- - Sunday, November 17, 2013

DAUGHTER OF EMPIRE: MY LIFE AS A MOUNTBATTEN
By Pamela Hicks
Simon & Schuster, $26, 240 pages, illustrated

This is one of those puzzling books that operates on several levels. Undoubtedly, an eyewitness account of India’s rush to independence, as seen by the teenage daughter of the last British viceroy, and an up-close and personal view of her cousin Queen Elizabeth as a bridesmaid and an attendant at her coronation, it is also the story of what it’s like to be closely connected to royalty, but not actually royal. When she and her sister are small children, they are expected to curtsey to their grandmother before kissing her, and she notices that her father always kisses her hand before her cheek. She is one of the first people to see her cousin Elizabeth after she has just been told that King George VI has died:

“I knew how much the princess loved her father and how much he had adored her I instinctively gave her a hug but quickly, remembering that she was now queen, dropped into a deep curtsy.”

The private and the public, emotion and protocol, all live side by side in this book.

What you sense most of all with Lady Pamela Hicks is that she was born to an almost unbelievably glamorous couple, matinee idol handsome Lord Louis Mountbatten and his impossibly svelte, beautiful wife Edwina. Unfortunately, they were a pair whose narcissism, as individuals and as a couple, seems to have outstripped even their glamour. Their looks alone might have accounted for this, but his royal lineage and her enormous fortune were an essential part of the package. It is no accident that their daughter begins this memoir bearing the telling subtitle “My Life as a Mountbatten“:

“My father could trace his roots back to the ninth century. Through forty-one generations, he was able to recount the lives of our ancestors.”

From genealogy to glamour, the author is in thrall to those parents.

What an upbringing. The rich and famous, kings, queens and princes are all intimates. But contact with these magical parents is limited to just enough so as to guarantee fascination that can never be sated. The usual contrasts necessary to make sure of this — down-to-earth nannies and harsh boarding schools — have in this case also an almost unbelievable neglect. When the author is six, her mother dumps her in a remote Hungarian resort with sister, nanny and governess while she goes off with her lover. They are stranded there for months, with their money dwindling, because her mother has forgotten where she left them, only finding them by going from place to place until she eventually hit on the right village. Lovers were essential to the ongoing vibrancy of the Mountbatten’s folie-a-deux marriage and were embraced by the children. When Edwina was bereft by the defection of longtime squeeze “Bunny” Phillips, older daughter “Patricia wrote a short but heartfelt letter to our brittle and sensitive mother” that enabled her to carry on until the next big attraction came her way. Mrs. Hicks recounts all this blithely, but what can it be like to grow up in this menage?

The saving grace of this otherwise rather discomfiting book is its glimpses of people and places that only someone occupying such a privileged position could provide. You see Wallis Simpson’s gaucherie and the thin veneer of Queen Elizabeththe Queen Mother’s fabled charm in the company of Louis and Edwina Mountbatten, of whom she is no fan. Noel Coward’s wit and charm are even greater when he is at ease in private than on the stage or at the microphone. We see the depth of Edwina’s relationship with Prime Minister Nehru — and of course, its beneficial effect on her marriage, halting the late-night diatribes that were an additional burden on the harried viceroy. When, based on her close observation and many years later reading their correspondence, the author avers that the relationship was intensely emotional but not sexual, who are we to argue? Especially when she drops a faint but tantalizing hint as to why this might have been so.

That brings us back to the strangely bifurcated quality of this ostensibly frank memoir, where you never know just how much is intentional, how much unconscious. The trouble with having a stiff upper lip such as that of Lady Pamela Hicks, no matter how essential it was to her survival, is that it seems to have extended into a kind of mask; and so her insider view ends up being blinkered — when it is not actually blinded by the radiance reflected by those narcissistic parents.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.