A London court, presided over by Judge Sophie Buckley, will have to decide whether to make public the letters and diaries of Louis Mountbatten, India’s last British viceroy. It will be a choice full of consequences: the confidences of Mountbatten, uncle of Prince Philip, could seriously embarrass Queen Elizabeth and also compromise good relations with foreign countries such as India and Pakistan. They could also spark a lot of gossip about Mountbatten’s bisexuality and his wife Edwina’s more than friendly relations with pandit Nehru, prime minister of India from 1947 to 1964.
But historian Andrew Lownie, former author of “The Mountbattens: The Lives and Loves of Dickie and Edwina Mountbatten,” is determined to go all the way in his battle. The journals are owned by the University of Southampton, which purchased them in 2011 along with material from the Braodlands Archive, named after the Mountbatten country house. But as the university paid them with £ 2.8 million in public funds, Lownie demands that the texts now go into the public domain: if people pay for something with their own money, they can’t hide it from them.
But the material must be so hot that the university itself submitted part of the letters to the Cabinet Office. The government responded by trying to downplay: most of the information contained in the Broadlands Archive is already in the public domain. But he also had to add that what is left behind could damage relations with foreign states. Obviously it is easy to understand which ones, given that Mountbatten was the protagonist of the partition between India and Pakistan and had an indirect responsibility in the Punjab massacres and in the bloody riots that followed Indian independence, with the division of the Hindu population from the Muslim one. Winston Churchill, precisely because of these terrible messes, had a very bad opinion of Mountbatten.
Edwina’s diaries and letters could hide other reasons for strong embarrassment. Mountbatten’s wife came from a large family and was in her day the richest woman in Europe, having inherited a huge fortune from her grandfather. She traveled extensively, often alone, sometimes for months, and took liberties that in her day were not granted to women of her rank. In India, many historians have written, he had a long relationship with the Nehru pundit which could be confirmed by the documents and letters in the archive. Edwina died at the age of 58 in Borneo and her coffin was placed, as she had established, in the English Channel. Nehru sent a frigate, the Trishul, to attend the ceremony.
In the Mountbatten archives there may also be embarrassing appreciation for the British Royal Family. Uncle “Dickie”, as they called him at court, had always boasted of having organized the first meeting between Elizabeth and Philip, which took place during a visit by George V to the naval academy of Dartmouth, with the aim of getting them married. His dream was that future British kings would bear the surname Mountbatten, a wish that didn’t come true right away. Elizabeth’s first children were called Windsor, and they took the surname Mountbatten-Windsor only in 1960.
Who knows what comments there are in the diaries on Elizabeth’s decision, inspired by Churchill, to forbid her husband from giving his surname to his children. And who knows if we’re talking about the princess’s wedding night, spent right in Broadlands. Who knows what is said of Carlo, whom Mountbatten adopted as a son and to whom he lent his country residence for love escapades. Lord Louis died in August 1979 in an IRA attack while on vacation in Ireland and his extraordinary character belongs to history. But many of the people he talks about in his letters and diaries are still alive, and they would be entitled to some respect.