This article titled “The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria’s Rebellious Daughter by Lucinda Hawksley – review” was written by Rachel Cooke, for The Observer on Sunday 29th December 2013 00.05 UTC
Princess Louise was the sixth child of Queen Victoria, a woman who famously loathed babies, and from her very first wail, Her Majesty was apt to see her as odd and difficult. When she was feeling generous, she would attribute her daughter's determined, sparky personality to the fact that she had come into the world in 1848, the year of revolution: "She was born in the most eventful times & ought to be something peculiar in consequence." When she was not feeling generous, which was most of the time, she would insist that "Loosy" was backward: "God bless the dear child – who is so affectionate and has so many difficulties to contend with," she wrote to Louise's older sister Vicky in 1864. "I hope and trust she will get over them… and still become a most useful member of the human family."
Even by the mendacious, self-deceiving standards of Victoria, this was some lie. Not only was Louise more intelligent than the majority of her eight siblings, she was also, in spite of her loopy upbringing, emotionally adept, and though this would later cause her some pain when it came to matters of the heart, it made her popular with the public, even as the rumours swirled.
It's these whispers that make Lucinda Hawksley's new biography such an intriguing prospect. In old age, Louise was just another of the batty Victorian relatives (copyright: the Duke of Windsor) who rattled around the great royal retirement home that was Kensington Palace. But as a young woman, her life was complicated and modern. Did the teenage Louise have a baby by Walter Stirling, the devoted tutor of her haemophiliac brother, Leopold? Did she enjoy a long love affair with Sir Joseph Boehm, the Queen's sculptor in ordinary, a romance that only ended when he died as they made love in his London studio shortly before Christmas 1890? And was her husband, the Marquess of Lorne (later 9th Duke of Argyll), whom she married at the insistence of her mother in 1871, a homosexual whose night prowls she tried to prevent by bricking up the windows of her apartment?
Hawksley has answers to all these questions. In essence: yes, yes and yes. But her assertions are based on instinct, contemporary gossip and the matching up of dates, times and places rather than revelatory new documents. The princess's files at the royal archives remain closed, while at Inveraray Castle, the seat of the Argylls, the family papers are strictly off-limits. Hawksley doesn't waste precious time on the various ways she was thwarted, but the reader will consider this bizarre. Louise died in 1939; she had no legitimate children; the boy she purportedly gave up for adoption died in 1907. Why shouldn't the truth come out? It's not as if she murdered anyone.
What she did murder was the idea of what a princess should be. Louise was a practical girl; in the Swiss Cottage built for the children at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, she learned to cook, a skill she practised, to the amazement of her staff, for the rest of her life. She wove a carpet for her beloved brother, Bertie (later Edward VII). But art was her first love and once she'd persuaded her mother that she might have her own studio – no mean feat, given that the widowed Victoria wanted her daughters to breathe the same miserable air as her 24 hours a day – there was no holding her back. She studied hard, and became a sculptor; wanting to be taken seriously, she insisted on being paid for her work. Was she any good? Opinions vary, but the magnificently chilly statue of Victoria she made to mark the golden jubilee, and which still stands outside Kensington Palace, pulls off the trick of flattering its subject even as it suggests the iceberg that stood in for the Queen's heart.
Art and life, for Louise, were intimately connected. Her friends and associates included Rossetti, Millais, Whistler and, more controversially, George Eliot (who was living in sin). Her clothes were fashionable, her jewellery sometimes homemade. A supporter of suffrage for women, she was in touch with both Josephine Butler and Elizabeth Garrett. No wonder, then, that she enjoyed her share of love affairs. No wonder, too, that she refused to be married off by her increasingly panicky mother to a European royal; exile was not for her. Lorne, offered as an alternative, was not precisely a catch. He washed rarely, his clothes were eccentric, he was convinced he had second sight, and he refused to let his wife use his billiard table. But she accepted him as the least bad option and went with him to Canada when he was appointed its governor – even if she didn't stay long. The marriage was not happy. But it was convenient. They could live apart, together.
Hawksley puts her facts in the service of her hunches with aplomb. I wasn't entirely convinced by her thesis about Louise's illegitimate son. It's hard to believe that the tyrannical, outwardly prudish Victoria knew of her daughter's pregnancy; if she had, would she really have been so happy to holiday with her so soon after the child was supposedly born? But I bought everything else, and the book is satisfyingly replete with eye-popping stories of life at the various palaces, even if they're not all new. Victoria, as usual, comes out of it exceedingly badly, something that makes Louise's evident sanity all the more impressive.
It's odd that while Hawksley tells us that Louise worried about her niece Alexandra and her obsession with a monk called Rasputin, she fails to mention the murder of the Romanovs. But I noticed the omission only when I'd put the book down. I was, I'm afraid, far too caught up with this improbable princess, a beautiful, charming woman who loved to bicycle and to smoke, who was always happy to share her recipe for oyster paté and who holidayed, at the end of her life, in Sidmouth, where she enjoyed the table d'hote at the exclusive Fortfield hotel.
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