Lucinda Hawksley’s biography of Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Louise, is an ambitious one. Firstly, she was denied access to certain royal archives holding information about Louise – just why they are closed we will probably never know. Secondly, she has achieved something quite unique in comparison to the long line of biographies that have come before this one: she removes Louise from her crowded family to explore her talents as an artist, her forward-thinking ways and her stance as an independent woman. A feminist in every way. Aside from what is public knowledge, I know very little about Victoria and her family, so I appreciated Hawksley’s context in the beginning chapters which pitted Louise not only against her siblings (each one peculiar in their own way) but her parents, too. She was the product of a cold, though meddling, mother, and a loving father with a strong social conscience. An unusual princess, Louise fought to attend the National Art Training School where she studied painting and sculpture, and a gifted artist in her own right, she was acquainted with members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. A pioneer in promoting girls education, she was amongst a group of four women who founded the Girls’ Public Day School Trust in 1887. But she also spoke up for issues deemed unacceptable for a woman of her standing, and she used the topic of health reforms to become an advocate for the health of prostitutes.
The above hints at a very modern princess, but this is not what makes Princess Louise, and indeed Hawksley’s biography, unique. Addressing the rumours that plagued Louise, the author sets them out one by one, provides the context, and offers her own explanation. The most scandalous and intriguing rumour was that Louise gave birth to a secret, illegitimate son, who was adopted by Queen Victoria’s gynecologist. A descendant of this child has attempted to get permission to retrieve DNA, but to no avail. Her marriage, too, is open for speculation. She was the first member of the British royal family to marry a commoner since 1515 and there were rumours that she enjoyed extra-marital affairs whilst her husband, the Marquess of Lorne, was said to be homosexual.
Living until the age of ninety-one, Louise witnessed many of the reforms she promoted as a young woman. However, she concealed the truth behind the rumours that have attached themselves to her legacy. And, for me, it is the not knowing that makes her all the more appealing.
Having overcome obstacles that would have halted many a biographer, Hawksley rises above such setbacks to weave a inspiring tale of a fascinating woman.