What’s really most astonishing about The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria’s Rebellious Daughter is what’s missing. That’s no fault of the author, Lucinda Hawksley, but she has to leave large gaps in her biography, for documents relating to Princess Louise, who died in 1939, and her husband, who may have had his own secrets, as a homosexual in an intolerant age, remain classified and closed away.
We’re not talking about matters of state here, some deep secret about the First World War and relations with Germany that might somehow, distantly, have modern ramifications, or impact on anyone alive today – what we’re talking about are documents that probably, Hawksley concludes, show that Louise had an illegitimate child.
But when she went to the Royal Archives,she found a brick wall: “We regret that Princess Louise’s files are closed.” And she found that archivists in the National Gallery, Royal Academ and the V&A, as well as overseas collections in Malta, Bermuda and Canada, we bemused to find that material they expected to hold had been removed to the Royal archive.
Hawksley traces that probable child, adopted by the Queen’s accoucher, and family. She reports how his descendant, Nick Locock, tried to get his grandfather’s body exhumed, from a family mausoleum in Kent to establish that through DNA tests, which would have involved drilling through the coffin and removing a fragment of bone. A long legal battle ended with that being denied on the basis of “the sanctity of Christian burial”. “As Nick commented to me with a wry smile a few years after losing the court case: ‘I wouldn’t have minded so much if the very same church hadn’t recently moved about 200 bodies to make way for a coffee shop in the crypt!” (p. 93)
And the records of Queen Victoria – her volumninous letters and diaries are apparently available, but as Hawksley notes, not what they seem. For they aren’t the originals, but were heavily edited by Princess Beatrice. Given how much of a nasty, self-centred, vindictive character the Queen appears, it’s hard to imagine just how bad the originals are, Hawksley concludes.
Despite her upbringing, Louise was, for a royal, an interesting character. She tried to support Josephine Butler’s campaign against the Contagious Diseases Act – and although she was stopped from that on the basis of “this is politics”, she maintained a friendship with Butler, as well as many deeply “unsuitable”campaigners and artists. Perhaps not surprising that a central London pub was named after her.
This is definitely worth a read for a glimpse into another world – and a perspective on current debates on child abuse and neglect – for Queen Victoria certainly treated her children in a way that would count as emotional abuse under proposed new laws. Of course whether she’d get arrested would be another question…