Thoughts: Daughter of Empire, by Pamela Hicks

I want to continue my little exploration of Indian independence, and I thought Pamela Hicks’s memoir would be a good next stop, Pamela Hicks being the daughter of Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India of whom Narendra Singh Sarila spoke so consistently highly.

Hicks’s life is undeniably interesting, whatever your feelings about landed gentry and inherited aristocracy (and my feelings are many). She was born into a family that’s tangled up in the royalty and aristocracy of half of Europe (truly, it is a small world after all), and more than that – to parents who were in their own right charming, sociable and progressive, and thus managed to gather around themselves a pretty sparkling array of famous and talented people of the era, which fills me with a raging jealousy – imagine growing up around such evening company! But the cost of course was that all of this took place in the early- to mid-1900s, and the war came…

One thing that comes through in Daughter of Empire is that the aristocracy of Hicks’s generation are different to the aristocracy and upper classes of today, or maybe it’s just that the times were different. It’s hard to imagine any of the current crop of rich people we’ve been blighted with enduring any of the privations of WWII; you know that somehow they’d find a way to pretend it didn’t apply to them. You know, the way they all did during the first phases of the pandemic. Hicks’s experience of the ’30s and ’40s sounded particularly dramatic too, involving being stranded in a small Hungarian hotel that her mother left and then forgot the name and address of, leaving them with a dwindling supply of money. In a poignant tangent, Hicks adds that the guest who vouched for them to the hotel manager and saved them from being thrown out into the snow later wrote to her from a Siberian labour camp, and though she repaid his kindness to the extent the Soviet prison regime allowed (and don’t we know a little about that…), she never heard from him again.

She retells stories of her childhood and youth, from spells in Malta and evacuation to the US, to the politics of boarding school classmates and the dog she loved, with an equal interest. She doesn’t sound like she’s trying to impress the reader with her exotic upbringing – to her it was just her life, and she lived it all completely. Dog, Malayan honey bear, mongoose – family pets all.

Another thing you realise quite quickly is that Hicks is a very nice person. You get the feeling that she really likes people, wants to get along with them and understand them, and is generous in her assessments of them. Sometimes she’ll mischievously pass on something wicked that a third party said about someone, but always very diplomatically holds back from giving any of her own less-than-kind opinions. Sometimes it comes across as clear-eyed – with the benefit of experience and hindsight she can look back in good humour and forgiveness at things that were mortifying at the time. Sometimes it feels a little like denial, almost, which feels very presumptuous of me to say about someone else’s description of their own family life. But some of her descriptions of Lady Edwina Mountbatten, even the most neutral ones, just seem… I don’t know.

Lady Edwina Mountbatten seems like a lot. Jealous and passionate, frustrated at the restrictions in the role of women in society at the time, not particularly made for that era’s ideas of marriage or motherhood perhaps. You wonder what she could have become had she had a bit more freedom. As it was, she seems to have spent a lot of her time travelling the world, with her paramours, furiously doing charity work every hour of the day. Namely, a lot that isn’t engaging with her family. To be fair, Lord Mountbatten spends an awful lot of time in the Navy in a way that is simply Expected for a working dad, and you can argue unfairness, but… is the answer that both parents get to be absent? Perhaps a rich person thing, or a thing that is of its time, where/when outsourced childcare is normal. I digress, anyway, and oversimplify a little, and Hicks seems to fall on the side of the benefits of her unconventional upbringing, including having her parents’ lovers as co-parents, outweighing the negatives. And yeah, when the system works, it seems to work very well!

Hicks’s tendency to generosity threatened to undermine her chapter on Indian independence in my eyes – of course she was always going to be staunchly of the opinion that her beloved father was doing the best he could with regards to the handover and Partition, and his detractors were being unfair.

Well, here’s the twist – as far as his aide-de-camp and ruthlessly thorough historian Narendra Singh Sarila is concerned… she’s right. The seeds of the flawed idea of Partition were sown long before Mountbatten came on the scene, and his handling was swift, efficient and made the best of a terrible job. His detractors were often pro-Empire, anti-India politicians and military men who disapproved of Mountbatten’s good relations with the new leaders of India. So, it just goes to show!

Hicks is quite light on the whole independence thing – not surprising I suppose when you consider her role in it all, which was that of “mostly ornamental Viceregal daughter”, though with some “unofficial” duties added on (being the patron of a charitable school, working at a clinic – it never ceases to amaze me how so many of these kinds of jobs that go along with other positions would ordinarily require some kind of qualification or experience, and I’m not trying to dunk on poor Pamela Hicks here, as it’s not like she invented the system, and even confesses to feeling quite out of her depth with it all). She gives us a different angle to the one given by Sarila in The Shadow of the Great Game – here we get a privileged view of the pomp and ceremony that accompanied independence, a human face on the violence that followed Partition, and also a careful glimpse of Lady Edwina’s relationship with Jawaharlal Nehru, which Sarila doesn’t touch at all (again, understandably, as it’s a book about Partition).

Still, both accounts, however different their contexts and intentions, are by people who were there at the same time, and their accounts match up. Both books recount the same anecdote about Lady Edwina’s reaction to an overheard racist remark at an event held at Viceroy’s House. They agree on Lord Mountbatten’s good work, and how beloved and hardworking Lady Edwina was with the Red Cross. I think the main difference is that Hicks is a big fan of Nehru and Sarila is scathing about his vanity and emotionality, but really, there isn’t anything there that makes me think either of them are misrepresenting their experience or their research.

After India comes her tour with the freshly-minted Queen Elizabeth II. Well. I read this in July, but revisiting it now is certainly…weighty. (What happens now? Will Charles get the same treatment?) It’s all very interesting, in a The Crown way – in fact, if you enjoy The Crown, you’ll probably enjoy this book. It takes you through a tour behind the scenes of historically significant events from a privileged point of view. Daughter of Empire has that same pleasantness about it. The Crown doesn’t dish any real dirt, and neither does Hicks. But it doesn’t really need it.

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