BOOKS T he Mountbattens occupy an exception- al niche in 20th-century
history, receiving the same kind of treatment accorded to royalty or superstars: public adulation, pri- vate denigration. Scandal swirled just below the surface of their lives, a good deal of it well-founded. Two weighty biogra- phies have been authorised by the family in an attempt to clamp down the manhole covers or at least to control the flow: Philip Ziegler's Mountbatten, published in 1985, and now Janet Morgan's life of Edwina. With the Greatest Respect, written by Mountbatten's secretary of 14 years, a gos- sipy mixture of sentiment and waspishness, is definitely not the Authorised Version.
Morgan's Edwina Mountbatten was a poor little rich girl who led a life of monotonous socialising until, on the verge of middle age, she found true love and a role which suited her frustrated executive talents. Beautiful, spoilt and sexually com- pelling she had, according to such diverse authorities as Pandit Nehru and Barbara Cartland, 'a masculine mind' — that most patronising of phrases. She was born in 1901, granddaughter of one of the richest men in Europe, Sir Ernest Cassel, and daughter of the wimpish but well-connect- ed Wilfrid Ashley by Cassel's only child, the cherished, tubercular Maudie. Edwina's was a cocooned but lonely childhood: her parents were too passionately interested in each other to have time for her and her younger sister, Mary. 'Surprised at 7.30 by Edwina in her dressing gown,' Wilfrid reported to his wife after encountering his four-year-old daughter, 'a practice not to be encouraged.' When her mother died in February 1911, Edwina had not seen her for several months.
Sir Ernest Cassel, therefore, loomed large in his granddaughter's adolescent life. The scion of a respectable family of Ger- man Jewish bankers in Cologne, he arrived in England at the age of 17 and began his relentless climb to the top, shrugging off his religion in the pursuit of assimilation and social success. He married the daugh- ter of a Scottish gentleman and converted to a nominal Catholicism, bought houses to entertain his aristocratic friends, including Brook House in Park Lane, famous shoots and thoroughbred race horses. It was at a race meeting that he made his greatest coup, the capture of the Prince of Wales, thus obtaining the entrée to smart society and, when the Prince became King, an invaluable source of inside information. `Consols are sure to go up tomorrow,' Edward VII wrote on learning of the sign- ing of peace with the Boers in June 1902, `Could you not make a large investment for
Poor little rich girl
EDWINA MOUNTBAITEN: A LIFE OF HER OWN by Janet Morgan Harper Collins, £20, pp.509 WITH THE GREATEST RESPECT: THE PRIVATE LIVES OF EARL MOUNTBATTEN AND PRINCE AND PRINCESS MICHAEL OF KENT by John Barratt, with Jean Ritchie Sidgwick & Jackson, £17.50, pp.225
me?' Cassel was among the last people to see the King alive, arriving at Buckingham Palace with a bundle containing £10,000 in cash (possibly to avoid income tax on the royal profits).
Edwina inherited the lion's share of her grandfather's estate when he died in 1921,
and a good deal of his acumen and execu- tive capabilities but, as a woman, she had few outlets for her talents. One of them was sex. Billed as 'the Richest Heiress' on her debut, she married what money, in the- ory, could not buy — royal blood. Lord Louis Mountbatten was cousin and confi- dant to the future King of England, but on the sexual side he proved a disappoint- ment. Janet Morgan's fly-on-the-wall ver- dict on his performance in bed is unflattering, 'As a lover, Dickie was unsat- isfactory. He was enthusiastic but awkward, Edwina was tense.' According to one of her lovers, however, Edwina found sex tedious, which, if true, meant that she spent a large proportion of her life bored stiff. She had strings of lovers, sometimes concurrently; the butler at Brook House would be hard put to it to keep Hugh, Laddie and Bunny unaware of each other's presence when the three happened to call simultaneously.
Jawaharlal Nehru, Congress Party leader and first Prime Minister of independent India, was the great love of her life. By the time they met, both were middle-aged, but the relationship, whether physically con- summated or not, was an intense one, on a higher and more satisfying plane than those in which Edwina had previously been involved. Nehru treated her not only as a woman but also as an intellectual equal. They corresponded, when apart, for over ten years and, when Edwina died suddenly in North Borneo in 1960, a bundle of Nehru's letters were found by her bed. Their unique East-West relationship is movingly described in the most interesting chapters in the book.
The Mountbattens' sex life occupies a good deal of space in both Morgan and Barratt. Both deny that Mountbatten was homosexual, citing his long-standing affair with Yola Letellier. Barratt, who joined the Mountbatten household as a 20-year-old naval rating in 1954, lists his employer's girlfriends, whose letters to him are all in the Broadlands archives, meticulously arranged and docketed. Morgan seems to imply that Mountbatten was a foot-fetishist — ‘Dickie was entranced by Edwina's tiny feet', he had 'impure thoughts' about `visions of Edwina's elegant feet and legs encased in a pair of soft leather riding boots'. Barratt banks on auto-eroticism, in which fantasies about riding and spurring horses played a major part. (`Old Sea Horse' was, in fact Edwina's pet name for him). He kept next to his bed a viewer with slides showing young women spurring horses, and always wore spurs and carried a washable condom when riding with his favourite girl groom or other young women. Bisexuality is hinted at in the Morgan biography; the Mountbatten family circle was fast and loose. Edwina liked a gamy Parisian night life and went on protracted trips abroad with Dickie's sister- in-law, Nada Milford Haven, a well-known lesbian. She took a perverse pleasure in taking his lover, Kola Letellier, away from him for months to Vienna and Budapest, ostensibly for medical treatment. 'I have never in any way tried to pinch her from you,' she wrote to an angry Dickie, in terms which suggested that physical seduction was not a remote impossibility.
Edwina resented any signs of Dickie's affection for other women. She was even jealous of Dickie's closeness to his elder daughter, Patricia, although herself show- ing little inclination for a maternal role. Between 1934 and 1936, when the children were growing up, she spent just six months in England, the remainder travelling to exotic locations with her long-time lover, Bunny Phillips. But when war came, she abandoned her playgirl life. As an officer, and later superintendent, of St John's Ambulance Corps, she earned respect even from Dickie's wary royal relations. Princess Alice of Athlone wrote to Queen Mary after an official visit from Edwina:
I think that she is a hard worker and clever, tho' one always feels that she has a hard streak in her character . . This war has brought out a lot of good in all kinds of peo- ple one imagined were merely butterflies and selfish ones at that.
Dickie's appointment as Supreme Com- mander South East Asia Command gave her a major stage. Unhappiness in her pri- vate life — Bunny Phillips became engaged to a younger woman, Gina Wernher, in 1944 — added extra meaning to her official commitments. Both during and after the war in the East she performed magnificent- ly. As Vicereine (`possible new horror job' she wrote in her diary when Dickie was offered the Viceroyalty) in India in 1947 her star quality came to the fore.
She was popular — at least with the Indi- ans. The British did not like her adulation of Gandhi, her passion for Nehru or her left-wing political views. Edwina's quasi- socialist and anti-colonialist opinions are not explained and little explored. How did a woman whose only reaction to the Gen- eral Strike of 1926 was to 'help Max [Beaverbrook] out', who travelled through America during the Great Depression noticing nothing and thinking only of shops and nightclubs, find herself after the war in tune with Nehru and widely denounced as a 'red' by her social peers? Morgan claims that Edwina was not left-wing, only 'a peace-loving, romantic democrat', myopic on faults east of the Urals, sharp-eyed in her criticisms of the West. Was this Nehru's influence? Or that of the slightly sinister Peter Murphy, a constant member of the Mountbatten entourage, whom, in the Thirties, she had denounced as 'com- pletely Soviet-minded'?
It is a pity that Janet Morgan, a former Oxford political history don and an execu- tive woman herself, seems to have set out to write a 'woman's book' in the old- fashioned sense. The content of the first 300 pages reads like a 'shopping and fuck- ing' blockbuster of relentless triviality and some tedium. The style is on a level to match. Dickie and Edwina are always `hurtling', 'whizzing', 'racing' skidding' and `smashing' around. In one paragraph they do so with breathless results — 14 lines without a full stop. The thankfully rare quotations from Edwina's diaries are of the `too, too divine' type, Some phrases are simply awful as in 'Molly [the stepmother] strove to eclipse Edwina, as smoke might try to hide the moon, Lines are devot- ed to lists of social engagements, 17 to Edwina's underclothes — 'frilly cobwebs'.
John Barratt is also interested in Edwina's knickers — he claims that she often didn't wear any. Although joining the Mountbatten staff only six years before her death, he says he saw a good deal of Edwina, stark naked at her dressing table. Any book entitled With the Greatest Respect deserves to be treated with the greatest caution. Barratt has, apparently, fallen on hard times and has a few old scores to set- tle. People who were kind to him when he was in Mountbatten's employ like Barbara Cartland, Mountbatten's second daughter, Pamela, and her husband, David Hicks, come well out of it. The Brabournes, who got rid of him on Mountbatten's death, are presented as a jealous, grasping couple, and their eldest son, Norton Knatchbull, as 'pompous' and 'walking around as if there was a nasty smell under his nose'.
The Kents, too, come in for some splash- es of vitriol; the present Duchess is 'not well', the Duke distant, while poor old Prince George's incriminating letters to the Mountbattens' homosexual friend, Peter Murphy, are reportedly discovered and burned. The venom level rises with the apppearance on the scene of Marie- Christine, future Princess Michael of Kent, whose private secretary Barratt became. He claims that she conned Mountbatten into promoting her marriage to Prince Michael and that the royal family, notably the Prince of Wales, who tried to prevent the Michaels from becoming his neigh- bours in Gloucestershire, disliked her. When she did move to Nether Lypiatt, she antagonised the county by holding a party and covering all the table-tops with cling- film in case the guests spilled their drinks. At Kensington Palace the Waleses were icy, at Buckingham Palace 'we' complained a good deal. Rows, tantrums and rudeness were allegedly the order of the day in the Michaels' household. It all ended in tears for Barratt.
There is a generous spattering (in every sense of the word) of celebrities. Bob Hope is a disappointing bore and Joan Crawford a lush who shouted obscene suggestions down the telephone to Mountbatten in a sustained effort to get him into her bed. Some of it reads like Wallace Arnold — "'Sir," I panted, "there's a queen on the phone." ' Mountbatten reportedly said that he wanted a 'readable' biography. He wouldn't have liked this one.
Would he have enjoyed Janet Morgan's version of his wife's life? Perhaps. There is a whiff of the mini-series about Edwina. This could have been — and in parts is an interesting book about the predicament of a woman of executive capability in the first half of the 20th century. Edwina com- peted with Dickie on every level; her tragedy was that, without him, she would have had no chance to shine.