The official biographies of Lord Louis Mountbatten (known as ‘Dickie’) and his wife, Edwina, written respectively by Philip Ziegler and Janet Morgan, are admirable and authoritative but also discreet and emollient, leaving ample scope for this more candid life of the famous couple by Andrew Lownie. His task was not easy. Many of the Mountbattens’ papers are still under wraps, held variously by the family, the government and the Royal Archives. Edwina was quite untrustworthy, doctoring her own diary and perjuring herself in court over her liaison with a black man, believed to be Paul Robeson. Her husband was a prolific myth-maker, presenting himself in person, print and film as a peerless national hero. Anthony Eden called him a congenital liar. The naval historian Stephen Roskill warned that Mountbatten’s testimony should never be relied on unless it was supported by independent evidence. Field Marshal Templer once told him, ‘Dickie, you’re so crooked that if you swallowed a nail, you’d shit a corkscrew!’
By dint of prodigious research, Lownie has stripped away the accretions of fable and fiction to give us an unvarnished double portrait. It is vivid, well balanced and often sympathetic. He pays tribute to Mountbatten’s extraordinary drive, energy and talent for public relations, which led to his appointment as chief of combined operations and supreme commander in Southeast Asia during the war, his subsequent appointments as last viceroy and first governor-general of India and finally, achieving a life-time’s ambition, as First Sea Lord. This glittering career, as Lownie shows, owed much to Mountbatten’s ruthless exploitation of his royal connections. Born in 1900, he was a great-grandson of Queen Victoria, an uncle of Prince Philip, whose dynastic prospects he advanced, and eventually ‘honorary grandfather’ to Prince Charles, who was alone in thinking him ‘incredibly honest’. Insiders joked about how long it would be in any conversation before Mountbatten referred to ‘my niece, the Queen’ (she was by blood his second cousin once removed).
Lownie also depicts Edwina in a surprisingly favourable light. To be sure, he acknowledges that her youth was an epic tale of hedonism. When she married Dickie in 1922 Edwina was, as a granddaughter of the financier Sir Ernest Cassel, England’s richest heiress and she became the doyenne of the