MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Introduction: How it all began
The name of Sir William Blake Richmond is little remembered today, but in the late nineteenth century he was connected to almost everyone in the fashionable art world. As a painter who numbered amongst his friends William Morris, Robert Louis Stevenson and William Holman Hunt, Richmond moved with ease in the varied worlds that made up London Society. One day, as he was busy painting in his studio, he was annoyed to be disturbed by a servant announcing an unexpected visitor. Richmond yelled angrily, ‘Tell her to bugger off,’ unaware his visitor was close enough to hear. ‘Not till I’ve seen you’ was the mild and amused response from Princess Louise.1
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I first discovered Princess Louise when researching my biographies of the Pre-Raphaelite model Lizzie Siddal and the artist Kate Perugini. This mysterious princess kept appearing in unlikely circumstances: visiting Dante Rossetti when he was ill (and deemed ‘mad’); remaining friends with the difficult James Abbott McNeill Whistler, despite his financial and social embarrassments; arriving to see John Everett Millais on his deathbed, or taking tea with Arthur Sullivan, who called her ‘my Princess Louise’ in a letter to his mother. I wondered who this art-loving, aesthetically minded princess was. The more vague appearances she made in my research notes, the more I wanted to find out about her. When I discovered she was not only a friend to artists, but a sculptor in an age when few women broke into such a masculine field, I determined to discover more about her life.
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Princess Louise was born in 1848 and lived until 1939; her life encompassed almost a century of extraordinary – and often terrifying – achievements, conflicts and societal change. At the time of Louise’s birth, British women and girls were, legally, the property of either their father or their husband. (Queen Victoria might have been the most powerful woman in the world – but she was fervently against the majority other women who fought to be given the most basic human rights.) By the time of Louise’s death, British women had gained the vote and were striving to achieve a world in which men and women could truly be equal. Louise had played an important part in the educating of these powerful new women. She was, as the daughter of a monarch, famous and celebrated in her lifetime, but, like so many women of her era, she has been all but forgotten since.
When I started my research, I mentioned it to a couple of fellow authors – who advised me against it. Both of them had attempted to look into Princess Louise’s life themselves. One warned me, ‘you will come up against a brick wall at every turn’. That intrigued me. They were quite right, of course.
After discovering the bare bones of Louise’s life and beginning to read existing books about her, I applied to the Royal Archives. Many months later I received a response telling me I was welcome to visit the archives and detailing what times they were open and what I would need to bring with me. It all seemed very positive, until I reached the bottom of the letter. Almost as an afterthought was the comment ‘We regret that Princess Louise’s files are closed.’ I could visit the archive buildings, but would not be allowed to view the files I needed to see.
I tried her husband’s family’s collection in Inveraray, Scotland, where my several applications (phone and email) were kindly but firmly rebuffed. On my initial approach I discovered that their archives were in the process of being rehoused and it would be over a year before they could be accessed again. More than a year later, I was told they were still inaccessible; and the same some months afterwards. My last two enquiries simply went unanswered. When I visited Inveraray as a tourist, in the summer of 2012, I was told by a curator inside the castle that the archives had not been rehoused. The curator also mentioned that it was ‘almost impossible’ for researchers to get into the archives; even people working at the castle itself were denied access.
I discovered that it was not only information about Princess Louise that had been hidden away, but information about a vast number of people who had played a role in her life, including royal servants and her art tutors. 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. Over the decades, there has been some very careful sanitising of Princess Louise’s reputation and a whitewashing of her life, her achievements and her personality.
Initially, this book was intended to be a complete artistic biography, but as it became apparent that this was not possible, I began to realise that one of the most intriguing aspects had become the journey to try and find her. My working title became ‘The Mystery of Princess Louise’. There were so many rumours – some seemingly outlandish – that initially I had dismissed many of them as mere gossip, but the extraordinary secrecy that surrounds her life, and the many obstacles placed in the way of researching her, made me wonder if they were true. I have not been able to substantiate, nor could I disprove, the rumours that have been passed on to me from various people’s oral family history as well as tittle-tattle of the era, but perhaps there really is no smoke without fire. I have drawn my own conclusions and shall leave you to decide for yourselves.
For some of the original research, I am greatly indebted to Michael Gledhill QC. As a law student in the 1970s, he became intrigued by Princess Louise and began working on a biography. In order to research her life, he placed adverts in national and local newspapers and magazines. Because Princess Louise had lived until 1939, he received fascinating responses from people who had known her and, in some cases, worked for her. He very kindly allowed me to see the letters. I am also indebted to the Locock family, who have been extremely helpful and generous with their time as well as sharing with me their family memorabilia.
It is important for readers to be aware that although Queen Victoria wrote letters and diary entries almost every day, those that are now in the archives and available online are not her original work. The queen’s journals and letters were heavily edited, following her death, by her youngest child, Princess Beatrice. The princess went through them and removed anything that she considered controversial, then copied out the journal entries and many of the letters and destroyed the originals. At times when the queen’s journals record extremely unpleasant comments about her family, it is astonishing to realise that Beatrice considered these acceptable. It makes one wonder just how much more controversial must have been the passages that Beatrice removed.
Queen Victoria is often described as a mother to her people. British schoolchildren learn that she was a great monarch, stateswoman and Empress and we see all around the country a preponderance of statues and monuments to her. Most date from her golden and diamond jubilees, so were created at around the same time, in 1887 or 1897, and as such they give a slightly skewed version of history, making one imagine not only that she was adored by everyone but also that she was adored all through her reign. This was not the case. When she became queen, soon after her eighteenth birthday, the public welcomed and idealised the young Victoria. When Albert, her prince consort, died in 1861, the young queen, bereaved so suddenly, was pitied and prayed for by her loyal subjects. People empathised with her pain and, in an age of high premature mortality, they could identify with her predicament.
As the years started to pass, however, and the queen remained in her ‘widow’s weeds’ and continued to shun public engagements, she began to be resented by her subjects. By the time Princess Louise reached adulthood, her mother no longer had the love and respect of many of the people she ruled. Yes, she had lost her spouse to an untimely death, but so had many of her subjects, and, after all, the queen had nine healthy children. Even Prince Leopold, against the haemophiliac odds, was thriving. Those who, under her reign, still lived in terrible deprivation had become accustomed to watching their friends and family, especially young children, die. What was perceived as the self-indulgent behaviour of the ‘Widow of Windsor’ began to be seen as an insult to those others who suffered every day.
The queen’s constant refusal to re-engage with her subjects and her ignoring of responsibilities jarred with her family too. Princess Louise, whose adolescence was blighted by the death of her father and by her mother’s lack of interest in her children, as well as her constant criticism, found herself taking on many of the monarch’s roles. In addition, Louise, in common with her sisters, had no choice but to work as her mother’s companion, despite a heartfelt longing to leave the royal home and live as a professional sculptor. Unfortunately for the queen, Louise was the least compliant of her daughters and as the princess grew into adulthood she became increasingly antagonistic to the maternal bullying that Queen Victoria had mastered so ably.
It became apparent that Princess Louise had an intriguing personality. She could be adorable, generous and charming, or she could be stingingly unkind. She went out of her way to help people she liked, but froze out those she did not. She found it hard to forgive mistakes and could be hypercritical – although the person she was often most harshly critical of was herself. Louise had a desperate need to be loved. When she loved, she was fiercely loyal and, like her mother, continued that love long after the object of it had died. Because she was often ignored or belittled by her mother and other family members this need to be noticed, and needed, became thoroughly ingrained in her. I became fascinated by how history has tried to tame and trivialise this astonishing woman; how often she has been dismissed with comments that she was ‘unhinged’ or ‘paranoid’: there has been a concerted effort to try and make people believe that nothing Princess Louise said or did could possibly have any credence. The opposite is true. Louise was a powerful voice for women of her generation. She was a princess who sought not to be ‘royal’, a Victorian woman who strove to break into a masculine world, and a fiery, intriguing, often confusing personality. She challenges many preconceptions that we, in the twenty-first century, have of women who lived under the long reign of Princess Louise’s formidable and – it has to be admitted – often extremely unpleasant mother.
As my research gained momentum, I found that much of the mystery surrounding Princess Louise was still to be uncovered. Why has she been locked away in the archives? What was it about her that is deemed too scandalous, or dangerous, to be revealed? Why should the life of a woman born in the first half of the nineteenth century be considered unsafe to be explored in the twenty-first century?
Copyright © 2013 by Lucinda Hawksley