Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Andrew Lownie is a writer that I have come across before now. Not surprisingly, he has produced a very competent piece of writing based, as always, on wide-ranging and thorough research. As a result, his readers find themselves enjoying a well-balanced viewpoint on history while, incorrectly, retaining the feeling that this is a novel. The author sheds flowery language in the interest of a vocabulary and writing style that is masculine. We find ourselves reading an account, and then the discussion takes on the intimacy of a biography, while the reader has, unconsciously, taken the view that this is creative writing, not reporting.
Andrew Lownie took his Masters and doctorate at Edinburgh University. A Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and former visiting fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, he has run his own literary agency since 1988. He has written for the Times, Telegraph, Wall Street Journal, Spectator and Guardian and formerly served in the Royal Naval Reserve.
The absorbing interest in this particular book is not the writing but the characters themselves. Lord Mountbatten, known as Dickie throughout, was very closely related to the Royal family, became a mentor to Prince Philip and Prince Charles, and was involved at great depth in most important activities throughout the twentieth century until his assassination in 1979. Mountbatten’s self-praising comments to Richard Hough, reproduced in the preface to this book and easily identified, do not sit easily with today’s readers. They introduce pomposity into Dickie’s character, and highlight it, when in truth Mountbatten was much, much more.
As the book develops, so does Dickie. It is a low key style of treatment. He joins the Navy, shows himself a stickler for doing things right, socializes without stinting, and approaches examinations as one might a military conflict. The result is rarely unexpected and he often tops the class. Other issues that assume importance are Lownie’s elucidation of the question: was Mountbatten an outstanding leader or was he over-promoted because of his royal birth, high-level connections, and ruthlessness; the relationship between Edwina and the Indian Prime Minister Nehru; the stories of the Dieppe raid and the Indian Partition. Lownie’s treatment of these controversies is balanced and his conclusions amply justified.
While Dickie was working hard, Dickie’s wife Edwina was engaged in an exhausting day socializing – cocktail parties, restaurants, music parlours, first nights at the theatre. This lifestyle might have been hazardous to her health, but having been raised to a life of ease, she knew no other.
Lownie’s account reveals that, before 1939, Dickie and Edwina were virtually a waste of space. Their marriage was a sham, each ignoring the vows they made to one another. Unashamedly, Mountbatten comments: “Edwina and I spent all our married lives getting into other people’s beds” (quoted in Lownie, 2). Yet, despite numerous infidelities, each was totally supportive and loving of the other. Just part of the mystery of the Mountbattens.
The most interesting person in the book is Edwina. She was intelligent, elegant, a good dancer and conversationalist who, in the words of (Sir) Charles Baring, “had a great sense of destiny, but didn’t know what it was” (36). In the first part of the book, Lownie does not hold back in presenting her as the equivalent of a female lounge lizard, appearing at party after party, drunken, often presenting a deshabille appearance, and dependent on others to take care of her. Having inherited in the vicinity of one hundred million pounds (in today’s terms) from her grandfather’s estate, she was not short of a quid, and found plenty to look after her concerns. Lownie reveals her not-caring nature when he reports that she intended to marry Charles Rhys but, at breakfast, decided that he looked like a frog and changed her mind.
We are given a glance into Edwina’s character when, on accompanying her fiancé to meet Dickie’s parents, she purchases a third-class ticket, not realising that Dickie always travelled first class. His proposal came quickly on the near twin deaths of his father and of Edwina’s grandfather. Their wedding was a spectacle of great wealth. Lownie’s report on the wastefulness and amorality of the couple’s lifestyle stands in marked contrast to his descriptions of the leadership and initiative each showed and the speed with which they divested themselves of self-absorption and arrogance once World War II was declared.
Dickie’s war record is one of daring, of selfless leadership, and rather stupid decision-making. Lownie reveals him as a leader in his own mould, but a leader nevertheless. Both approving and derisory comments from various senior service staff who experienced Dickie’s leadership style have little effect. It is Edwina who shows what a force she could be when her path forward appears. Accepted into nurse training, she became a power house in taking care of the personnel working in shelters overnight. She dressed as a film star but was conscientious to an extreme.
“The couple were in unison, perhaps for the first time ever. Pressure brought out the best in them – their gifts of leadership, their organisational skills, their ability to use their connections, their meticulous preparation and command of their brief” (122).
Dickie’s attempts to stage-manage Prince Philip’s marriage to Princess Elizabeth with the same level of meticulousness was met with an acerbic response that amused me greatly (234).
Edwina was always a force to consider seriously, whether engaged in hunting down a new lover or travelling third class in a packed Indian train (she was ensconced for many hours in a luggage rack). She regarded Nehru as a responsible person, on her same level intellectually, and saw him as a close friend.
Wherever a reader turns in this magnificent book there are new ideas to consider. The Mountbattens were complex people, judgments of whom range from immoral lovers, society bludgers across the range to persons of heroic status. Lownie’s writing fits the complex nature of his subject yet is always completely unambiguous. I loved this book.
By Andrew Lownie
Allen & Unwin