Book review of ‘Daughter of Empire’ by Lady Pamela Hicks
Wall Street Journal
October 11, 2013
by Melanie Kirkpatrick
A memoir by the daughter of the last British ruler of India.
If you are addicted to “Downton Abbey,” chances are that you will relish “Daughter of Empire,” a British aristocrat’s memoir of her childhood and coming of age. “Daughter of Empire” has the advantage of being a true story, recounted by a now-elderly woman who, as a young woman, witnessed firsthand many historic events. It is also a classic upstairs-downstairs story, with English nannies and French governesses sharing center stage with Queen Elizabeth II, Jawaharlal Nehru and Noël Coward.
As a member of the Mountbatten family, Lady Pamela Hicks is related to many of the crowned heads of Europe. Her parents were Lord Louis and Lady Edwina Mountbatten, whom she accompanied during their tour as the last viceroy and vicereine of India. She is a great-great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Lady Pamela, born in 1929, remembers the family shuttling from a house in London to a country estate to various European capitals. Edward VIII once came for a weekend with Wallis Simpson, who brought a hostess gift of a boiled chicken from the posh grocer Fortnum & Mason.
Lady Mountbatten’s main interest in life seems to have been collecting lovers. Once her husband got over the shock of being cuckolded, he accepted his wife’s serial infidelity and took a lover himself. Lady Pamela describes how her parents’ lovers became friends of the family and forged close bonds with the Mountbatten daughters. She also refutes the decadeslong gossip that Lady Mountbatten and Nehru had an affair. Her mother’s regard for India’s prime minister was only a “deep friendship,” in which her mother found “the companionship and equality of spirit and intellect that she craved.”
Growing up, Lady Pamela and her older sister spent much of their time with their paternal grandmother, Victoria, the “Princess of Hesse and by Rhine.” Grandmama is the liveliest and most endearing figure in “Daughter of Empire.” She once referred to two European relations who had lost their titles as the “Princesses of Nothing.”
World War II changed everything for the Mountbatten family. Lord Mountbatten became embroiled in Britain’s naval campaigns; Lady Mountbatten found her calling as head of the St. John Ambulance charity. Lady Pamela and her sister were sent off to New York to stay at the home of Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, a family friend and, to Pammy’s youthful eyes, a pretentious snob.
Lady Pamela clearly adored her father, who comes across as a charming and caring man and someone for whom duty to country was the highest calling. She neatly captures his profound disappointment, in India just before independence, at his failure to keep the country united. Queen Elizabeth is also nicely sketched. The author was with Elizabeth in Kenya, in February 1952, when the young princess learned that her father had died and that she had ascended the throne. Lady Pamela movingly describes how aides hid the hotel radio so that Elizabeth wouldn’t hear what had happened. She watched as Philip gently guided his wife into the garden, where he broke the news.
Lady Pamela rarely offers an opinion of the events she witnessed. Rather her contribution—and it is a valuable one—is to provide the personal details that make history come to life. Her observation, for example, that it took 10 minutes to walk from her bedroom to the dining room in the viceroy’s residence in New Delhi speaks volumes about the opulence in which the viceroy lived. She writes in a natural, conversational style, with a wry sense of humor.
“Daughter of Empire” ends in 1960, with Lady Pamela’s wedding to the late David Hicks, an interior designer. Their 38-year marriage was apparently a happy one. She describes herself, ultimately, as a “dutiful daughter of a family at the heart of British society, with all its traditions and ceremonies.” She is also a keen observer of a way of life now vanished, except on PBS.