Hélène was a strong-willed princess, raised in France but closely connected with the court of Queen Victoria. After the premature end to a romance with Victoria’s grandson, she married into the royal family of Italy. However, Hélène began extended adventuresome trips into Africa where she became a big-game hunter, explorer and travel writer, escaping from an unhappy marriage and the boredom of court life. Her travels took her around the world, but her sense of royal duty brought her back to nurse aboard a hospital ship in Libyan waters, then to an important role as head of the Italian Red Cross nurses during the First World War while her husband headed Italy’s Third Army, and her two sons served in the artillery and the navy. Afterwards, her strong Italian nationalism made her an ally to Gabriele d’Annunzio and Benito Mussolini, but the disastrous Second World War saw her grandchildren interned in Austria and her older son die as a British prisoner-of-war while she continued her charitable work in Naples. When the country voted to become a republic in 1946, Hélène was the only member of the royal family allowed to remain in Italy with her second ‘secret’ husband.
Hélène of Orléans was born on 13 June 1871 in England as the daughter of the exiled Prince Philippe, Count of Paris, and Infanta Maria Isabel of Spain. She spent some time in France but when her father was banned from France so returned to England. The beautiful Hélène soon attracted suitors, including Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale, the eldest son of the future King Edward VII. The pair were truly in love but Hélène was a Catholic, and she knew she would never be able to convert and so tragically, the two never married. He was later engaged to Mary of Teck but died before the wedding could take place. Other possible suitors include the future Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir the Austrian throne.
On 25 June 1895, she married Prince Emanuele Filiberto Vittorio Eugenio Alberto Genova Giuseppe Maria, 2nd Duke of Aosta and they would go on to have two sons. Hélène soon began to travel the world, leaving behind her husband and children. She visited Africa, Egypt and became known as a big-game hunter. She kept a record of these travels, and some of these were released as travel books. During the First World War, she acted as a nurse on the front line and was showered in medals for her bravery.
Edward Hanson’s The Wandering Princess shows Hélène in a way that not many people have gotten to see before. The book is very well researched and beautifully written. She remained in close contact with the British royal family, even after the engagement to Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale fell through and all the connections she had are all very interesting to read about and this is a very much a book that you need to read to understand the complicated and adventurous woman that she was.