The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria’s Rebellious Daughter, the full first biography of the controversial Princess in more than twenty years, makes an excellent first impression. The handsome cover depicts a colorized photograph of Louise, demonstrating her keen fashion sense. The author, Lucinda Hawksley, is a direct descendant of Charles Dickens and has written extensively about Victorian women and the arts in her previous books including Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel and Charles Dickens’ Favorite Daughter: The Life, Loves, and Art of Katey Dickens Perugini. The introduction presents the compelling argument that the Princess was not an obscure figure in her own lifetime but a celebrity and role model for nineteenth century women who questioned the social conventions of the period.
The Mystery of Princess Louise, however, does not live up to its early promise. While Hawksley presents a vivid portrait of the Victorian artistic milieu frequented by the Princess as a sculptor and painter, her analysis of Queen Victoria’s family dynamics contains inaccuracies and curious omissions. The chapters that cover Princess Louise’s time in Canada as consort of the Governor General also contain inaccuracies that suggest the author did little research regarding Canadian history beyond the public response to the presence of the royalty in the Dominion. The errors and omissions regarding known circumstances make it difficult to accept the author’s theories regarding why access to numerous archival collections related to the Princess remains restricted.
The Mystery of Princess Louise has attracted extensive press attention in the United Kingdom because of Hawksley’s theory that the Princess had an affair with her brother Leopold’s tutor, Walter Stirling, and gave birth to an illegitimate son who was adopted by Queen Victoria’s doctor, Sir Charles Locock. There were certainly cases of eighteenth and nineteenth century Princesses who bore children fathered by male members of the royal household including King George III’s daughter, Princess Sophia, and Princess Thyra of Denmark, who was the sister of Louise’s sister-in-law, the future Queen Alexandra. Both Sophia and Thyra spent their pregnancies in seclusion, the former in Weymouth, Dorset and the latter in Greece.
If Princess Louise had found herself in similar circumstances, it is probable that she too would have been sent away from court and experienced a period of seclusion, Hawksley does not mention the experiences of Sophia and Thyra. Instead, she argues that a pregnant Louise carried out public engagements and danced at a Scottish ball, concealing her condition under a maternity corset and numerous shawls, muffs and dress ruffles. She further posits that the baby remained within the royal household as an infant, cared for by the servants until the adoption by the Lococks. While Hawksley correctly states that there were cases of Victorian servant women who concealed pregnancies while going about their household duties, the seclusion of Sophia and Thyra demonstrates that was not the experience for Princesses. If Louise had borne a child before her marriage with Stirling or anyone else, she would have spent months away from the public eye.
In other sections of the book, there are factual inaccuracies. Alice, Countess of Athlone was the daughter of Prince Leopold not Princess Helena. Louise was not the first “royal” to marry a commoner since 1515 but the first Princess as future James II married Anne Hyde in 1660. There are also questionable interpretations of Queen Victoria’s views. Regarding Louise’s marriage to Lord Lorne, Hawksley states, “The Queen must have had ulterior motives for ‘marrying off’ Louise…to someone of a lower rank to whom the marriage would be an honour.” In fact, there are numerous examples of Victoria supporting the marriage of her children and grandchildren into families that were not considered fully royal, such as the Tecks and the Battenbergs. Hawksley also speculates that Queen Victoria accepted an affair between her daughter and the sculptor, Joseph Edgar Boehm, which is difficult to believe considering the Queen’s disproportionate reaction to her son Albert Edward’s affair with the actress Nellie Clifden.
The chapters concerning Louise’s time in Canada also contain inaccuracies and omissions. As I state in my article, “Royalty at Rideau Hall: Lord Lorne, Princess Louise and the Emergence of the Canadian Crown” in Canada and the Crown: Essays in Constitutional Monarchy, Prime Minister John A. MacDonald did not actually greet the royal couple upon their arrival in Halifax. Hawksley also curiously refers to Quebec as “French owned” on two different occasions, which was certainly not the case in 1878. The need for more Canadian history and politics in the narrative is most evident when the author attributes Lorne’s difficulties as Governor General to his alleged homosexuality and a possible “bitchy feud” between Princess Louise and the Prime Minister’s wife, Lady Macdonald. There is no mention of the key political conflict between Lorne and Sir John A. MacDonald regarding the dismissal of the Lieutenant Governor of Quebec, Luc Letellier.
The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria’s Rebellious Daughter ends as well as it started, revealing the full extent of Louise’s charitable activities and public appearances in her old age. Hawksley’s book will bring Louise to the attention of a new generation and provoke plenty of discussion and controversy. The inaccessibility of key archival material means that there are still plenty of unanswered questions about the life of this fascinating historical figure. Unfortunately, the errors and omissions in The Mystery of Princess Louise undermine Hawksley’s attempts to separate fact from scandalous rumour.
I almost bought this book when I was in London. I too have enjoyed Lucinda Hawksley’s books but I was concerned after reading your tweets. Now I’m glad I saved the money. Although I have to say Jehanne Wake’s biography came out in 1998 so it hasn’t actually been more than 20 years.
Glad that you enjoyed my review – I believe the 1st edition of Wake’s book came out in 1988 so it has been more than 20 years. All the best — Carolyn
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