Wednesday, 1 January 2014

The Mystery of Princess Louise

Being one of Queen Victoria’s children can’t have been a pleasant experience. The starchy monarch was famous for her dislike of children, and wanted them to only uphold the strict values that came to typify the Victorian era. But her rebellious daughter Princess Louise somehow managed to escape that mould.

Princess Louise, born in 1848, was the sixth child and fourth daughter of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Following a particularly agonising birth, Queen Victoria had already developed a dislike for her ‘difficult’ daughter… and the feeling grew to be fairly mutual. However, with dignity and grace Princess Louise managed to develop into the bohemian princess with a mind of her own: she was a talented sculptor and artist, a passionate woman who loved to travel all over the world, and who was fiercely devoted to supporting the emancipation of women in society.

Scandal was never too far from Princess Louise. And Lucinda Hawksley’s excellent and gripping new biography of the princess (The Mystery of Princess Louise) suggests that Louise gave birth to an illegitimate son as a teenager, and he was promptly adopted by a family known to the royals. It also suggests Princess Louise’s loveless marriage to the Marquess of Lorne was doomed to fail from the off, not least due to his homosexuality - which grew so frustrating for her that she had the windows of Kensington Palace bricked up to keep him from creeping off for assignations. Add in the confusing details surrounding the untimely death of Princess Louise’s long-term lover Joseph Boehm, and in The Mystery of Princess Louise you have a deeply exciting book – far more engaging than any novel I’ve read recently.

Lucinda leaves no stone unturned in her quest to find out every last scrap of information about the bohemian princess, rigorously travelling from England to Scotland to Canada and beyond to search archives and interview anyone who might shed some light on Queen Victoria’s rebellious daughter. But in most instances Lucinda is met with closed doors… as she discovered the royal team had locked down every last shred of information in all the archives relating to Princess Louise and everybody who knew her. It’s testament to Lucinda’s research skills that she has still produced such a richly detailed and informative biography, despite the inevitable frustrations. What were the royal family so desperate to hide about this princess, who died in 1939 and is sadly barely remembered by most people today?

This secrecy makes it easy to believe Lucinda’s thoughtfully posed assertions about Louise’s big secrets… as well as to see past the myth that Queen Victoria was a respected monarch. Looking back on a time we don’t have any memory of, it’s easy to believe the picture painted for us that Queen Victoria was adored by her citizens, but The Mystery of Princess Louise proves that was far from the case. Princess Louise comes across as a figure as adored by the public as Princess Diana was more recently. 

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