mutual acceptance. Born to an extremely wealthy Jewish household, Edwina became a member of the upper class socialite groups. And while her husband was away building a career, she began having her many beaus, most notably, Leslie Hutchinson, a Black musician, sending shock waves through the elite socialite community.
Louis would know about them with time, and they would come to an understanding. Married and unhappy, the couple would embrace each other’s extramarital affairs. But that will not be all for the Mountbattens. With time the world will find out about Edwina’s affair with the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru and in 1944, the FBI’s documents would claim that Louis was a paedophile.
“There were also discoveries about Dickie’s incompetence and his murder. I was concerned that attempts would be made to challenge and discredit my research and there might be legal threats from lovers or the IRA (Irish Republican Army) but so far nothing has materialised,” he adds.
Lownie mentions The IRA –Irish Republican Army. Established in 1919, it was responsible for Louis’ death. On August 27, 1969, when Louis went fishing with his daughter, his son-in-law and their twin children, the IRA blew up the boat with a radio controlled bomb. Everyone on-board died, except Louis, who was pulled alive by fishermen, with his legs blown off. He succumbed to his injuries soon after.
Lowie says when he died; he was going through the lowest phase of his career. “He was almost eighty when he was killed , lonely and already beginning to lose his faculties. I think he would have felt he had a full life and loved the way his death made headlines around the world. The tragedy was that many innocent people, including two teenage boys, died with him,” he says, adding, “He had been warned not to go because there was a plot against him but he ignored that advice. I believe the IRA action was counter-productive and that it only led to better cross border cooperation and a reduction of support from North America. There remain many unexplained questions about his murder and the level of his protection”
The IRA would issue a statement soon after — “The IRA claim responsibility for the execution of Lord Louis Mountbatten. This operation is one of the discriminate ways we can bring to the attention of the English people the continuing occupation of our country”.
But for the subcontinent, Louis Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma represents something completely different. On February 20,1947, when he became a viceroy and was charged with overseeing the partition of India and Pakistan, many believe he hurried into the process. His decisions resulting in thousands of inadvertent deaths. Lownie believes the arguments of partition being avoided do not hold power. It would have happened despite Jinnah’s rapidly deteriorating health. “Mountbatten was not alone in believing that the transfer of power should be accelerated from June 1948 to August 1947 given the sectarian violence, squabbling among Indian politicians and diminishing British authority. I don’t think that knowledge of Jinnah’s cancer would have changed the pace or shape of Indian Independence,” he says.
Lownie adds that the Mountbatten’s legacy continues to be alive in India. “The Mountbattens remained deeply in thrall to the sub-continent — not only staying on as Governor-General but making regular visits. That family love of India, in particular, has continued to this day with their descendants,” he says.
“Their legacy clearly continues in India and Pakistan with the Kashmir dispute and on-going arguments over partition. That is what makes him more than just a historical figure and relevant to this day,” says the author when asked what is the reason that their relevance stood the test of time. “Many of the controversies remain very sensitive and finely-balanced and I was acutely aware of the need to be fair and to try and explain in simple terms subjects which are highly complex,” he adds.
As for the book, Lownie says, he leaves everything up to the reader to form opinions of the royal family. “I have tried to present a balanced picture of all the characters in this remarkable drama —not just Dickie and Edwina but also Nehru, Gandhi and Jinnah. For Edwina, my conclusion is that her reputation is secure as a universally loved humanitarian but the jury is still out on Dickie as a man and a public figure. I have tried to build a picture from this mosaic of views, which I hope helps explain them and their behaviour. But inevitably, every reader will form their own opinions,” he concludes.