Andrew Lownie’s The Mountbattens trails the intimate and riveting relationship between Dickie and Edwina Mountbatten. Within its pages lies their eccentricities and sagacities, along with complexities of their marital arrangement. In an interview, Lownie gives us a synopsis.
When and how was the book conceptualised? Why did the subject interest you, and what did you already know about these personalities when you conceived this book?
I read Philip Ziegler’s official life of Mountbatten, published over 30 years ago, for my previous book on the spy, Guy Burgess, as they went to the same school and naval college. I thought it rather boring but realised that Mountbatten was a fascinating and complex figure and well worth looking at again.
My eureka moment came when I realised there had been no joint biography of Mountbatten and his wife despite it being an important public and private partnership. We are all interested in people’s love lives and marriages, especially open marriages which appear to work, but this had a significance because Edwina’s affair with Jawaharlal Nehru had huge political consequences.
Could you highlight aspects from the research process? Whom did you meet, did you authenticate the ‘sources’? Did you meet any member of the royal family?
I spent four years in archives around the world, most notably in Mountbatten’s archives at Southampton University, UK. It was filled with over 4,000 files and no previous writer had gone through them systematically. I also traced over 100 people who had known the Mountbattens, most of who had never spoken before. They included his valet, private pilot, gamekeeper, bodyguard, military secretary, his driver from 1948 as well as his daughter, two of his grandchildren, several of his former lovers, and his godchildren. There was also material in other books, such as memoirs by former members of staff or biographies of those who had known the couple.
What is the nature of some of the intimate details that are spoken of in the book?
My ‘intimate’ revelations included the fact that both Mountbattens had many lovers of both sexes, she at least 18 and he almost as many. They both liked dark-skinned lovers and the affair between Nehru and Edwina was physical. The book also provides new insights into the transfer of power and Partition and how Mountbatten was ‘played’ by the wily Nehru.
What makes the relationship between Dickie and Edwina riveting? Could you illustrate further on the pillars of the modern royal family being constructed on their relationship?
Each needed the other. He, her wealth, she, his access to the royal family. She proved to be useful support in his public career, especially as Viceroy, even though they had been on the point of divorcing just after World War II. They were intensely competitive.
The result was that they both achieved a great deal, she with her humanitarian work and he as Supreme Allied Commander in South East Asia and Viceroy and Governor-General of India. Mountbatten was an important influence and mentor, in particular, to the Queen, Prince Philip and Prince Charles and a ‘Royal Fixer’ who ensured the royal family took his name of Mountbatten.
What were the aspects that challenged your process? Did you find yourself succumbing to judgements about the protagonists?
Writing a dual biography is tricky because you need to keep each character in play throughout the book, even though for long periods they may not be doing anything noteworthy. A problem here, too, was that Edwina dies three-fourth of the way through the story. There is a lot of complicated information to impart and a huge cast of characters who have to be described yet one needs to keep the narrative fast-paced. It’s important that the biographer is not judgemental, especially about their sexual antics, and presents information about their character and behaviour leaving the reader to draw their conclusions.
Where there certain aspects such as gossip, scams or explicit details of their relationship that you consciously stayed away from?
I did not talk about the homosexual activities of one of Mountbatten’s sons-in-law as it did not seem relevant. I also did not go into a great deal of detail about the couple’s sex lives. What was important was the number of lovers and who they were.