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

Buffles Milbanke enrolled as a special constable and Mary’s friend Barbara Cartland carried messages to parts of London she had never seen before. Astonished office-workers found themselves being ferried by Edwina, in the Hispano, and Ainsworth, Lady Louis’s chauffeur, in the Rolls. Edwina had no strong opinions about the rights and wrongs of the Strike. Unlike Dickie, who blamed Communist agitators, she was simply anxious that London should not wind down and stop.

Any tincture of amusement here is clearly unintentional, as is the immediately-following intelligence that Edwina, after a shift or two helping ‘Max’ Beaverbrook strike-break at the Daily Express, ‘looked drawn and pale with dark shadows under her eyes: “Quite dead!” she wrote, on her Saturday morning off, “stayed in bed till 11.” ’ This tone – when ghastly things happen to sweet people – is kept up remorselessly through the ensuing Thirties. On a homeward voyage, ‘without a maid, she was obliged to do her own packing: “Exhausted by the end of it.” ’ And on her return – why, ‘London had changed. One addition was a square brick edifice at the top of Park Lane, the new Brook House, nearly ready for occupation.’ This reminds me of another contemporary lady writer who, discussing the more modest arrangements of the grotesquely-named ‘Little Venice’ in Maida Vale, announced that she had been ‘one of the first people to move in there’. This conjured a pre-existing wasteland of banging shutters and tumbleweed, a lifeless scene requiring the reviving touch of a princess. In very much this manner, more than half of this book is the ‘frantic’, ‘frenzied’ diary of an aimless but very wealthy deb and her ambitious Naval swain, recounted with giant lashings of ‘background’ served up on a bed of achingly arch prose: ‘Few expeditions could have been more foolhardy than an outing to the South Seas in a smart yacht ... the Pacific was not living up to its name: Japan had forced the Chinese government to flee and in 1936 had made a pact with Germany.’ Too provoking.

The excuse for all this gush and tripe must be, one feels, that it serves as the prelude to a discussion of the Mountbatten moment in India. But even when the war begins, it is only as a pretext for bathos on a grander scale. HMS Kelly is dive-bombed and sunk off Crete, with ‘Dickie’ on the bridge. This episode, which has aroused controversy over his seamanship in its time, is given the Evangeline Pembury strong, silent treatment: ‘Dickie’s men had served with him willingly; if they saw his deficiencies, they did not care, for he was a natural leader, strong, open and courageous. Devoted to Kelly and her company, he had inspired the same love and trust in himself. Fifty years after Kelly vanished beneath the waves, those who served in her still met to honour her memory.’

That last sentence could have been written about any vessel in the wartime Royal Navy, all of which have annual reunions for as long as the ship’s complement can make it to the club. I here intrude a reminiscence of the late Commander Eric Hitchens RN, who served briefly with Mountbatten. He asked one sailor what the boss was like. ‘He leaves us alone,’ said the jolly tar after a thoughtful pause. (And what does ‘willingly’ mean in that first sentence above?) My father’s acquaintance with Mountbatten – known as Mountbottom throughout the Senior Service for reasons unfathomable – was during the preparations for the balls-up at Dieppe, where thousands of Canadian infantry were put ashore to face the Nazis without benefit of air-cover. This gruesome Combined Operations fiasco, and Mountbatten’s part in it, boil down to one sentence here: that sentence explaining only that Beaverbrook made use of the cannon-fodder colonial grievance (eerily like Murdoch and Gallipoli, now I think of it) in his subsequent vendetta against the pair who had helped him dragoon his own scabs in the General Strike. Anyway, the Kelly story had a happy ending. Noel Coward was induced to make a movie about it – one of the great camp films of the wartime period. As Dame Janet gushes:

Dickie could not have been more pleased. The script? Here were his own speeches to the crew. Problems with the Admiralty? He wheeled Noel in to see the First Lord and the Minister of Information. The cast? When Noel was stuck for plausible-looking extras, Dickie rounded up off-duty sailors from Portsmouth and convalescent patients from the Naval hospital.

Who, one dares say, probably looked plausible enough. A biographer who can jot away merrily like this can always be sure of access to those essential private family papers at the old Manor.

It’s not until exceedingly late in the book that we get to the passionate friendship with Nehru. Very little fresh illumination is deployed on the only question that still interests people, which is did they or didn’t they? Dame Janet leaves Evangeline Pembury and Rue for Remembrance standing at the post:

Those who knew them well thought not. The family’s quarters at Broadlands were small, servants ever-present. More important, Nehru respected Dickie. He would have considered it disloyal, ill-mannered and wrong to deceive his friend. Edwina? To all her lovers she had given only the shell of herself. In exposing her doubts and hopes, she had entrusted herself to Nehru in a way that was more profound than a mere physical embrace. Nothing must be allowed to degrade this precious relationship.

Corking stuff, you must agree, reaching nearly to the Madeleine Bassett standard. But how far to trust Dame Janet when we touch on the baser passions? She records with some circumspection that in January 1949 Nehru sent Edwina a book of photographs, illustrating the erotic sculptures on the Temple of the Sun at Orissa. His covering note alluded to them as ‘strong meat’, before clearing the throat and going on high-mindedly about the lack of guilt and shame in ancient Indian culture. We already have an approximate idea, from what Evangeline Pembury would call her tangled past, that the effect of coiling and interpenetrating sculpture upon Edwina would not be what it was upon Miss Adela Quested. Why assume an exquisitely thwarted and smouldering chastity in this case? Then mark this, from Dame Janet’s earlier account of Dickie’s temptations while at sea: ‘He also had trouble suppressing impure thoughts, although they were of the most harmless kind, being no more than visions of Edwina’s elegant feet and legs, encased in a pair of soft leather riding-boots they had ordered in Paris on their honeymoon. Edwina, who was not alarmed, sent photographs of her knees and asked for two cap ribbons from Revenge for garters.’ To the pure all things are pure.

Most of Dame Janet’s history of the vile betrayal of sub-continental partition is a blizzard-like record of Edwina’s dashing between ‘Pindi and ‘Ooty’ and Simla, simply too exhausted to concentrate for an instant. So there is no quarry worth pursuing on that shame-making interlude, where the Mountbattens appear to have sustained their usual self-loving impression of doing their level best against frightful odds. One teensy moment, though, is worth savouring. In 1945 Edwina paid a flying visit to Saigon, where the British General Gracey was in the process of restoring the pre-war status quo. The British moment in Vietnam is one of those things schoolchildren aren’t taught, so let me quote the whole of Dame Janet’s comprehension of the matter:

General Gracey believed that unless he acted quickly Southern Indo-China would fall apart and, the day after Edwina’s departure, ignoring instructions, he supported a French coup d’état in Saigon. Although Dickie was not sure whether Gracey’s judgment had been correct, he defended him before the Chiefs of Staff. Some said that Mountbatten had been got at by the French, others that he simply decided that Gracey had acted in good faith. It did not occur to people to think that Edwina might have had some influence. She respected Gracey and approved of his efforts to keep order and assist those who were working in local camps and hospitals. Furthermore, she was impressed by the French people she met, ex-prisoners themselves, who were getting on with reorganising and rehabilitation. To Dickie, his wife’s opinion mattered.

Though Dame Janet does not actually say so, the dates given in her frothy story put Edwina Mountbatten in Saigon for exactly two and a half days. (Another thing she doesn’t say is that Nehru denounced General Gracey’s conduct in Saigon in very unqualified terms.) Time enough for her, on this unctuous account, to have effectively started the second Vietnam War. One doesn’t have to credit that, in order to feel cheated by this sort of paltry history. But then without the restoration of French colonialism in Vietnam, there would have been no historic necessity for Caspar Weinberger, now Honorary Knight Grand Cross in the Civil Division of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. May we look forward to a husky, non-bodice-ripping sequel, with the foam-capped Atlantic tossing fitfully between two sundered hearts?