Lady Pamela Hicks has aptly titled her new memoir, “Daughter of Empire: My Life as a Mountbatten,” for she grew up in a family where service to Crown and country were paramount. Her father was Earl Mountbatten of Burma. Born Prince Louis of Battenberg, but called “Dickie” by family, he was a great-grandson of Queen Victoria who would go on to serve as First Sea Lord of the Royal Navy and as the last viceroy of India. Her mother, Edwina Ashley, was a wealthy heiress whose grandfather, Sir Ernest Cassel, was friend and financial adviser to King Edward VII.
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Known at the time of their marriage as Lord and Lady Louis Mountbatten ("Battenberg" was Anglicized during World War I), they were the "it" couple of the 1920s and 1930s, moving effortlessly among royal circles and the realms of fashion, high society and entertainment. They made a home movie on their honeymoon co-starring Charlie Chaplin. Mrs. Wallis Simpson arrived with a cold cooked chicken from Fortnum & Mason — and King Edward VIII (her future husband). One of the Vanderbilts hosted them when they were in New York.
Hicks' childhood should have been storybook fabulous. Her aunt was the crown princess of Sweden. Her godfather, the king of Spain. And then there was her handsome Greek-Danish cousin, Philip, who would later marry the future Queen Elizabeth II. She and her older sister, Patricia, were coddled with all the privileges that class, celebrity and cash could bestow. Too bad the parents were restlessly roaming the world for reasons of duty, lust — or both.
The father seems great fun. Hicks portrays the ambitious naval officer in loving terms as dashing, genial, loving, brimming with family lore (back to the 9th century) and expertly playing his royal strings for all they were worth. A much cooler assessment awaits the mother, who seems most notable at first for her "beau monde chic" and lengthy absences. She once deposited the children, their nanny and their governess at a Hungarian lodge and disappeared for months; they discovered later that she had forgotten where they were and had been forced to retrace her route.
Mummy likes to ship home exotic animals as souvenirs of her trips. She also collects men — one of whom, a member of the Coldstream Guards named "Bunny," wins Pamela's eternal devotion by buying her a pony. Daddy, his daughter recalls, was quite put out at first by his wife's infidelities but eventually took up a French mistress. And they all lived somewhat happily and eccentrically in a monied English way — think Wodehouse with an R rating.
"Patricia and I never felt unloved," Hicks insists, adding a few paragraphs later, "All this is not to say that we didn't have a family life. We did — when my parents were at home — and on these special days we would all spend a great deal of time together."
Hicks clearly believes in the stiff upper lip; her narrative is void of self-pity or fashionable psychobabble. What a relief that is, honestly. She's also able to appreciate the distinguished record of public service achieved by her parents, especially her mother's tireless efforts to help the sick and disadvantaged.
Still, hers is a tale rather too tidily told.
That's unfortunate. For Hicks was an eyewitness to history. She was there as her father grappled with ending British rule in India. She met Indian leaders Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru and watched as the subcontinent split into the independent states of India and Pakistan. She was there when Princess Elizabeth became queen while on tour in Kenya and later accompanied the new monarch on an historic globe-girdling journey 'round the Commonwealth.
Except for denying rumors that her mother had an affair with Nehru, Hicks offers little deep or fresh insight into the people and situations she encountered (to be fair, she recounted her time in India six years ago in "India Remembered: A Personal Account of the Mountbattens During the Transfer of Power").
The reader does get a behind-the-scenes look at the trappings of empire — the routines, the rituals, the numbing rote punctuated occasionally by some unscripted nonsense. Her affectionate stories of a young queen discovering herself are amusing, but even at their most mischievous, none of these will make even the most secretive royal brow twitch with worry.
As an author, Hicks has a talent for the telling detail and can deliver a line with an appealing and often amusing briskness. Her most appealing character sketch is of her grandmother, the dowager marchioness of Milford Haven. A granddaughter of Queen Victoria, Grandmama is a rather outrageous aristocrat: Smart, tough, outspoken, puffing away on Russian cigarettes, holding two or three conversations simultaneously and arguing with everyone.
"There was no one — human or animal — who could not be put in their place by Grandmama," she writes.
One suspects Hicks also has that talent for putting one, human or animal, in their place. Now 84, and looking very grand, she sparked a furor recently when she said in a Vanity Fair interview that the late Diana, princess of Wales, was "spiteful" to Prince Charles and unfeeling toward the royal family. Di, she made clear, did not do her duty.
Hicks' harsh stance is understandable given her background. She knows firsthand that rulers today must serve the ruled and that royal blood provides rewards and risk, perils and privilege. After all, two of Grandmama's sisters were killed by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution: the Czarina Alexandra Feodorovna and the Grand Duchess Serge. Decades later, in 1979, Hicks' 79-year-old father and three others, including Hicks' nephew, were killed when their fishing boat was blown up off County Sligo, Ireland. The Provisional wing of the Irish Republican Army issued a statement taking responsibility for the bombing.
But Hicks' book doesn't go that far forward in time. Her story covers her first 30 years and ends with her mother's death in 1960. It is also, she writes, the point where a "new life" began as bride to a young, talented designer named David Hicks. (That she chose to name her children, in descending order — Edwina, Ashley, India — would give Freudians much to play around with.) In interviews, Hicks has ruled out a sequel. Too bad. It would be fun to read how she survived the swinging '60s and to encounter all the fascinating people that she, a daughter of Empire still, surely met.
Bill Daley is a food and feature writer for the Tribune.
"Daughter of Empire"
By Lady Pamela Hicks, Simon & Schuster, 240 pages, $26Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun