Edwina and Nehru: Love in the Shadow of Empire

The last vicereine of the British Raj and the first prime minister of India shared a profound connection that still captures imaginations today.

Sukhada Tatke

June 29, 2021

Edwina and Nehru: Love in the Shadow of Empire
Henri Cartier-Bresson's iconic image of the Mountbattens and Nehru

Sometime in 1952, Edwina Mountbatten was hospitalized after a hemorrhage. Afraid she might die, she passed on her most valuable treasure to her husband for safekeeping: a stack of letters from her friend, or perhaps paramour, Jawaharlal Nehru.

“You will realize that they are a mixture of typical Jawaharlal letters full of interest and facts and really historic documents,” Edwina wrote to Louis Mountbatten in a note about the letters. “Some of them have no ‘personal’ remarks at all. Others are love letters in a sense, though you yourself will realize the strange relationship — most of it spiritual — which exists between us…I think I understand him, and perhaps he me, as well as any human beings can ever understand each other.”

Edwina didn’t die that year, and neither did her marriage. Dickie, as friends and family called Louis, wrote back to her: “I’m glad you realize that I know and have always understood the very special relationship between Jawaharlal and you, made the easier by my fondness and admiration for him…I honestly don’t believe I’ve ever known what jealousy means, and if it concerns the happiness of anyone I’m as fond of as you, then only my desire for your happiness exists."

The historian Andrew Lownie narrates the above vignette in his book The Mountbattens: Their Lives & Loves, exemplifying what the last viceroy of India and the first prime minister of India had in common. And it wasn’t just the keys to the future of the Indian subcontinent.

Nehru and the Mountbattens enjoyed a profound friendship that lasted all their lives, a friendship that may or may not have influenced the direction in which history unfolded in South Asia. But in addition to Louis Mountbatten’s role in India’s Partition, what has sustained interest over the decades — sometimes as salacious gossip, at others as a weapon to undermine Nehru’s legacy — has been Nehru and Edwina’s special relationship. To this day, historians are waiting to get a glimpse into the letters Edwina, Louis, and Nehru wrote to each other.