Daughter of Empire: Life as a Mountbatten by Pamela Hicks (Review)

When Lady Pamela Mountbatten made her entrance into the world in 1929, the hotel where her parents were staying in Barcelona could only find an ear, nose and throat specialist to assist with the birth. Luckily, the expectant father was Lord Louis Mountbatten, a great-grandson of Queen Victoria who could call upon his vast network of European royal relatives for assistance. He attempted to telephone his cousin, Queen Ena of Spain and was put through to her husband, King Alfonso XIII.

The King, a well known womanizer, at first assumed that his wife’s cousin had fathered a child out of wedlock and offered to help keep the secret. “Tell everyone,” replied the anxious Mountbatten, “It’s my wife. Edwina’s having the baby!” With the circumstances clarified, King Alfonso sent a detachment of the Spanish Royal Guard to the hotel and found an obstetrician, who was arrested by the guardsmen suspicious of his large bag. Nevertheless, Lady Pamela was safely born, beginning a life at centre of twentieth century royal society. Daughter of Empire: Life as a Mountbatten is Lady Pamela Hicks’s memoir of the first thirty years of her life, growing up amidst royal relatives, accompanying her parents to India to witness the nation’s independence and traveling with Queen Elizabeth II as one her ladies-in waiting.

Hicks, who is also the author of India Remembered: A Personal Account of the Mountbattens During the Transfer of Power, is an experienced memoirist who lived through some of the most significant events of twentieth century British history. As the description of the circumstances surrounding her birth demonstrates, she has an eye for entertaining and insightful details. As a child, Hicks spent a great deal of time with her father’s relatives from Hesse-Darmstadt and her book provides vivid portraits of the surviving children of Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Alice of Hesse-Darmstadt, in their later years.

Hicks’ grandmother Victoria, the Marchioness of Milford Haven emerges as a family heroine, stoically facing adverse circumstances and providing emotional support in the often unstable lives of her grandchildren. Victoria’s brother, Grand Duke Ernst-Ludwig, may have lost his title following the overthrow of the German monarchy during the First World War but he remained leader of a thriving artists colony in Darmstadt.

Also present were the constant reminders of the Hesse-Darmstadt siblings murdered during the Russian Revolution. Grand Duchess Elizabeth’s sainthood became an important part of family lore, inspiring the faith and charitable work of Lord Mountbatten’s sister, Alice, Princess Andrew of Greece. Empress Alexandra’s former lady-in-waiting, the Baroness Sophia “Isa” Buxhoeveden took up residence with the Marchioness of Milford Haven, regaling Hicks and her elder sister Patricia with tales of her mishaps escaping revolutionary Russia.

When Prince Philip of Greece married the future Queen Elizabeth II in 1947, Hicks was an important participant in the wedding and the subsequent world tours undertaken by the young royal couple. As a first cousin of the groom, Hicks represented Philip’s family in the wedding party, serving as one of the bridesmaids. Her description of the festivities demonstrates what joyous occasion it was for members of all Europe’s royal houses who had just emerged from the privations of the Second World War.

Just as her grandfather accompanied King George V on his travels and her father accompanied Edward VIII, Hicks served as lady-in-waiting for the Queen’s early royal tours. She was present in Kenya when Princess Elizabeth received the news of King George VI’s death and helped answer the condolence letters addressed to the new Queen.

Amidst the colourful details of royal personalities and cruising the South Pacific with the Queen, Hicks also provides a sensitive account of her parents’ complex marriage. She had a close relationship with her father and developed a strong admiration for her mother. The Mountbattens maintained a strong union even as they pursued relationships outside their marriage and Hicks expresses gratitude that they remained together as family through all their personal challenges.

Daughter of Empire: Life as a Mountbatten is a fascinating memoir by a historical figure who grew up amidst royalty and was an eyewitness to key events. The book ends with her marriage to interior designer David Hicks in 1960 but Lady Pamela remains a close friend of the royal family. Both Hicks and her sister attended the wedding of Prince William to Catherine Middleton in 2011 and receive frequent visits from the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh.

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