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The Mystery Of Princess Louise

Queen Victoria’s radical daughter

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

While I was working on my biographies of the artists Lizzie Siddal and Kate Perugini, one name kept appearing in my research: Princess Louise. I wondered why a princess kept showing up at artists’ studio parties. Because she was a part of this bohemian world, rather than a patron, I assumed she was a foreign princess, so I was amazed to discover she was one of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s daughters, and a professional sculptor. The desire to know more about this fascinating woman soon developed into the desire to write about her. There was a biography, published in the nineteen eighties, but it did not contain stories that I, even in early research, had already encountered.

These included rumours – gleaned from personal letters, diaries and newspaper articles dating back to Louise’s own lifetime – of an illegitimate baby and love affairs. More research brought out suggestions that her husband, the Marquis of Lorne, was homosexual (something that, sadly, seems still to be considered ‘shameful’ and something to be kept secret by the keepers of relevant archives); and that her lovers included her brother-in-law; one of her artist’s models (an Indigenous Canadian, which caused great gossip at the time); and her brother’s tutor. Her long-term lover was her sculpting tutor Joseph Edgar Boehm (whom, it was rumoured as far back as 1890, the year of his death, died making love to her in his studio). In addition to these more salacious rumours, Louise was politically active and radical in her politics, openly speaking out against her mother in public.

When I was commissioned to write her biography, I was told by two more experienced authors that they had both tried to write about her and given up. One warned me, ‘You will come up against a brick wall’. I did. In fact I came across whole fortresses of brick walls, but this made me even more eager to tell the story of this much-maligned woman. My first point of call was the Royal Archives at Windsor. I had two good referees and two critically acclaimed biographies under my belt, yet several months after my application, I had not received a response. My three-year deadline was already in jeopardy. After eight months, and a personal plea from one of my referees (who worked for the Royal Household), I received a reply. I was welcome to visit the archives. It seemed positive, until the final sentence: ‘Princess Louise’s files are closed’. I could visit the archives, but I would not be allowed to research the subject of my biography.

Princess Louise’s husband, the Marquis of Lorne, was later the 9th Duke of Argyll, so I contacted the archives at Inveraray Castle. I was told the archives would be closed for a year. A year later, I tried again. I was told I could not yet visit. In what turned into six years of writing the book, I was not permitted to enter the archives at Inveraray; all my later requests simply went unanswered.

As Louise and Lorne lived in Canada for several years, where Lorne was Governor General, I flew to Ottawa. There, the archivists could not have been more helpful, but when I was researching at Rideau Hall (where the couple lived), the archivist told me of her irritation: ‘I don’t know what has gone on,’ she said ‘but so many of the files I have a record of aren’t there! I keep finding the items gone and in their place is a card with “Windsor” written on it. Does that mean anything to you?’ At some point, someone has gone through the archives in Canada, removed almost all primary sources concerned with Princess Louise and sent them to the Royal Archives. That seemed a strangely zealous activity.

I managed to track down descendants of a baby who was adopted in the eighteen sixties by the son of Queen Victoria’s gynaecologist. This baby, brought up as Henry Locock, told his own children he was Princess Louise’s illegitimate son. It was a story of which I was initially sceptical, but as my research continued, I found myself convinced by the family’s claim. For over twenty years, their own research efforts had been thwarted. They had fought two court cases in which they had applied for the right to have DNA work done to prove Henry Locock was descended from Queen Victoria. This right was denied, twice. After the second time, the Locock family was told they would not be permitted to try again.

One place I was indebted to in my research was Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, where the curator very generously showed me around areas not normally on display to the public, such as the room in which a teenage Princess Louise had her first sculpting studio. I was therefore very surprised when an invitation to give a talk at Osborne House was summarily rescinded. I also discovered that the bookshop at Osborne House will no longer stock my book. When I asked in the shop, one of the people who worked there said he had no idea why it is no longer available as ‘it was very popular when we did sell it’.

The bookshop at Kensington Palace also refuses to stock my biography, even though Princess Louise was resident at the palace from 1873 until her death in 1939. Since my book has been published, the exhibitions inside the palace have reduced the information about her dramatically. As just one example, there is a row of embroidered cushions showing the palace’s famous residents. The cushion with her image on it has mysteriously disappeared. It now looks as though the next resident after Queen Victoria (who lived there in her childhood) was Louise’s younger sister, Princess Beatrice. Each time I visit, another memento, such as a cradle once stated to have been made for Princess Louise, or baby clothes said to have belonged to her, have been replaced by items attributed to her siblings.

At times, I realise this can all sound a tad crazy, so I felt vindicated when a TV production company shared their experience. We had worked on the idea of a documentary about Princess Louise and several TV companies were interested, but each time it led to nothing. One day the producer rang and said ‘We don’t want to sound like conspiracy theorists, but we have now had five companies eager to make this programme, and yet every time we’ve got to a certain point they’ve pulled out. Is there something we should know? I really feel like we’re being censored’. I think so too. For some reason, someone somewhere does not want people writing, talking or broadcasting about a woman who was born in 1848!

Even though my publisher had to extend my deadline, the challenges of writing about Louise made the task even more exciting. The difficulty of researching her and the struggle to uncover the truth became integral parts of the story. All this added to the mystique of a woman whose story is so much more fascinating and rich than the bland official reports suggest. Louise was a firm supporter of female suffrage — entirely at odds with her anti-suffrage mother. Despite being forbidden to do so by Queen Victoria, Louise sent secret letters of support to Josephine Butler and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson; in later years she helped set up the Girls’ Public Day Schools Trust, she fundraised tirelessly for children’s hospitals and she promoted education for all social classes and both genders.

Newspaper reports reveal how she would turn up at factories that employed women, to ensure the women were being treated well, and that she took on individual causes, prompted by personal letters, such as ensuring an injured soldier’s impoverished family could afford to visit him in hospital. Even now, I go to exhibitions and see the same old, tired comments about Princess Louise being trotted out, as though no recent research exists. Her personality and achievements, even in the world of art, continue to be whitewashed and erroneous rumours continue to be spread. Throughout my research I came to like her very much and to realise this unpleasant version of her personality is one that has been cultivated over the years, yet it has very little grounding in reality. The Louise I came to know was a woman who cared passionately about the disenfranchised, who fought for – and brought about – changes in public health care and education. She also cared deeply about her fellow artists and regularly gave help to those who needed it, for example supporting Whistler during his most heartbreaking times, visiting Dante Rossetti when he was mentally ill, and giving up her studio to her friend, the sculptor Alfred Gilbert, who had become bankrupt.

Who knows, perhaps in my lifetime the laws will change and Princess Louise’s files might finally be opened to the public — if anything still exists in them by that time…

Lucinda Hawksley is the author of three biographies, including The Mystery of Princess Louise, and The Writer Abroad, about the history of travel writing, as well as books about art history, London, the women’s movement, and the life and works of Charles Dickens.

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