Simply too exhausted

Christopher Hitchens

  • Edwina Mountbatten: A Life of Her Own by Janet Morgan
    HarperCollins, 509 pp, £20.00, July 1991, ISBN 0 00 217597 5

Looking up, we perceived Miss Postlethwaite, our sensitive barmaid, dabbing at her eyes with a dishcloth.

‘Sorry you were troubled,’ said Miss Postlethwaite, in answer to our concerned gaze, ‘but he’s just gone off to India, leaving her standing tight-lipped and dry-eyed in the moonlight outside the old Manor. And her little dog has crawled up and licked her hand, as if he understood and sympathised.’

P.G. Wodehouse, Best-Seller

At half past nine that evening Edwina’s body was brought to Broadlands. Commander North had asked the staff to come to the house if they wished; everyone was there, lined up, waiting. What were they to do? He fell back on naval discipline. ‘Off caps,’ he ordered as the car turned into the drive. Edwina’s dog, Snippet, ran out to greet her mistress. That was the worst of all.

Janet Morgan, A Life of Her Own

From the very first page of this book (‘Sir Ernest was larger than life’) to the very last (‘Truth is stranger than fiction’) the cliché is entirely sovereign. It is a sentimental cliché, compared to which Evangeline Pembury’s Rue for Remembrance (of which Miss Postlethwaite snuffled, ‘Slovely. It lays the soul of woman bare as with a scalpel’) might have held up quite well. Dame Janet Morgan, who used rather to dominate in that fast set that revolved between Nuffield and Whitehall, has perhaps missed her vocation in devising a biographic style that is part bureaucratic, part gossipy and wholly deferential. This could be more happily suited to a certain genre of ladies’ magazine, where one reads of resolute women with secret sorrows, who sacrifice part of themselves for passionate, platonic attachments to powerful men, as Edwina Mountbatten did with Jawaharlal Nehru and as Dame Janet herself is said to have done with Caspar ‘Hidden Deeps’ Weinberger – by one Washington account, making the critical difference in keeping the Falkland archipelago British. Applied to biography, let alone history, this approach can be hilariously fatal.

‘Breathless’ is the mot juste that Dame Janet herself would probably select for descriptions like this one, which clot the book from beginning to end: ‘It was a relief when Revenge was ordered back to Devonport for the last part of the refit. While Dickie sailed south, Edwina raced down on the train, spent a night at Brook House with the Vanderbilts, ran over for the weekend to Broadlands, where Molly was giving a dance, and then motored to Cowes with Bobbie Cunningham-Reid, Conservative Member of Parliament for Warrington and Wilfred’s Parliamentary Private Secretary. Edwina ate ices and danced with Paul Hammond, who had come over from America in the Marconi yacht, Elettra.’

‘Nina, what a lot of parties.’ But how too boring to read a mere chronology of same, as one has to here. And how too sick-making to have to trudge through ‘Conservative Member of Parliament’ etc instead of Tory MP and PPS: Nuffield meets Vile Bodies. From the Bright Young Things we swerve into Brideshead when the General Strike ‘looms’ and

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