Vintage Books | 2014 | 416 pages | Paperback | library book | 4.5*
This is another catching up post. I finished reading The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria’s Rebellious Daughter by Lucinda Hawksley during lockdown on 21 April, but didn’t feel like reviewing it that time. It’s a library book and as the library is still closed it has been renewed automatically for me.
Princess Louise was Victoria’s sixth child – her fourth daughter, born on 18th March 1848. It was an agonising and terrifying birth in a year of revolution and rebellion, a time when royal families throughout Europe were being deposed and in Britain the working classes were agitating for higher pay, better working conditions and more legal rights.
There is so much detail about her life in this book, packed with intrigues, scandals and secrets.
What was so dangerous about Queen Victoria’s artistic tempestuous sixth child, Princess Louise?
When Lucinda Hawksley started to investigate, often thwarted by inexplicable secrecy, she discovered a fascinating woman, modern before her time, whose story has been shielded from public view for years.
Louise was a sculptor and painter, friend to the Pre-Raphaelites and a keen member of the Aesthetic movement. The most feisty of the Victorian princesses, she kicked against her mother’s controlling nature and remained fiercely loyal to her brothers – especially the sickly Leopold and the much-maligned Bertie. She sought out other unconventional women, including Josephine Butler and George Eliot, and campaigned for education and health reform and for the rights of women. She battled with her indomitable mother for permission to practice the ‘masculine’ art of sculpture and go to art college – and in doing so became the first British princess to attend a public school.
The rumours of Louise’s colourful love life persist even today, with hints of love affairs dating as far back as her teenage years, and notable scandals included entanglements with her sculpting tutor Joseph Edgar Boehm and possibly even her sister Princess Beatrice’s handsome husband, Liko. True to rebellious form, she refused all royal suitors and became the first member of the royal family to marry a commoner since the sixteenth century.
I knew nothing about Princess Louise. She had a difficult childhood, disliked and bullied by her mother and she often rebelled against the restrictions of life as a princess. She had an unhappy marriage to John Campbell, the Marquess of Lorne, later the 9th Duke of Argyll, a homosexual, and went with him to Canada in 1882 when he was appointed as Governor-General. Her relationship with Canada became a love-hate one, but began and ended with Canadian adoration.
The scandals arose about whether she had had an illegitimate child and her long term love affair with the sculptor Joseph Boehm. The mystery is still unresolved as Louise’s files in the Royal Archives are closed and her husband’s family archives are inaccessible.
Lucinda Hawksley writes:
I discovered that it was not only information about Princess Louise that had been hidden away, but information about a vast number of people who had played a role in her life, including royal servants and her art tutors. A great many items about these people that one would expect to be in other collections have been absorbed into the Royal Collection. … Over the decades, there has been some very careful sanitising of Princess Louise’s reputation and a whitewashing of her life, her achievements and her personality. (page 3)
I was amazed at her achievements, not only her artistic ability in both painting and sculpture, but also her charitable activities, raising money for hospitals, schools and other causes, such as the Gentlewomen’s Employment Association. She supported general suffrage and equal rights for both genders. She was fascinated by the social reformer Josephine Butler, who campaigned for the abolition of slavery, fed the homeless and worked with prostitutes and single mothers. Louise wanted to help Josephine in her campaign to reform the Contagious Diseases Act but Victoria and most of the rest of her family were outraged and she was forced not to take part. Louise was unconventional, generous and charming to people she liked.
It’s not a book to read quickly, as despite the lack of records, it is very detailed. There is an index and a bibliography, as well as several photographs. In this post I have simply skimmed the surface of all the stories about her, many of them simply amazing. I came away with the impression that she was ahead of her times. She was a forceful personality:
She was renowned by the public for her good looks, her unusual artistic dress sense and her sense of humour. Most importantly, Louise was also known for her compassion and her many ‘good works’. … She was regularly described as ‘captivating’, ‘charming’ and ‘clever’. people felt able to approach her, members of the public wrote letters to her, or begged for her help with charitable of political causes. … she spoke openly and controversially about subjects that other people shrank from and she was not above criticising the monarch. (page 11)
Louise died in 1939 at her home in Kensington Palace. Her last rebellious action was to leave instructions for her cremation – it was a very divisive issue, many were firmly against the idea. Her wishes were respected and a private cremation was carried out and the urn containing her ashes was transported to the Albert Memorial Chapel in Windsor, where her funeral was held. The next day they were interred in the Royal Burial Ground behind the family mausoleum at Frogmore in the Windsor Home Park. She had no legitimate children and the boy that it was claimed she had given up for adoption died in 1907. So it seems unlikely that the truth will ever be known unless the records are released.