For author Lucinda Hawksley the project of writing a biography of Queen Victoria’s sixth child, Princess Louise, had an unusual genesis. It began with an initial curiousity about the artistic and bohemian royal. But as she sought to dig deeper into Princess Louise’s life a mystery emerged as she found her access to historic materials blocked: why had so much been concealed? The nature of the project changed, from an art historian’s curiousity to an investigative royal biography. The result of these labours is an engrossing read which opens up new perspectives on Princess Louise’s life. Hawksley’s interest was initially piqued through Princess Louise’s connections to the pre-Raphaelite artistic movement. Learning that she had been a sculptor in an age when few women could be, she determined to find out more about her. Further firing her curiousity, when she began her research other authors warned her off, she would run into a “brick wall at every turn” they predicted. Starting with the Royal Archive, she soon found herself rebuffed: “We regret that Princess Louise’s files are closed.” Next she tried Louise’s husband’s (the ninth Duke of Argyll) family and their collection in Inveraray, Scotland. She was told the family archives were being rehoused. A year later the story was the same but when she took the initiative and paid a visit as a tourist in 2012 a curator told her the collection had not in fact been rehoused and that it was “almost impossible” for researchers to gain access. Adding to the air of mystery it was not only material on Princess Louise’s life that had been removed from public access but also others in her circle: “A great many items about these people that one would expect to be in other collections have been absorbed into the Royal Collection. Archivists at the National Gallery, Royal Academy and the V & A as well as overseas collections in Malta, Bermuda and Canada, were bemused to discover that primary sources I requested had been ‘removed’ to Windsor.” Determined to uncover the truth behind the “extraordinary secrecy that surrounds her life,” Hawksley gave her project the working title “The Mystery of Princess Louise,” planting a seed that grew into 350 pages of thoroughly researched biography.
Princess Louise’s story begins against the backcloth of the upheavals of 1848. It was the year that saw revolution roll out across Europe, shaking the continent’s political foundations. Even in more stable Britain, Queen Victoria and family, including a weeks old Princess Louise, decamped to the Isle of Wight on the advice of the Duke of Wellington, who feared the reformist Chartist movement might turn revolutionary. For Princess Louise being born in 1848 was doubly auspicious, it being the year that the Pre-Raphaelites emerged, the artistic movement which would play such an important role in her artistic and personal life. An appropriate year then for a rebel princess to arrive in the world; but whilst the cultural and political turmoil of the era was the milieu she grew up in, of equal or perhaps greater importance to her future were Princess Louise’s formative childhood years lived behind palace walls, in the shadow of her formidable mother. Looming large in the story is the figure of Queen Victoria and a good deal of emphasis is placed on their relationship. Mother-daughter were not a close bond, which was down to a lack of maternal feeling. Much has been written about Queen Victoria’s role as mother to her nine children and, whilst there were some positives, from the modern perspective she was a problematic parent. Louise’s father, Prince Albert, although also strict was much more sensitive. Albert’s admonishments of Victoria are well known: “It is indeed a pity that you find no consolation in the company of your children. The root of the trouble lies in the mistaken notion that the function of a mother is to be always correcting, scolding, ordering them about and organizing their activities. It is not possible to be on happy friendly terms with people you have just been scolding.” It was advice which did little to influence Queen Victoria and the author takes her to task for her unpleasant views on her children and relatives generally. After Prince Albert ‘Bertie’ had married Princess Alexandra of Denmark, Victoria wrote: “Are you aware that Alix has the smallest head ever seen? I dread that – with her small empty brain – very much future children. The doctor says that Alix’s head goes in the most extraordinary way, just beyond the forehead: I wonder what phrenologists would say.” A snide and rather shocking comment, although mitigated a little as pseudo-scientific views such as phrenology were in the mainstream of 19th century culture.
For the Queen’s children life was certainly difficult. Their mother was emotionally unavailable and didn’t enjoy their company, but at the same time she was determined to micro-manage their lives. A combination of characteristics which created a stiflingly rigid matriarchal regime. There were some happier aspects, with the influence of Prince Albert and the realisation that the children needed to be well educated and, importantly, made aware of the rapidly changing world around them. For Princess Louise, who was some way down the list of her mother’s limited affections, it led to a reaction against the very values her mother had tried to instil. Many years later, in a 1918 newspaper interview, she would make a telling remark: “Luckily the habit of moulding children to the same pattern has gone out of fashion. It was deplorable. I know because I suffered from it. Nowadays individuality and one’s own capabilities are recognised.” Queen Victoria regarded her daughter as wayward and not very intelligent, but she was soon showing she had inherited the artistic talent both her parents shared. From an early age Louise found solace in her art studies in her cramped study at Osborne House, it was a calling that would shape her life and, in later years, it was art that provided a link that brought mother and daughter closer together. Princess Louise’s adult life would be a remarkable one, but it may have been a youthful indiscretion that made her such a problem for the Royal Family and compelled them to initiate a cover up. Both Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were strict moralists and the possibility that their daughter had a pre-marital affair, let alone an illegitimate child, would have horrified them. Albert’s early death in 1861, when Louise was aged thirteen, may have spared him this episode, but it is one which the author strongly believes happened.
The rumours are longstanding ones and were touched on by previous royal biographers. There were two candidates to have been the teenage Louise’s first lover: a young army officer named Walter Stirling and his replacement Reverend Robinson Duckworth. The author proposes the former. In 1866 Lieutenant Walter George Stirling of the Household Artillery was appointed by Queen Victoria as governor to her sickly and haemophiliac son Prince Leopold. Stirling seemed an excellent choice for the post and soon formed a close bond with his charge, but he only lasted four months. The reasons for his dismissal were unclear. At the time Queen Victoria wrote in her journal: “Breakfast in the Lower Alcove, after which took leave of Mr. Stirling & gave him a silver inkstand & bust of Leopold.” We do know however that both Leopold and Louise were heartbroken at Stirling’s departure. Shortly afterward Leopold wrote to Stirling: “I cannot say how I miss you, I always expect to see you come in the morning as you always did, and as I was carried down to breakfast, Louise and I missed you looking over the bannister at the top of the staircase at us.” Stirling’s sudden dismissal has long puzzled royal historians. In the 1970s the official explanation offered was that Prince Leopold needed a governor more experienced in dealing with persons of delicate health. But at the time of Stirling’s dismissal a replacement had not been found and Leopold’s care was temporarily charged to Archie Brown, the brother of the Queen’s favourite servant John Brown, who was a rough bully whom Leopold loathed.
The author also believes she knows the identity of Princess Louise’s child. In this investigation she found allies, the Locock family, who have struggled in vain to prove that Henry Frederick Leicester Locock was the child in question. In the spring of 1867 a son of Queen Victoria’s gynaecologist, Sir Charles Locock, Frederick Locock and his fiancee Mary Blackshaw moved into an apartment near St. James’ Palace. Two months later Frederick’s mother Amelia died but instead of respecting the normal period of mourning, usually of one year, he and Mary were married shortly after in a register office. Four months later they adopted a child they named Henry Frederick Leicester Lovelock. It was all done with unusual haste, made all the more mysterious by the fact that no birth certificate has ever been found and the child’s biological parents have never been identified. The evidence is circumstantial but what there is certainly merits consideration. Sir Charles Locock had been in attendance at the birth of all Queen Victoria’s children and he would have been amongst her most trusted advisors to rely on to keep the secret. Correspondence between Louise and her siblings also hints at some significant and taboo event around this time. In the autumn of 1867 Prince Arthur wrote to his sister: “As to the great secret, I did not know that I could not mention it to you, of course I would not speak of it to anybody else.” After Frederick and Mary Locock adopted at the end of 1867 they began to receive an unexplained allowance. Over the coming years the family’s wealth steadily increased so that when Frederick died in 1907 his estate was valued at over £100,000. There was no identifiable source of income to explain this good fortune. Locock family history recalls that as a youngster Henry remembered spending time with his birth mother and parties with the royal children. One of Henry’s recollections was of playing croquet on the lawns at Osborne House when one of his cousins cheated. Henry was so infuriated he hit the cheater with a croquet mallet, a boy who would become Kaiser Wilhelm II. Hidden history or legend? In recent years Henry’s grandson, Nick, has tried to find out by asking for a DNA test through the courts. He needed to obtain a sample of his grandfather’s mitochondrial DNA and it looked for some time as if he would be successful. But the petition was finally lost on the grounds of ‘the sanctity of Christian burial’. It is a reason Nick finds hard to believe in, telling the author: “I wouldn’t mind so much if the very same church hadn’t recently moved about two hundred bodies to make way for a coffee shop in the crypt.”
Yet again obfuscation and misdirection seem to be in play as Hawksley relates that her subsequent inquiries brought forth a different explanation: “That the crypt, or undercroft, had repeatedly flooded and the bodies had to be removed in order for essential maintenance work to be carried out.” If Louise’s adult life had begun with the most damaging of personal misdemeanours, it did little to temper her independent nature. In fact rather the opposite. Like her elder brother Albert (Bertie), Louise had a strong need for physical intimacy and it was through her developing career as an artist that she found it. The bitter irony for Queen Victoria was that her attempts to control her children instead taught them how to circumvent her strictures. And, if Hawksley and others are right, the Queen’s relations with her favourite ghillie, John Brown, compromised her authority further. Unlike the popular version of the relationship, memorably brought to life by Dame Judi Dench and Billy Connolly in the film ‘Mrs Brown,’ Hawksley portrays Brown as an unpleasant bully and, more significantly, as having been Victoria’s lover. Matters came to head with Louise when Queen Victoria found out about her relationship with the artist Joseph Edgar Boehm. Louise studied sculpture with Boehm and when he came to Balmoral to work on a statue of John Brown in 1869 the two became lovers. The Queen and John Brown happened into Boehm’s studio at Balmoral to find he and Louise being “intimate”. A scene between mother and daughter ensued. What is rumoured to have escalated the dispute was John Brown’s presumption in also scolding Louise. He was met with a furious response. Brown had to go or she would leave, to which her mother responded by threatening “to lock” Louise up. In the context of the relationships within the Royal Family that Hawksley presents it is another compelling and very vivid detail. The source for the story is the Victorian writer and diplomat Wilfrid Scawen Blunt. This in itself is a fascinating side story. Blunt’s source for his entries regarding Princess Louise was a woman called Catherine Walters nee ‘Skittles’. Born into a working class family she became a high class courtesan, whose lovers included Blunt as well as Prince Albert. Adding to the intrigue surrounding sources for Louise, the diaries were published posthumously in the 1970s, some fifty years after Blunt’s death. Digging determinedly for the hidden truths of Victorian life, Hawksley portrays a world in transition in which the strict morality that Queen Victoria so fervently believed in was really a fiction, a utopia for the well-to-do classes which neither they nor anyone else lived by.
More so than any of Victoria’s children, Princess Louise was attuned to the changing times. She was as bohemian and independent as circumstances allowed, which in fact were less restricting than she could have anticipated during her childhood. Rebellion against the restrictive nature of Victorian life was by the latter part of the 19th century in full swing across society. For Princess Louise supporting liberal causes was one way she could contribute, as was her artistic career. Her involvement with the Pre-Raphaelites developed into being a full fledged member of the movement that became known as Aestheticism, which is sometimes summarised in the phrase ‘art for art’s sake’. Rather than art being a vehicle for moral and religious values, beauty for itself was the credo. Progressive and unstuffy as she was, Louise could also be difficult. In her disputes with her family she showed a hot temper and in her social life she was at times highly manipulative. If she sought a new companion her considerable charm would be turned on, but her displeasure would lead to an abrupt end to any friendship. But even for a rebel there had to be compromises and Louise showed her pragmatic side through her choice of husband, John, Marquis of Lorne, heir to the Duke of Argyll. Louise had determined she would not marry a foreigner, particularly a German prince, which her mother expected. Initially this caused a good deal of strife but Queen Victoria came to accept Louise’s decision and consented to the marriage.
At the outset marrying the future Duke of Argyll was a good choice for Louise. He was intelligent, loved the arts, was liberal minded as well as being a respected Liberal member of Parliament. Through marriage Louise would gain her independence and when Lorne was made Governor General of Canada in 1880 her life took a new turn. She missed the bohemian world of the London art scene but grew into her role as the Governor General’s consort and became very, if intermittently, popular with the Canadians. Whether or not the marriage was a love match is still debated. The author concludes that John’s sexual inclinations were homosexual or bisexual and she cites a good deal of material to support this view, again differentiating this from earlier biographies. Louise viewed marriage with pragmatism and the couple spent less time together after their return to London. Both were free to pursue their own love affairs but maintained the outward appearances necessary, until Lorne, who became 9th Duke of Argyll in 1900, passed away in 1914. Louise would outlive her husband by a quarter of a century until her death in December of 1939. She was the third longest surviving of Queen Victoria’s children, only her younger sister Beatrice and brother Alfred outlived her by a few short years. Over the course of her long life she became a stalwart for the monarchy, a supporter of social reform and good causes, a rock during the reigns of her brother King Edward VII and her nephew King George V. Princess Louise passed away in the first months of World War Two aged ninety-one. She remained strong willed to the very end, refusing to have an air raid shelter built at Kensington Palace, saying she would take her chances protected only by the walls of the palace. At the end there would be one final rebellious act. In her will Louise stipulated that she be cremated. It was still a controversial practice to which many Christians were firmly opposed. She also requested that people send no flowers for her funeral and instead donate to the Princess Louise Kensington Hospital for Children. With royal biography the reviewer’s task can sometimes be a disappointing one, faced with little more than the updated retelling or, worse still, hagiography. ‘The Mystery of Princess Louise’ stands out as a bold and insightful portrait of a remarkable woman.