Daughter of Empire: Life as a Mountbatten by Pamela Hicks is a light memoir, the kind that skims the surface without worrying itself with too much introspection, but that is what makes it so enjoyable. Focused on the first thirty years of her life, from her birth in 1929 to her 1960 marriage to David Hicks, Lady Pamela offers an entrancing glimpse into a world of long forgotten glamour and into her endlessly fascinating family.
The second daughter of Louis “Dickie” Mountbatten and Edwina Ashley, Lady Pamela had an active, wandering childhood: born in Barcelona, she spent some of her early childhood in Malta until her father became too uncomfortable with Italy’s growing aggression and, though he remained stationed there, sent the girls to continental Europe where they met up with their mother. From there, they eventually returned to England – but not for long. Lady Pamela and her older sister spent the first few years of the war in America, their mother and father having been very concerned over the prospect of a German invasion and what that would have meant for their daughters with Jewish blood (Edwina Ashley’s grandfather was Jewish).
As a child, Lady Pamela adored her father and relished their time together and their close relationship. Her mother, on the other hand, was a distant figure in her childhood, both emotionally and physically: during Lady Pamela’s early years, her mother seems to have spent a large amount of time travelling the world in the company of one of her lovers. For Lady Pamela, her parent’s open marriage is a simple fact of life. When her father first discover that his wife had taken a lover, “he was devastated but eventually, using their reserves of deep mutual affection, my parents managed to negotiate a way through this crisis and found a modus vivendi.” They had already been married for nine years by the time Pamela was born and had by then figured out how to make their marriage work, thanks, Lady Pamela notes, to “my father’s complete lack of jealousy and total desire for my mother’s happiness.” Though Lady Pamela’s affections are wholly with her father, she does recognize and admire her mother’s achievements, noting that she was “a woman who always drove herself too hard and felt intellectually isolated.”
The most interesting portion of the book, for me, were the chapters dealing with Lady Pamela’s late teens and early twenties, which cover both her time in India while her father was Viceroy (and later Governor General) and her experiences as lady-in-waiting to Princess (and then Queen) Elizabeth. The India chapters are particularly good. The Mountbattens arrived in 1947 with a unique mission: “unlike any other incoming viceregal family, we were not there to uphold the laws and traditions of the Empire but to dismantle them.” It was a role that all three of them (her elder sister Patricia was already married by then) took very seriously though seventeen-year old Pamela was far from prepared for the duties that fell to her, something she realised while being briefed by the outgoing Viceroy’s twenty-something daughter:
I could do little but listen as Felicity brought me all her files and began: “The Viceroy’s House compound houses five hundred and fifty-five domestic servants, drivers, gardeners, electricians and grooms together with their families, so the compound holds around five thousand in total and we have a school and you will have to be the chief visitor for the school. And there is a clinic…” Furthermore, I was to succeed Felicity as the president of the Lady Noyce School for the Deaf and Dumb, which taught about seventy children aged between six and eighteen, who, without the protection of the school, would be unwanted and helpless. It transpired that Felicity also worked part time at a canteen for the Allied forced. “But,” she said, “that’s all fairly straightforward so I’m sure you can work that one out for yourself.” I could only smile politely…Fresh out of school, not yet eighteen, with no training or skills beyond typing and speed-writing, I felt somewhat out of my depth. And she hadn’t even mentioned all the student leaders who were about to be released from prison whom my father wanted me to contact.
Lady Pamela is particularly strong when describing the politics and violence surrounding independence and partition as well as the friendships that made their time there so happy, despite the shattering amount of work that fell to her parents and the friends they lost in the violence. Her memories of Nehru in particular are lovely; especially her recognition of the close relationship between him and her mother (though she believes their affair remained platonic) and what it meant for Edwina to find a soul mate at that particular point in her life, when she was exhausting herself travelling all over the country to provide relief in areas hardest hit by the violence.
The writing is simple but it perfectly suits the straightforward way in which Lady Pamela presents her life story. She does not attempt to analyse the characters of those around her – there are no tortured attempts to understand her mother or, while in Kenya in 1952, to give insight into Queen Elizabeth’s feelings on hearing that her father had died – she merely reports on her life and, to me, that is more than enough. The book is light, entertaining and reveals an author who is both kind and humourous. I greatly enjoyed this and can only hope that it is followed by another volume about her life as a Hicks.