Sunday, July 11, 2010


Our book today is Philip Ziegler’s massive 1985 biography of Louis Francis Albert Victor Nicholas Battenberg, better known to history as ‘Dickie’ Mountbatten. Ziegler’s book is superb, but even so, that ‘better known to history’ line is trembly: Mountbatten might very well be the greatest unknown man of the 20th century.

Friends of mine who’ve seen the Mountbatten books on my shelves (I have four biographies of the man – including one very good one that remains unpublished – and several books in which he features as a key player, such as Collins & Lapierre’s Freedom at Midnight, previously reviewed here at Stevereads) have all wondered at the weirdly obscure people whose biographies occupy so much of my time. Usually, I don’t protest, since there’s an element of truth in the comment. But the truth is relative as well: in 1950, casual observers of my bookshelves (same books, different dogs) would have noticed far fewer obscure names – but the books would be the same. The reason is obvious: the observers have changed, or rather, their schooling has. In 1950, every single active reader looking at my shelves would have recognized the names of Cellini, Fremont, or Gaskell. Today, with active readers under the age of 60, I’m lucky if Custer gets an ‘ah, yes.’ Schools don’t teach history anymore, and schools have never properly taught biography. It’s a shame, but we can make up for lost time right here!

And the irony is, Mountbatten has the excuse of neither antiquity nor obscurity to warrant his neglect: he was one of the architects of the world we now inhabit, and his life was of the larger-than-life variety that the public ought to eat up. Queen Victoria was his great-grandmother (he knocked off her spectacles at his christening), his nephew Philip married Queen Elizabeth II, and he was college chums with the future Kings Edward VIII and George VI. During World War Two he helped plan the epic combined-force ventures that eventually retook Fortress Europe from Hitler, and in the years afterward, he was the Supreme Commander of the British forces in Southeast Asia and the last British Viceroy of India (before it calved Pakistan and gained its independence). And for the last four decades of his long and vigorous life, he was the driving, unifying force – the living game-plan, as it were – behind the very idea of the modern British monarchy, largely through his very close advisory relationship with Prince Charles (look at any random public shot of the Royals during those years and you’re likely to see him, sitting or standing right behind Charles in a disconcerting imitation of Edgar Bergen). He was still vigorously going strong when an IRA bomb planted on his fishing yacht detonated directly under his feet, killing him instantly. Regarding roughly 100 men and 10 women, we can honestly say: “the 20th century would have been very different, had they not been alive,” and Mountbatten is certainly one of those people.

So why the neglect, especially considering the fact that Ziegler’s biography is utterly engrossing, as jauntily readable as the best kind of fiction (it’s an ‘official’ life, but the royal family, perhaps knowing how lucky they were to have a writer of Ziegler’s caliber interested in the job, wisely put no restrictions on him – as a result, there are many passages that would have infuriated Mountbatten, but none, I think, that would have moved him to call a lawyer)?

Oddly enough, I think it may have to do with the subject’s weird brand of humility. That’s not a word anybody who knew him would have associated even distantly with Mountbatten, and in its more pietistic meanings it definitely doesn’t apply. He was tall, extremely handsome, bottomlessly tough despite nagging health problems, and thoroughly entitled in the most literal sense of the word (the Battenberg line of the royal family changed their name to Mountbatten during the anti-German hysteria of World War One, at the same time the Saxe-Coburgs became the Windsors). As Ziegler points out time and again, Mountbatten was childishly vain and apt to preening – hardly humble in the normal sense of the word.

But he had a way of disappearing into the enormous, historical tasks that he took on as a matter of course; he was a team-builder, a consensus-former, and once he had a goal in mind, the goal became more important than his individual part in achieving it. The ruthlessly egalitarian 21st century will be loath to admit it, but these are royal traits, when royalty is at its best (and the overwhelming implication about Mountbatten – made in whispers even in the halls of Windsor – was that he made a far more impressive king than either of his college chums, even though he was never crowned).

Ziegler is an old hand at chronicling royalty; he uses the same techniques here, shifting from grand to simple, from wry to sympathetic as the occasion warrants. When summarizing the Japanese attack on the desperate, outgunned British outpost of Arakan in 1944, he hits his notes quickly and surely: “’Hold on, and you will make history,’ was Mountbatten’s message. They held on, and they did.”

When detailing his subject’s typically merciless sense of humor (a Windsor trait, alas), he assumes the more relaxed gait of a raconteur:
He relished the royal tours in Britannia above all; the jokes and informality when the ship was at sea, the grandeur and consequence of the state occasions. He had always been a devotee of funny stories and used to bandy them over the table with George VI, each provoking the other to fresh excesses. When the King died, Princess Margaret inherited his mantle. She shared with Mountbatten a passion for perverted proverbs, such as that inspired by a team of pelota players who all tried to get out at the same time through the revolving doors of the hotel in which they were staying. Their impatience was very properly punished when the door collapsed on top of them and killed them all. Moral: never put all your Basques in one exit. One of the royal tours was believed by Mountbatten to have given rise to another of these monstrosities. A tribal chief had two thrones which had last been used in the days of King George V. As his grass hut was rather small, he had them pulled on ropes into the roof. Unfortunately, when the time came to use them again, the ropes broke and the thrones crashed down on top of the chief. As he died, the moral no doubt flashed through is mind: people in grass houses shouldn’t stow thrones.

All the portraits in this magnificent book are as perfectly rendered as that of its star. The glamour of 1920s Hollywood, the high-strung sensibilities of Edward VIII, who became the forlorn Duke of Windsor, the bombast of Winston Churchill, the no-nonsense force of old Queen Mary (she gets the best quotes for the first quarter of the book and dominates its events even after she’s, as Ziegler puts it, “safely dead”), the grubby purity of Gandhi, most of all the driven, passionate, and illusion-free pillar that was Mountbatten’s wife Edwina … all are given three-dimensional life in the course of a rolling, fast narrative you don’t want to end.

Those 21st century friends who see this book on my shelves and wonder openly at the weirdly obscure folk I read about really ought to read it; Ziegler wrote for them, and Mountbatten certainly hoped his life would fascinate people long after he stopped living it. Of course, it would help if it were readily, easily in print, but in this day and age of electronic marvels, that matters less and less: everything is obtainable. And if you’re stumped and still really interested, of course I’ll send you a copy. All part of the service, here at Stevereads.


Chuck Darwin said...

Ziegler's 1969 "The Black Death" remains impressive. Some of his hypotheses have been discounted in the 40+ years since, but it is a scholarly and readable analysis. I find it admirable that a successful biographer of figures like William IV (has there ever been a novel written about his spiteful refusal to die until Victoria turned 18? - now that would be fun!) and Mountbatten could also produce such a fine survey enriched by extensive study of social and medical history.

Chuck Darwin said...


Your brief mention of Mountbatten as Viceroy reminds me of an article I read yesterday that mentioned Paul Scott's "Raj Quartet". I read Scott's "Quartet" several years ago and was blown away. Have you ever tackled it, Steve? I'd be curious as to your opinion.