Were they just good friends, a political match, or lovers? According to British historian Alex Von Tunzelmann, her research came to an unequivocal conclusion: India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and the country’s last Vicereine, Edwina Cynthia Annette Mountbatten, were in a romantic relationship. And what’s more, her husband knew about it and might have even used it. “Historical romances are hard things to prove because people don’t usually write these things down, but in this case, there’s no real doubt. It can be called an affair because there were hearts involved. He wrote about ‘a deeper attachment between us, some uncontrollable force, of which I was only dimly aware, [which] drew us to each other’,” she says.
The relationship became the subject of renewed debate with the publication of Tunzelmann’s Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of Empire in 2007 and later Universal Studios’ decision to make a movie based on the book. Last month, the proposed film, with Cate Blanchett and Hugh Grant as Edwina and Mountbatten, was shelved. In addition to spiralling production costs, reports alleged that the Indian Government—unwilling to accept Nehru as anything but an introspective widower—insisted on script changes that were partly responsible for the movie’s premature death. The Indian Government, it seems, is far more prudish than the Mountbattens. The British press always characterised the Mountbatten marriage as an ‘open’ one, and it is believed that Mountbatten knew and accepted his wife’s dalliances. His tolerance even gave rise to a wild British rumour that the elegant Dickie Mountbatten was gay.
Tunzelmann believes Mountbatten understood that his wife had a personal equation with Nehru and traded on it during pre-Independence negotiations. “When you look at their relationship, it raises questions on the impact it had on events at that time. When Nehru refused to accept Winston Churchill’s demand for dominion status, it seems to have been Edwina who talked him round.” After the Mountbattens left India, Nehru and Edwina wrote to each other every day, and eventually she saw more of Nehru than her own husband.