Author Q&A: Andrew Lownie, The Mountbattens

Elena Bowes caught up with Andrew Lownie, author of best-selling royal biography Their Lives and Loves, The Mountbattens, a fascinating read about the dynamic, complex couple whose love lives were as colourful as their careers.

Born with movie star looks, Dickie Mountbatten was the Supreme Allied Commander of South East Asia during WWII and the last Viceroy of India. He also was most likely a pedophile. While Dickie had a remarkable career, he was very pompous and a skilled self-promoter, traits that made many  dislike and distrust him. Edwina, the richest woman in Britain when Dickie married her went from being a playgirl to a well-loved humanitarian. She had affairs throughout her long marriage including a very intense one with Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Lownie also runs the Andrew Lownie Literary Agency, a highly regarded boutique agency founded in 1988 in London with about 200 nonfiction authors today.

Please describe what you do in 26 words?

For 35 years I have been a literary agent – since 1988 running my own agency, selling authors to publishers. I also write revisionist biographies.

Before you decide to commit to writing a biography, what are the key elements you look for in your subject?

The first is whether there is a good story. Will the subjects interest people? The Mountbatten story is indeed cinematic, complex and colourful. We are all interested in people’s marriages and private lives and this had the added resonance of the private life impacting on public affairs. I like people who are complex where one can play with the reader’s sympathies and that is certainly true of Dickie and Edwina. At times we like and admire them, at others we are appalled by their behaviour. There was also a strong narrative, particularly with Edwina whose life changed considerably after she was given a serious job. By writing a joint biography I was able to play them off against each other.

The second is whether there is anything new I can say, perhaps because of new sources (papers, interviews, releases of official papers etc.). So many books just recycle secondary sources. I like to find people who have never spoken before, push for the release of hitherto secret papers and locate obscure archives which might cast fresh light on the subject.

The third question is whether it’s commercial and relevant. The Netflix series The Crown had introduced the Mountbattens to a wider public. There was an international market not just in Britain and America but also India. It had potential for newspaper serialisation, translation and film rights. My books are expensive to research so that has to be a factor.

Roughly, how many people did you interview for The Mountbattens? Your acknowledgements section is a lengthy six pages long including with thanks to ‘Sean’ and ‘Amal’ ‘for so bravely speaking out for the first time about their experiences over 40 years ago.’ Can you tell us a bit about those two interviews, both interviewees being subjected to Mountbatten’s pedophilia when they were young boys?

I spoke to over a hundred people. I was amazed how many people were still alive who had worked closely with the Mountbattens. They included their driver from 1948, Dickie’s Military Secretary, Dickie’s valet throughout the 1960s, their gamekeeper, personal pilot, a steward from the 1950s, personal protection officer, ADC, godchildren, private secretaries and members of the family including their daughter Lady Pamela Hicks.

I was introduced to ‘Sean’ and ‘Amal’ through a contact in Ireland. Neither had spoken publicly before and it took time to win their confidence and to ensure they were telling me the truth. The detail about people and places persuaded me they were but I have still left the reader to make up their own mind. A former wartime driver Norman Nield has gone on the record saying he brought young children to Mountbatten, and there are FBI reports about Dickie’s proclivities so ‘Amal’ and ‘Sean’ are not the only evidence of his pedophilia. My blocked attempts to have various government papers referring to Mountbatten and a Belfast care home Kincora, where boys were sourced, and to have the car logs for August 1977 when the boys were abused further suggests there is some sort of cover up.

What do you think is the most intriguing character trait about Mountbatten? And his wife Edwina?

I think it’s their complexity, the fact they appeared so differently to various people. Some people will talk of their humility and kindness, others of their arrogance, vanity and insensitivity. In my books I try to build up a mosaic of impressions so people can decide for themselves. Mountbatten comes across as much more vulnerable and pathetic than his public image might suggest whilst sympathies for Edwina notably change in the course of the book. There is also their relationship with their daughters – Mountbatten’s almost unhealthy obsessions with his elder daughter Patricia and Edwina’s apparent lack of interest in them as children.

What was the most difficult part of researching/writing this book? 

The Mountbattens kept almost every bit of paper relating to their lives – there are thousands of files in the Mountbatten archives at Southampton University – and their lives intertwined with so many different people and world events that it is easy to get bogged down in detail at the expense of a strong narrative. One has to explain complex issues – such as the controversies over Partition – economically and simply but without being anodyne. There is also the problem of balancing the lives. There is far more material on Mountbatten and Edwina vanishes three quarters of the way.

I couldn’t help but keep flicking back to the glamorous photographs. Which is your favourite and why?

There are literally thousands of pictures in the Mountbatten archive and it was difficult to make a selection. I’m a great believer that a picture is worth a thousand words and though we have 32 pages – sometimes with four pictures to a page – I would have liked more.

My favourite? The angelic nine-year-old Edwina shortly before her mother died, Dickie climbing the mast on the yacht when he fell in love with Edwina, the haunting last picture of Edwina and the page from the FBI file stating Mountbatten “was known to be a homosexual with a perversion for young boys.”

I looked through the varied list of books your agency, the Andrew Lownie Literary Agency,  handles that are being released over the next month (i.e. through May) – ‘The Cabinet of Calm: Soothing Words for Troubled Times’ by Paul Jones caught my eye, COVID-19 and all. In describing his forthcoming book, Jones writes, “And if you find yourself becoming ever more worried about the world around us, then you might be suffering mal-du-siècle, a 19th century French loanword for a dispirited, pessimistic world-weariness.” I’ll take it. Do you have a favourite word from his book?

ANGEL-VISITS, a word for MISSING ONE’S FRIENDS

 What advice would you give to yourself as a young man?

I think I should have been more strategic. I remember sacking an important author because he hadn’t behaved well. Not only has he made a lot of money and won lots of prizes, but his new agent has prospered through his introductions. The impetuousness of youth. 

What books are on your bedside table?

I fear not on a table but beside the bed where I often stub my toe on them are some hundred books in various teetering piles gathering dust with bookmarks at different point inside them. As each book comes in I take it to read in bed and then something even more interesting comes in. Most are submissions I have to read but I have just finished a biography of Trump and Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. I will often read for several hours at night.

Which traits do you most like about yourself?

I have always been hard-working, a trait learnt from my parents, and work every day, including weekends, generally from at least 8am to 7pm. This can be for the agency or my own research. I do try and take some breaks for the sake of my family but reading and writing is my hobby as well as work. 

I think I’m quite imaginative, seeing opportunities which others might have missed. The agency, for example, was one of the first to set up its own publishing imprint to publish backlist reverted titles and use it to test drive front-list titles which hadn’t found a publisher. 

Agents fall into various categories– the hustler, the contract freak, the close editorial buff. I like to see myself in a pastoral role like a teacher helping on bright pupils to make the most of themselves.

Can you give us an example of how your agency provides pastoral care to its clients?

Daniel Tammet’s memoir Born on a Blue Day took seven years to sell but I always had faith in the author and book. Often, it’s just a matter of timing. When The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time came out there was an interest in autism. Tammet’s book went on to become an international bestseller, sold in 30 countries and optioned for film but the greatest joy was to see how it changed the author’s life, giving him financial security and a newfound confidence. 

Likewise I went through a series of ghosts and submissions before The Girl with No Name was bought. It too became an international bestseller with deals in 24 countries and changed the lives of the authors.

 Which traits do you most like in others?

Generosity – especially of spirit, kindness, courtesy, humility, humour, perseverance and self-deprecation.

– Elena Bowes

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