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).
The Mountbatten who emerges from this well-produced book is likeable. He’s an achiever, albeit a vain one, obsessed not just with his legacy but also with his position as an outsider in British society (his determination is Hanoverian, it is suggested). Like his sexuality, he is complex. In pulling together the available strands Lownie has achieved something special — a page-turner which is also a carefully researched work of history.
He writes with a determination and bounce that befits his subject. Sex is discussed with the easy tolerance of a man of the world. He respects and understands the spirit of service to the state and to the armed forces that animated so many Englishmen until the 1980s. His book has an old-fashioned boyish admiration for pluck. Its quick-moving fluency is well suited to his speedy central characters. There are signs that near its end the pace got too hectic. The later chapters are a little ragged, especially the one in which Lownie discusses Mountbatten’s bisexuality.
It comes as no surprise, reading this incisive book that nails Mountbatten’s vanity as well as his greatness, that he had arranged every detail of his funeral, including the 19-gun salute from King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery.
Lownie has written a very enjoyable biography of two remarkable people and their even more remarkable marriage. Edwina transformed herself from a poor little rich girl into a dedicated worker for charity. Dickie could be infuriating and monstrously self-centred.
A TV series about his life was shown the year after his death, presented by Ludovic Kennedy, who later wrote: "A working title for it might have been 'How I Got My Way And Was Proved Right In Everything I Did." '
But, as Lownie demonstrates so well, Mountbatten was a man of genuine gifts and high achievements.