Daughter of Empire: My Life as a Mountbatten

By Lady Pamela Hicks

Simon & Schuster

240 pages, $26

By Charity Vogel


The subtitle to the grandly named “Daughter of Empire” tells you just about all you need to know.

It is this: “My Life as a Mountbatten.”

That well-known surname, and the family tree to go with it – the Mountbattens, relatives of the current Queen Elizabeth and influential in British government and culture throughout the 20th century – gave Lady Pamela Hicks a prime opportunity to witness the history of much of the last century play out.

And that is what makes Hicks’ book more thought-provoking than some titles that have trickled out during the current popularity of TV’s “Downton Abbey.”

This memoir has, along with personal narrative, a good helping of history – of a certain sort, told through the eyes of one very well-placed woman.

To call Lady Pamela Hicks’s position a front-row seat is an underestimation of her vantage point; more to the fact, Hicks was a participant in many of these events.

As a young woman, Pamela Mountbatten – photos in the book show her to have been a young woman of classic beauty – acted as a bridesmaid when her relative, then Princess Elizabeth, got married. Hicks traveled with Elizabeth and Prince Philip as the future queen made a tour abroad and, as Hicks describes in the book, she was on that trip with Elizabeth when the princess’ father died, early in 1952, making her queen.

Hicks writes here that Prince Philip and Princess Elizabeth took a walk in a garden after hearing the news of the king’s death.

“When they returned,” she writes, “I instinctively gave her a hug but quickly, remembering that she was now queen, dropped into a deep curtsy.”

Hicks writes in detail, too, about her family’s time in India after World War II. Her father was appointed the last viceroy of India in 1947, and Hicks accompanied him to that post. Louis Mountbatten was a naval officer who held various state offices – so handsome, Hicks writes, that Grace Kelly used to keep a photo of him around, during her single days. The figures Hicks got to meet in India included Gandhi.

Moments like those, rendered in Hicks’ serviceable prose, are the high marks of the book. The glossy black-and-white photos of people and places in the memoir, including one of the author by Cecil Beaton, are another asset.

Other parts of “Daughter of Empire” feel a bit shopworn. The sections devoted to the romantic escapades of the author’s parents, including, as she claims, outside of their marriage, feel like something we’ve read before – they struck this reader as depressing. Her mother, Edwina Ashley, was colorful in the predictable ways of a woman of her class and situation – those parts of the book are frankly less engaging.

And so, for its historical sweep and its uniquely vantaged window onto many important moments of the middle of the last century, “Daughter of Empire” is something for “Downton” fans – and even others interested in England, class and monarchy – to look out for.

Charity Vogel is a News reporter and the manager of the News Book Club. Her book, “The Angola Horror,” has just been published by Cornell University Press.