Pamela Hicks writes of the first three decades of her life as daughter of the Mountbattens
The lives and mores of the aristocracy hold an abiding and mystifying fascination for lesser folk. Walter Bagehot, the legendary editor of The Economist in the mid-19th century, defined the crown and nobility and the trappings that went with them as the “dignified” aspect of the polity, awe and reverence for which glued commoners to the system. Daughter of Empire, which provides a lively and entertaining portrait of a remarkable family that wore its privilege with ease and panache tempered with social conscience and a sense of duty, is equally appealing to Brit ‘nobs -watchers’ as to readers in the erstwhile Raj.
Pamela Hicks nee Mountbatten was a daughter of privilege: her father, closely related to Queen Victoria, is said to have knocked the venerable sovereign’s spectacles off her nose as he wriggled in her arms at his christening, and was known to address George VI as “Bertie”; her mother, who inherited extensive properties that frequently hosted royalty, donned a stellar role in London society; she herself played bridesmaid at Elizabeth’s wedding and coronation, and accompanied the young queen on her first royal progress through the Commonwealth.
Pamela and her sister Patricia were brought up by doting nannies and governesses, while their parents partied and travelled the world — not always in each other’s company. She reminisces about her childhood with joy and an absence of recrimination, treasuring the intermittent interludes with her parents. The Second World War turned their lives upside down: while Louis Mountbatten was feted as a hero for miraculously guiding his grievously torpedoed ship back to safety, Edwina’s extraordinary energy and intelligence found a fulfilling outlet in the service of others. With their home converted into a hospital, the sisters were first dispatched to New York — the American press referred to them as “royal refugees” — in the care of the moneyed Vanderbilt family, before returning to school in Dorset from where they followed the course of the war and the doings of their parents.
Daughter of Empire is a light-hearted memoir of the first three decades of Pamela Hicks’s life. Written with deft humour and a complete absence of prejudice and snobbery, the book is a pleasant and refreshing read. Disappointingly for us, India occupies only about a fourth of the book, the author having dealt with her India experience exclusively in another book published in 2007. It is clear, however, that India was a formative influence in Hicks’s life: her spiritual home, exposure to which left a lasting imprint; so much so that she named her daughter India, to whom this book is dedicated.
Prime Minister Atlee is reported to have picked Louis Mountbatten as the right man for the job of last Viceroy of India for his “extremely lively and exciting personality” with “an extraordinary faculty for getting on with all kinds of people … blessed with a very unusual wife”. In Hicks’s words, when her father was posted to India, “unlike any other incoming vice-regal family, we were there not to uphold the laws and traditions of the Empire, but to dismantle them”. This set them apart from their precursors in approach and orientation. Indeed, Churchill, the crusty former PM, would refuse even to talk to Mountbatten in later years holding him guilty of relinquishing the crown’s brightest jewel. Pamela was with her parents through their momentous, albeit short, tenure in India. As an attentive and sensitive observer, she feelingly captures the drama of the final weeks of the Raj, the euphoria of Independence Day, the trauma of Partition and the shock of the Mahatma’s assassination.
From the outset, Hicks was overwhelmed by India: by the enormity of the task thrust on the Mountbattens, the remarkable personalities she encountered, the vibrancy of the country and the magnitude of its problems, and the “somewhat alarming … extravagance” of the Viceroy’s household. She believed Gandhi and Nehru to be “the most extraordinary people I had ever met”, but found Jinnah “icy and immovable”. As her father’s confidante, on their dawn rides together she was apprised of the twists and turns of the negotiations with the Congress, Muslim League and princes, and was keenly aware of the hurtling progress of history. While her father was engaged in matters of state and politics that severely tested his vaunted charm and diplomatic skills, Edwina won her admiration for her fearlessness and devotion especially in extending succour to Partition victims. On her part, Hicks entered her 19th year, “‘coming out’ in a way that would never have been possible as a debutante in London”: meeting with Indian students, working in an under-staffed clinic, imbibing an insider’s view of history unfolding.
Hicks, expectedly, was not immune to the Nehru charm and recounts revealing anecdotes of his warmth and empathy. Crediting her with a maturity beyond her years while avoiding being patronising or intellectually superior, Nehru established a rapport with the teenager that lasted well beyond the Mountbattens’ stay in India. On one occasion, Nehru gave her a yoga demonstration, standing on his head and declaring: “And this is how I attempt to solve India’s problems every morning”.
Hicks is circumspect about the Nehru-Edwina relationship; highlighting the poignancy of their bond, but adding little not already known. “Just six weeks before we were due to leave India,” Hicks says, “she (Edwina) found in Panditji the companionship and quality of spirit and intellect that she craved. Each helped overcome loneliness in the other.” Mountbatten himself seemed to countenance the association, being, in Hicks’s words, “completely devoid of jealousy” and deeply respecting Edwina’s freedom of spirit. From reading Nehru’s letters years later, Hicks “came to realise how deeply he and my mother loved and respected each other”, but she is convinced it was “not a carnal love”. On her death in 1960, Edwina was buried at sea as per her wish. As her bereaved family steamed away from the scene after casting wreaths at the spot, the Indian frigate INS Trishul “quietly took our place and, on Panditji’s instructions, marigolds were scattered upon the waves”.
(Govindan Nair is a retired civil servant)