The Mystery of Princess Louise – Lucinda Hawksley

Princess Louise was the most interesting of Queen Victoria’s daughters. She was beautiful, artistic & rebellious, determined to break out of the conventions & constrictions of royal life. Lucinda’s Hawksley’s biography tells her story but focuses on several mysteries in her life.

Louise was the fourth of five daughters of Victoria & Prince Albert. Her childhood was blighted by the indifference of her mother & the strict educational regime of her father. All her siblings, except the baby of the family, Beatrice, were scarred by their childhood. The death of Albert in 1861 at the age of only 42, intensified the misery for all the children. Not only had they lost their father but they also had to cope with their distraught mother who sank into a deep depression that lasted years. Louise’s older sister, Alice, bore the brunt of Victoria’s demands until her marriage to Louis of Hesse. Next sister, Helena, took over as her mother’s secretary, companion & drudge. Louise knew that when Helena married, her turn would be next & she was desperate to escape.

Louise was also genuinely artistic & wanted to develop her talents as a sculptor. This was almost unheard of for a woman, let alone a princess, but she was determined & eventually gained permission to attend classes at the National Art Training School. It helped that the school was one of Albert’s projects but, even so, Louise was not permitted to attend life classes & often had to skip lessons if her mother needed her for any reason.

Louise was close to her brothers, especially her younger brother, Leopold, who suffered from haemophilia. Leopold also struggled to escape from his mother’s suffocating attention, but with less success. One of the mysteries about Louise is whether she had an illegitimate baby when she was a teenager. The father of the child was said to be Leopold’s tutor, Walter Stirling. The child was adopted into the family of one of the Queen’s physicians, Sir Charles Locock. Hawksley has no proof of the affair or the child but relies on the tradition in the Locock family. The fact that the files on Princess Louise in the Royal Archives are sealed & no researcher or biographer can get access to them encourages the idea that there must be some great secret that’s being hidden, even so many years later. Walter Stirling was dismissed only months into his employment, even though Leopold was said to be thriving in his care. Stirling also received a payment which Hawksley suggests was to buy his discretion & silence.

Louise’s rebellious nature increased as she was able to pursue her artistic interests & she became friendly with artists such as Whistler & Gabriel Rossetti. She also became a pupil of the sculptor Joseph Edgar Boehm & was said to have had an affair with him. By this time, Queen Victoria was desperate to get her daughter married. She thought she saw in Louise’s nature the same licentiousness that she deplored in her eldest son, Bertie, the Prince of Wales. If the stories of Louise’s child are true, the Queen was desperate to prevent any more scandal. Louise, however, wasn’t keen on any of the German princes her mother paraded before her. Eventually, she agreed to marry Lord Lorne, the heir to the Duke of Argyll. Although an aristocrat, Lorne was not royal & the match would be the first royal marriage to a commoner since the 16th century. 

The newspapers were delighted with the patriotic idea of a British husband for Louise instead of another penniless prince & depicted it as a great romantic love match. The truth was less idyllic. Louise & Lorne were not in love & he was probably homosexual. Actually this seems to be the best documented of the mysteries in Louise’s life. However, whatever Louise’s misgivings, the marriage went ahead & Louise endeared herself to her new Scottish family with her unpretentious ways. The Lornes spent some years in Canada when he was appointed Governor General & Louise is fondly remembered there. The province of Alberta is named after her (her full name was Louise Caroline Alberta). The couple increasingly spent time apart & after a number of years of near estrangement, they grew closer as they grew older & accepted each other’s separate lives.

The final mystery that Hawksley tries to confirm is the story of Louise’s affair with Boehm. Rumours at the time said that Louise was with Boehm when he died suddenly in his studio in 1890. Scandalously he was said to have been making love to the princess when he died. Louise seems to have been the person who discovered his body (or she found him alive but he collapsed when lifting a heavy statue) but she always maintained that she was accompanied by her lady in waiting & a fellow artist who worked in a nearby studio. Again, there’s no evidence for the more scandalous story except rumour & the reminiscences of Boehm’s artistic friends. As the Royal Archives are closed, no confirmation will come from that source.

Louise’s later years after the death of her husband in 1914 were spent in charitable work & supporting the monarch. After her mother’s death in 1901, Louise often accompanied her brother, Edward VII & later her nephew, George V, to engagements as she had done throughout Queen Victoria’s long period of seclusion. Although she had no children of her own, she was a favourite aunt to her many nephews & nieces & supported many charitable causes. She died in 1939.

Lucinda Hawksley has written an engaging biography. Louise was a fascinating woman & I enjoyed the story of her successful rebellion against Queen Victoria. She was the only one of her sisters who ever got the better of their mother. However, the lack of primary material, Louise’s own voice in letters or diaries, naturally leads to quite a bit of speculation & I felt it distanced me from Louise herself. I love biographies where the subject’s own words are quoted & there’s virtually nothing of that here. The final chapters seem to be little more than a list of engagements & donations to charitable causes gleaned from newspaper reports & Court Circulars.The fact that Louise’s files are sealed naturally gives rise to speculation about what has been hidden. Even documents that were in other collections have been “called in” by the Royal Archives which has led to a dearth of primary sources & a reasonable suspicion that there is something to hide. The mysteries in the title of this book – the possible illegitimate child & the affair with Boehm – can be explored but never proven but I did enjoy the journey even though it’s frustrating at times.