In 1922, a naval officer called Louis Mountbatten proposed to a fabulously wealthy woman called Edwina Ashley in Delhi. Both in their early 20s, they had known each other only a few months, but were determined to spend their lives together. The day after Edwina accepted, her fiancé diarized how they had “motored out to King Humayun’s enormous tomb, which we saw at 3am by moonlight". It was all “wonderful and romantic", and, a month later, they made another trip to the 16th century mausoleum. This time, however, the bride-to-be was less impressed. “Edwina having just…seen the Taj Mahal," wrote Mountbatten, “was full of scorn for this poor little tomb."
In some respects, the incident is reflective of the heady but also inconsistent marriage that lay ahead, a subject explored delectably in The Mountbattens: Their Lives And Loves by Andrew Lownie. The book’s subtitle is telling. On the one hand, husband and wife represented vastly different temperaments and characters: Mountbatten was Queen Victoria’s great grandson, and while he held a title, his purse was tiny. Edwina was the granddaughter of a Jewish banker, who left her such an enormous inheritance that she received in a month ten times what her husband earned in a year. He was methodical and exact to the point of being difficult—his guests were taught precise ways to consume even strawberries—while she was all zest and spontaneity.
It didn’t take too long, then, for strains in the marriage to emerge. In public, Mountbatten constructed an attractive personality and a reputation for leadership, but, in private, Dickie (as he was called) knew this came more naturally to his glamorous wife, in whose eyes he was a bore. While he sailed off to build his career, revelling in uniforms and pageantry, Edwina became something of a “poor little rich girl" who partied her time away even as she sought something resembling purpose. In 1925, Mountbatten first learnt about her lovers, and over the next decades there would be many more. More than once, a disgruntled wife took Edwina to court for her dealings with married men, even as society was scandalized by her affair with Leslie Hutchinson, a musician who also happened to be black.
But as we learn from Lownie, Mountbatten learnt to look at marriage unsentimentally. By 1929, it was decided that Edwina was free to engage in her romances so long as it was done quietly, and in 1932 he himself took a mistress. “Your girl is sweet and I like her," wrote Edwina to her husband, before taking the “girl" out to lunch. Both had transcontinental relationships: Lady Mountbatten was at one time seeing one of her husband’s staff, while he, supervising British naval activities in South-East Asia, took up with another employee. Once again, India played a role. “It was a true godsend when I found you in Delhi," wrote Mountbatten to his girlfriend in 1943. Indeed, much of Lownie’s biography could have risked being deemed gossip, were it not for the fact that the Mountbattens left mountains of paper cataloguing their romantic conquests.
World War II was instrumental in defining the careers of both Mountbatten and Edwina. She threw herself into volunteer work, finally acquiring fulfilment, while his naval successes established him as a senior figure in the empire—of course, choreographed stunts, an astute handling of the press, and the brandishing of royal connections eased the way. In 1945, when Edwina stayed with the viceroy in Delhi, she found his residence unlivable: “immense with endless marble floored corridors and rooms so huge one is exhausted walking to one’s bath…. Not my cup of tea at all." As it happened, in two years she would return to this very house, while her husband—now appointed viceroy himself—negotiated with the Congress and the Muslim League to determine the fate of the subcontinent.
It was a turbulent time in the Mountbattens’ marriage too. The viceroy was drowning in work (though he still found time to sunbathe naked in Kashmir) while his wife confronted a difficult menopause. He had little time for her, while she began to feel again a sense of inadequacy. It was at this juncture that Edwina met Jawaharlal Nehru—a section of Lownie’s book that will arouse special interest in India. That they got along is known, but exactly how well may startle many. After saying goodbye one time, for instance, Edwina wrote to Nehru: “I hated seeing you drive away this morning…you have left me with a strange sense of peace…. Perhaps I have brought you the same?" “Life is a dreary business," wrote back India’s future prime minister, “and when a bright patch comes it rather takes one’s breath away."
They thought of their connection as a very spiritual one, and Lownie argues that Edwina finally found in Nehru what her husband seemed to lack. She certainly stated as much: “You have brought me," she wrote, “all I was yearning for."
Mountbatten—who in any case had never had much control over whom his wife saw—accepted the bond. Indeed, when Edwina objected to his lavishing attention on a long-term mistress, he argued: “Just as you wept with disappointment when...I was going to be home the first evening that you and Jawahar were going to be together, I sometimes also feel I’d like to be alone with Yola." When Edwina died suddenly, aged 59, she was found in bed, Lownie states, with some of Nehru’s letters.
The marriage of the Mountbattens came with countless ups and downs. But in a time when men generally dominated their wives, Edwina’s fierce autonomy and Mountbatten’s willingness to accept her for who she was made this a union of mutual interest. They complemented one another, and she aided his career materially. And for all their loves and very different lives, their letters show that they still quite admired one another. As Edwina once wrote, “I suppose my affairs with Hugh and Laddie were what you would call serious, but as they never in any way altered my affection and respect for you, I don’t myself think of them as such." There were merely people who came and went—Dickie alone was forever.
Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne (2015) and Rebel Sultans (2018).
Twitter - @UnamPillai