Princess Louise (1848–1939), Queen Victoria’s fourth daughter, was the prettiest and liveliest of the five princesses, and the only one who broke out of the royal bubble. Artistically talented, she trained as a sculptor, and her marble statue of Queen Victoria can still be seen in Kensington Gardens. Unlike her sisters, who all married royals, Louise became the wife of a commoner, Lord Lorne, later Duke of Argyll. The marriage was childless and unhappy, and the couple lived separate lives. Like that other rebel, Princess Margaret, Louise was clever but difficult. She could be charming and witty one moment and unexpectedly disagreeable the next. She kicked against the royal rules, but she was only too willing to pull rank when she felt like it. She was apparently an excellent cook, she enjoyed salmon fishing and she took energetic exercise. And she was dogged by scandal.
When Lucinda Hawksley applied to the Royal Archives for access to Louise’s papers she claims that she was told: ‘We regret that Princess Louise’s files are closed.’ Hawksley wrote to the Duke of Argyll’s archive at Inverary Castle and was fobbed off with tales about the papers being rehoused. Then she discovered that letters about Louise in other collections had been ‘absorbed’ into the Royal Archives. She became convinced that a cover-up was at work.
The scandal that was apparently being hushed up was a story that Louise had given birth to an illegitimate baby when she was 18. The rumour originated with the family of Sir Charles Locock, who was Queen Victoria’s obstetrician and delivered all her nine babies. Locock had a son named Frederick, and in 1867 Frederick Locock adopted a baby boy called Henry. When Henry Locock grew up, he told all his children that his mother was Princess Louise. In 2004 the descendants of Henry Locock applied for permission to take a sample of Henry’s DNA from his coffin in order to compare it with the DNA of Louise’s niece, the Tzarina Alexandra of Russia. Permission was refused by the Court of Arches.
Hawksley claims that Henry Locock was indeed Louise’s son. His father, she suggests, was a man named Walter Stirling, who was tutor to Prince Leopold, Louise’s haemophiliac brother. After four months in the job, Stirling was abruptly sacked, and Hawksley considers that the reason for this was because he had an affair with Louise. Royal advisers then made discreet arrangements for the baby to be adopted by the Locock family.
The problem with the Louise/Locock baby story is that there is no hard evidence. Louise remained at court throughout the time of her supposed pregnancy, yet no one remarked any change in the figure of the slender princess. Courts are full of hawk-eyed snoopers: it was in order to escape the gossips that the 18-year-old Danish Princess Thyra, the sister of Queen Alexandra, who probably did have an illegitimate child, was sent abroad to recover from a mysterious illness. According to Hawksley, Louise dressed without the help of a maid, and she contrived to wear her clothes in a fashion that concealed the bump, but this seems somewhat far-fetched.
There is another story about Louise which concerns her relationship with her artistic mentor, the sculptor Edgar Boehm. A good-looking, long-legged Hungarian, Boehm was commissioned by Queen Victoria to make a sculpture of John Brown and, while working at Balmoral, he ‘became intimate’ with Princess Louise. They were surprised in the studio by John Brown himself, who found them kissing; Queen Victoria became involved and, as one can imagine only too well, a hideous row ensued.
Two decades later, the 56-year-old Boehm died suddenly of a stroke, and Princess Louise was the only person with him in his London studio. There is a (much later) story that Boehm died while in the act of making love to Princes Louise. Needless to say, this is the version that Hawksley credits: she remarks that this experience might have left psychological scars and put Louise off sex for a bit.
Lack of access to archives has not made Hawksley’s task easy. She succeeds, however, in positioning Louise in the artistic world of Whistler, the Grosvenor Galleries and the Aesthetic movement. She shows that Louise was a New Woman, with links to the feminists Josephine Butler and Elizabeth Garrett, and establishes — as has long been suspected — that her husband was gay, and so were many of his friends. The book has no footnotes, and there are some careless errors.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £19.95. Tel: 08430 600033