Monday, 19 November 2012

New books: Mountbatten’s daughter, Elizabeth II’s lady-in-waiting

The memoirs of the children of famous parents and of former courtiers have in common that they are frequently rather dull, dreary and over-careful not to say anything that is not already known. The autobiography of Lady Pamela Hicks, youngest daughter of the famous Earl Mountbatten of Burma, first cousin of Prince Philip and former lady-in-waiting to her third cousin, Queen Elizabeth II of Britain, is an exception to this rule.
In Daughter of Empire: Life as a Mountbatten, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson last month, Lady Pamela Hicks tells the story of her early years with humour and a sharp eye for the telling detail. She relates the story of her life from her privileged childhood, the “exile” in the United States in the early stages of World War II, her time in India while her father was its last viceroy and the tours on which she accompanied the current Queen as lady-in-waiting. These travels include the visit to Kenya in February 1952 which was cut short by the death of George VI and the accession of Elizabeth II, which Lady Pamela observed at first hand.
As children of famous parents often are in their memoirs, Lady Pamela is admiring and generally uncritical of her parents. Yet she is very candid about her parents’ unusual marriage, and how their open infidelity to each other brought their lovers into the children’s lives in what seems a most natural manner and how these lovers themselves became important to the two Mountbatten daughters. The portrayal of her paternal grandmother, Victoria, Marchioness of Milford Haven, stands out as one of the most memorable aspects of the book, along with her loving depiction of the time she spent in India with her parents during that country’s transition from colonial status to independence.
There seems to be a set of “approved” royal anecdotes which are included in all such memoirs (how many times have we not read for instance of how the then Princess Elizabeth’s tiara snapped and the pearls and the bridal bouquet had been mislaid just before she set off for her wedding?), but besides these there are many amusing stories in this book, some of them hilarious.
Occasionally Lady Pamela gets her facts wrong, for instance by giving a wrong date or misspelling a name, or imagining she departed from “JFK” airport in the 1940s when she apparently means La Guardia. And there is a glowing account of what “a privilege” it was to meet “the legendary King Haakon of Norway”, who “was deeply revered by his countrymen as a war hero, a symbol of his people’s resistance”, before Lady Pamela goes on to tell us how he “remained defiantly in his palace and rode out on his white horse through the streets of Oslo every day”, which is the exact opposite of what King Haakon actually did (leading a government in exile from London), but reminiscent of what his brother, King Christian X of Denmark, did.
The book ends with Queen Elizabeth II’s great Commonwealth tour following her accession and then a brief epilogue about Lady Pamela’s marriage to the designer David Hicks in 1960 and how they learned of the death of her mother upon returning from their honeymoon. As such it is not a complete autobiography and indeed I think this early end to the book makes Lady Pamela herself appear less interesting than what she might actually be.
There had been marital approaches made by Prince Georg of Denmark, who was turned down by Lord Mountbatten without Lady Pamela having been consulted. There was a romance with a Lebanese man and, we are told, ten proposals of marriage. But it was only when she met an untypical suitor in the shape of David Hicks that she was “completely bowled over”.
“It was an unorthodox match but one that would change my life completely”, she writes. “After twenty-nine years as the dutiful daughter of a family at the heart of British society, with all its traditions and ceremonies, I was about to enter a completely new world – of fashion, design and the whirlwind of the 1960s”. The contrast between the world into which she was born and the world into which she married must have led to interesting experiences and, perhaps, difficult transitions, something which might have been an interesting tale. But perhaps Lady Pamela Hicks considers that a different story?


  1. Nice review, but I had to smile when you fact-checked her on JFK airport. If she was arriving on an international airport in the 1940s, it probably was JFK, or as it was known then, Idlewild. International flights started arriving there in 1943. LaGuardia (which was known as New York Municipal until 1947) was and is a "limited distance" airport with no flights longer than 1,500 miles.

    1. The first time she refers to that journey she says that she departed from La Guardia. Several pages later she is reminded of the same journey and then says that it was from JFK, so one of them obviously has to be wrong. Furthermore this was before 1943.

  2. I received this book around 2 weeks ago and I just had a glimpse on did not look interesting but now with your positive review I will read it.

    Alberto Penna Rodrigues


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