This book is a detailed biography of Princess Louise the sixth daughter of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The author, Lucinda Hawksley, focuses on the aspects of her life that made her a rather unconventional 19th century royal. This include the fact that she was a talented sculptress, that she mixed in bohemian circles and that she may have had lovers and perhaps even an illegitimate child.
Parts of the book are very interesting and it is well researched. I particularly enjoyed reading about Louise’s childhood and youth – a period dominated by her controlling mother. It provided a good insight into Victoria’s domestic life; her happy marriage, prolonged mourning for Albert, lack of maternal affection for all but her youngest child, the sometimes fierce sibling rivalry between the children (particularly relating to Victoria’s favourite – Beatrice). I guess the only trouble was that Victoria’s strong (if often unpleasant!) character somewhat dominated the early part of the book so that as Louise grew older and moved away from her mother I felt the book became tamer and more dull.
On the surface Louise’s life was exciting. She travels a lot, her husband was governor general of Canada for a time and she also travels extensively for pleasure. She was a successful artist, extremely unusual for a royal Princess who’s more usual role would be to breed and perhaps open the occasional building. She had a childless and at times difficult marriage and Hawksley speculates that her husband, the Duke of Argyll, may have been homosexual. She may have had love affairs herself, Hawksley offers compelling, if not convincing, argument that she did take lovers and had a child before her marriage – Hawksley has no evidence for this although she seems to have entirely convinced herself by the gossip and conjecture, I guess we’ll never know for sure but I wasn’t as convinced as the author was.
A story of such a varied life was, however, at times rather dull. I missed the presence of Victoria whenever she faded from the story and often wished I could follow her tale rather than learning more about Louise. Despite all that happens to her I didn’t find Louise an interesting character, she did do interesting things but her character came across as pretty flat. Perhaps this is how she was or maybe Hawksley failed to capture her spirit. Hawksley seems to have become fond of her subject and repeatedly tells us that Louise was cleverer, more attractive and slimmer that the rest of her family! This maybe true but I felt her less intelligent and much tubbier mother and siblings might have made more compelling central figures. Also I wished the book had given more weight to the times in her life that were most interesting, her childhood and early part of her marriage, and less time to the later part of her life when she does seem to become more conventional attending dull official events with Hawksley providing unnecessary eyewitness accounts reminding us that Louise was attractive, stylish and slim even towards the end of her life.
I think Hawksley was hampered by the lack of evidence about certain areas of Louise’s life. Many letters and papers relating to her youth were edited or destroyed by Princess Beatrice after Victoria’s death and Hawksley was denied access the parts of the Argyll archive that may have shed more light on the nature of Louise’s marriage. Hawksley deserves credit for piecing together this life story in spite of these gaps and Hawksley’s speculation about love affairs and illegitamate children, although not entirely convincing, are possible and add a much needed hint of spice to the story.
3/5 – well researched and gives a new take on the Victorian royal family but not a great page turner.