Edwina: Countess Mountbatten of Burma (1985)
Pages: 242 pages
Publisher: Sphere; New edition edition (30 Jun. 1985)
Maybe Edwina Mountbatten (1901-1969)–millionaire, libertine, Florence-Nightingale wife of Lord Louis–shouldn’t be left to Noel Coward and the popular press. Mountbatten, we’re told, even hoped that the love letters between Edwina and India’s prime minister Nehru–her “”first and only great love””–would someday be published. But Hough, a satisfactory biographer of Mountbatten-the-careerist, fails flat with this reprise of Edwina “”from pleasure seeker to crusader.”” There’s no passion, only spotty psychological penetration, and little detail; the very conception is arid, conventional. Still, Hough’s own combination of admiration and distaste for the lordly Mountbattens gives the narrative a bit of an edge–and, even in outline, Edwina’s life has a certain fascination. The heiress-granddaughter of Jewish banker Ernest Cassel (and, on her father’s side, a Shaftesbury/Melbourne scion), young Edwina wed young semi-royal, unmoneyed “”Dickie”” Mountbatten for the same reason he chose her: mutual benefit. The mutual is important: as quickly as the marriage disintegrated–her restlessness and infidelity, his all-absorbing ambition–Hough does make the point that each took pride in the successes of the other; in being, together, unstoppable. Half-explored is Edwina’s attraction to dark-skinned people–and peoples–which Hough initially attributes to her part-Jewish ancestry. But her 1930 romance with Paul Robeson (and, shortly, another black performer) seems hardly different from the socialite-adventuring of Nancy Cunard and others. The interpretive hinge may be Nehru-biographer Marie Seton’s observation that Edwina, who hurtfully denied the Robeson connection in a libel suit, “”paid her debt. . . by her loyalty to India and Nehru.”” If, as Hough claims, Mountbatten/Nehru relations were crucial to Indian independence (“”there is no friendship in history to parallel. . .””), then the book fails as history for lack of substantiating detail. As biography, it is limited to showing us–if only obliquely telling us–that, from the onset of WW II, Edwina found an outlet for her abilities, energies, and taste for extremes in “”grueling”” disaster-relief tours (she was head of Britain’s St. John Ambulance Brigade) instead of “”grueling”” travels back of beyond. Framed in acclamation (Edwina’s death-in-harness, posthumous honors), this is not a sympathetic story; yet the reader can occasionally see into the troubled depths.