British author Andrew Lownie has written a joint biography of the distinguished and controversial Mountbatten couple. He speaks to Utpal Kumar about the lives of Louis and Edwina. 

 

 

In 2005, Narendra Singh Sarila, who was aide-de-camp to Lord Mountbatten and served in the Indian Foreign Service between 1948 and 1985, came out with The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition. The book, based on the author’s painstaking research in the American and British archives, establishes a crucial—but often ignored—link between India’s Partition and British fears about the USSR gaining access in the region at the cost of the US-led Western powers. Realising that Indian leaders led by Jawaharlal Nehru would not play the “Great Game” against the erstwhile Soviet Union, the British settled for the one willing to do so—Mohammed Ali Jinnah.

Andrew Lownie, a celebrated British author who has just come up with The Mountbattens: The Lives and Loves of Dickie and Edwina, too, believes that “there were concerns about British defence after Independence, especially given Nehru’s position”, though he emphasises that there was “no covert agenda” and the situation was “far more chaotic than that”. Lownie, however, doesn’t shy away from discussing the Nehru-Edwina relationship. “It appears that Nehru and Edwina were immediately attracted to each other but probably a physical relationship only began in May 1948 just before the Mountbattens returned to Britain,” he says, adding: “From new testimony in the book it is clear that this was a sexual as well as spiritual relationship.”

The following is an edited excerpt from Lownie’s interview with The Sunday Guardian, which not just explains why Dickie and Edwina’s marriage was unusual, but also how the celebrity couple influenced India and its major political players, especially during the tumultuous Partitions days.

Q. You write in the book that Dickie Mountbatten and Edwina had an unusual marriage. What makes you say that?

A. It was an unusual marriage in several ways. Edwina was the richest heiress in the world who would inherit millions on marriage, while for all his royal connections Dickie was regarded as a gold-digger. Marriage freed her from her family and allowed him to pursue his expensive interests of Rolls Royce cars and polo. Quickly she was tired of her husband, who was focused on his career, and looked for excitement elsewhere with a succession of lovers—I list 16. He accepted the situation as long as she was discreet and he himself then began to take on lovers including a French woman, Yola Letellier, who remained his mistress for 40 years. Their marriage was as much public partnership as private relationship.

Q. Reports on their sexuality have been in circulation for long, with claims that Dickie was “homosexual with a lust for young boys”. So much so that some of his friends referred to him “Mountbottom”. What’s your take?

A. There were rumours about Dickie’s bisexuality, but they were only second-hand stories. For the first time,The Mountbattensproduces documentary proof with FBI files showing American concerns about his interest in young boys from 1944 as well as extensive first-person testimony about his homosexual proclivities. The book also has an interview with one of his former lovers and carries interviews with two boys he abused.

Q. Edwina’s 1921 India visit played a big role in drawing her closer to people of colour. Please elaborate.

A. Edwina, as part-Jewish, always felt she was an outsider and throughout her life had a strong identification with—and concern for—the oppressed and weak, and delighted in confounding prejudice. She also loved black art and music, especially spirituals, soul, blues and jazz, and enjoyed the easy banter and lack of deference of black people. There is also no doubt she was physically attracted to men of colour and she had several black lovers, most notably enjoying a 30-year affair with musician Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson.

Q. You write in the book that Dickie’s unhappiness in personal life encouraged him to explore and do well in public life.

A. Mountbatten was determined to avenge family honour and become 1st Sea Lord—his father had been forced to resign from that post during World War I because of anti-German prejudice—and was naturally ambitious, but the sense of inadequacy he felt because of his difficult marriage did spur him to prove himself in public life. He needed validation and if he couldn’t have that from his wife, then he would seek it in the wider world.

Q. You write that World War II brought Dickie and Edwina together. How?

A. The demands of wartime gave the couple new opportunities to demonstrate their abilities and a focused purpose. Edwina had had affairs because she was bored, restless and felt unappreciated by her workaholic husband. She now found a role for herself where her organisational and presentational skills came to the fore and she was able to utilise her high-level connections. She and her husband competed as to who could work the longest hours, and do the most work. Edwina now had a purpose and had earned the respect of her husband. He saw her in a new light and discovered a drive and abilities that had never been allowed to develop.

Q. How did the Mountbattens shape the British royalty?

A. Mountbatten’s close involvement with the royal family stretched over 50 years, from his support of one Prince of Wales on his world tours in the early 1920s to being an honorary grandpa to another Price of Wales in the 1970s. It was Mountbatten who brought together his nephew, Philip, and the future, Queen Elizabeth ll, and encouraged their courtship. He also played the part of “fixer” in many royal family dramas, from recovering sensitive papers from the Duchess of Windsor to making possible the marriage of Prince Michael of Kent. He helped bring up Philip, who often stayed with him, and was instrumental in steering him into the Royal Navy, sorting out his naturalisation and him taking the Mountbatten name, which henceforth would become the name of the royal family. It’s clear from the correspondence in the royal archives that he had a close relationship with George Vl—they had been at Cambridge together—and he remained an influential adviser to Queen Elizabeth, whom he had known since she was a child. It is often thought that he would have recognised that Diana Spencer would not have been an appropriate wife for Charles and advised against the marriage.

Q. How do you look at Jawaharlal Nehru’s relationship with the Mountbattens? There have been rumours about the Nehru-Edwina affairs.

A. It’s clear that Nehru and the Mountbattens achieved a good relationship from the beginning of the Viceroyalty. Nehru was an Old Harrovian and fellow Cambridge graduate and they had moved in the same pre-War circles. In March 1946, Mountbatten as Supreme Allied Commander had welcomed Nehru to Singapore, meeting him at the airport when British officials wanted to ignore him. It was a genuine friendship but clearly it suited both sides to create good relations. Mountbatten so trusted Nehru that he shared his plans for the future of India, which showed he was not impartial. The Mountbattens never had the same relationship with Jinnah and his increasing distrust of the Mountbattens did not help.

It appears that Nehru and Edwina were immediately attracted to each other but probably a physical relationship only began in May 1948 just before the Mountbattens returned to Britain. The couple saw each other several times a year, either in India or Britain, throughout the 1950s. It is a mark of the closeness of the relationship that when Edwina died in 1960 and was buried at sea, an Indian frigate accompanied the funeral party. From new testimony in the book it is clear that this was a sexual as well as spiritual relationship.

Q. Some believe that Dickie worked for a strong India against a weak Pakistan. Your take?

A. Dickie’s role was to bring about Indian independence in as dignified a manner as possible. When he arrived in March 1947 he realised that with diminishing British power and rising communal violence he had to hasten the Transfer of Power. He also knew that only Partition would satisfy the needs and demands of the various religious communities. He has been criticised for not preparing adequately for the refugee problem and sectarian reprisals when he had the forces and authority to do so before Independence, and that he took the coward’s way out by only announcing the boundaries after Independence so disputes did not overshadow the celebrations. The points remain debated but, I do not think he deliberately created a “moth-eaten” Pakistan—that was created by Congress.

Q. There are some who believe that the British divided the subcontinent to create a base for themselves post India’s Independence, given the Cold War calculations.They believe the Mountbattens covertly worked on that agenda…

A. This is the thesis of the film,Viceroy’s House, taken from Shahid Hamid’sDisastrous Twilight.But this theory must not be taken seriously. Clearly there were concerns about British defence after Independence, especially given Nehru’s position, and different game plans were produced, but there was no covert agenda—it was far more chaotic than that.