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Friday , November 30 , 2012
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Daughter Of Empire: Life as a Mountbatten By Pamela Hicks, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, £20

Pamela Hicks is not without a sense of fun. She tells of a Russian noblewoman in an Orthodox church who, feeling a tickling on the nape of her neck, thought her hair had come undone, and promptly secured it tightly with a large hatpin. A moment later, a voice whispered in her ear, “Madam, would you kindly release my beard.” This book bristles with such amusing incidents. But if the author betrays none of the pomposity associated with her father, who was proud of tracing his royal roots to the ninth century, she (or her agent/ghost writer) doesn’t scruple to cash in on his viceregal role with a misleading title. Only 69 pages in this engaging 260-page memoir are devoted to India. The rest of Daughter of Empire is about high society in London which the Life as a Mountbatten subtitle captures more accurately.

The book’s charm lies in its artlessness. Like her grandmother, who was Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, “she was related to or had met everyone who was anyone in recent history”. But unlike her grandmother, who required even her grandchildren to curtsy to her and kiss her hand, she didn’t suffer from a sense of consequence. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have rejected royal suitors and married David Hicks, a designer, after a prolonged romance with a rich Lebanese who accused her of having a pumping machine instead of a heart when she turned him down. Perhaps she inherited the quality of simplicity from her half-Jewish mother. This book describes how Edwina Mountbatten visited India long before her husband became viceroy and travelled third class on a train from Calcutta to experience first hand what conditions were like for soldiers. The compartment being crowded, the future vicereine “managed to swing herself up on to the luggage rack, where she slept surprisingly well through the night”.

Such intimate details project a historical dimension that is as revealing as subaltern studies. Pamela Hicks appears to write with utter candour about her parents’ extramarital affairs, though the passage about Jawaharlal Nehru is disappointing in its sketchiness. In her earlier book, India Remembered, she said Nehru and Edwina fell deeply in love in Singapore in 1945. Here, she implies somewhat implausibly that the love did not blossom until just six weeks before the Mountbattens left India. Apart from the contradiction, this late flowering hardly justifies her speculation about “whether or not their affair had been sexual in nature”. Having read the letters Nehru and Edwina wrote to each other — which is more than any Indian writer has been allowed to do — she “was utterly convinced it hadn’t been”.

It is a pity that such a privileged, private view of living history should be marred by carelessness or worse. Pamela’s grandfather’s name is misspelt. Queen Ena of Spain becomes Queen Edna. Mugh cooks are not from South India but from Chittagong. And poor Jaya Thadani, Kikook to family and friends, whom the author thanks for her “memories of India”, has arbitrarily been transported from Lahore to Lucknow. Clearly, the editors (Gillian Stern, Kate Oldfield, Eugenie Furniss and Kirsty Dunseath) don’t deserve Pamela’s fulsome thanks. They are probably quite innocent of subcontinental history and geography. While on the subject of production, a book of this nature deserves an index. The absence of one diminishes its value.

Nevertheless, Daughter of Empire is both enjoyable and illuminating. Pamela Hicks may not indulge in political pontification (which is a relief) but her wry portraits of important personalities and percipient observations (on race, for instance) are revealing. She overheard two guests at one of Mountbatten’s garden parties in Delhi say it was “monstrous” that “all these filthy Indians” were invited. When she told her father he gave instructions that anyone who made racist remarks should be instantly evicted. But he couldn’t change human nature. Some of the comments Pamela overheard at Queen Elizabeth’s coronation when Nehru sat next to Lady Mountbatten and put a hand on her arm were just as vicious. The outraged watchers found it “disgusting”.

The Mountbattens always found race prejudice equally disgusting. Perhaps that is what made them so popular in India. But there was often a motive in what they said and did. It may not do much good to the ego of the ageing men in Delhi and Bombay, who imagined Pamela Mountbatten fancied them, to learn that her friendly overtures were dictated by duty rather than by pleasure. When her father accepted the viceroyalty, he instructed his younger daughter to cultivate Indian students. The Mountbattens were like that. It was what enabled them to rise above the host of minor German royals who found refuge in England and whom Pamela’s grandmother dismissed contemptuously as “princes of nothing”. It’s not difficult to appreciate why the Battenbergs were able to make nothing into something after they became Mountbatten.