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REVIEW: The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria's Rebellious Daughter by Lucinda Hawksley

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria’s Rebellious Daughter – Lucinda Hawksley

The secrets of Queen Victoria's sixth child, Princess Louise, may be destined to remain hidden forever. What was so dangerous about this artistic, tempestuous royal that her life has been documented more by rumor and gossip than hard facts? When Lucinda Hawksley started to investigate, often thwarted by inexplicable secrecy, she discovered a fascinating woman, modern before her time, whose story has been shielded for years from public view.

Louise was a sculptor and painter, friend to the Pre-Raphaelites and a keen member of the Aesthetic movement. The most feisty of the Victorian princesses, she kicked against her mother's controlling nature and remained fiercely loyal to her brothers-especially the sickly Leopold and the much-maligned Bertie. She sought out other unconventional women, including Josephine Butler and George Eliot, and campaigned for education and health reform and for the rights of women. She battled with her indomitable mother for permission to practice the "masculine" art of sculpture and go to art college-and in doing so became the first British princess to attend a public school.

The rumors of Louise's colorful love life persist even today, with hints of love affairs dating as far back as her teenage years, and notable scandals included entanglements with her sculpting tutor Joseph Edgar Boehm and possibly even her sister Princess Beatrice's handsome husband, Liko. True to rebellious form, she refused all royal suitors and became the first member of the royal family, since the sixteenth century, to marry a commoner. She moved with him to Canada when he was appointed Governor-General.

Spirited and lively, Queen Victoria's Mysterious Daughter is richly packed with arguments, intrigues, scandals, and secrets, and is a vivid portrait of a princess desperate to escape her inheritance.

What I Thought:
In recent months, I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction books written by the British biographer Lucinda Hawksley, and enjoyed them all. So I was drawn to read this biography of one of Queen Victoria’s daughters as much by the author as by the promise of the blurb: ‘packed with intrigues, scandals and secrets, (this is) a vivid portrait of a royal desperate to escape her inheritance.’ 

I was not disappointed. Lucinda Hawksley has a knack for bringing stories alive on the page, and Princess Louise is a wonderful character. Outspoken, creative, and sensual, she smoked cigarettes, rode bicycles, and refused to wear a crinoline. It is rumoured she had an illegitimate baby, smuggled out of the palace by the queen’s doctor, and one of her lovers’ may have died in her arms. It is impossible to know the truth because – nearly 70 years after her death – her archives are stoutly locked away and no-one is permitted to read them. A fascinating mystery, indeed.

You may also enjoy my blog on Lucinda's book March, Women, March! about the Suffragettes' movement in Great Britain, and my post on my research books on the Pre-Raphaelite circle of artists, in which I mention Lucinda's book Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel


Best Research Books for the French Revolution, chosen by Charlotte Betts

Friday, August 28, 2015

Today, British author Charlotte Betts joins us to talk about the research books which were of the most help for her in researching the french revolution, the setting for her wonderful historical novel, The Chateau on the Lake:

When I began to write The Chateau on the Lake I had a great deal of groundwork to do. It was the first book I’d written about the eighteenth century and I’d never studied either this era or the French Revolution before. It was necessary to immerse myself in the period and I decided to begin with a general overview.

The English – A Social History 1066 – 1945 by Christopher Hibbert was helpful here to put the eighteenth century into context for me. Then I thoroughly enjoyed The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman. Richard Hall was a Baptist haberdasher and his diary and papers were collated by his descendent, Mike Rendell. Mr Hall owned a shop on London Bridge and the journal is crammed with details of his life and times. It’s marvellous book to dip into for those little snippets of information that can add colour to a novel. 

Similarly, Ladies of the Grand Tour by Brian Dolan was a treasure trove of knowledge when my heroine was attending a salon to meet the intellectual and artistic glitterati of the day and then when deciding what to pack to travel to France. Apparently indispensible items were a pair of leather sheets and a rhubarb grater!

Behind Closed Doors – At Home in Georgian England by Amanda Vickery gave me an insight as to how people from servants to duchesses lived at home. Amanda Vickery uses many quotations from Jane Austen’s writing and this one made me laugh, which she adapted to suit the book: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Georgian house with a drawing room, French windows and lawns must be in want of a mistress …’

My next step was to read as many of Jane Austen’s novels as I had time for. I’d loved them in the dim and distant past while studying English literature but it was very interesting to read them with fresh eyes. Perhaps I’ve seen too many Jane Austen-adapted films in the intervening years but I was astonished at how little description there was. A large part of her novels are dialogue and none the worse for that. Her perspicacious comments and sharp sense of humour most definitely stand up to the test of time. It was useful to place myself in, say, Lizzie Bennett’s shoes, for a young woman’s view of life at that time.

Jerry White’s London in the Eighteenth Century was important for explaining how London, a city of huge contrasts, was expanding and how this affected citizens from all walks of life.

Then I moved onto History of the French Revolution from 1789 – 1814 by Francois Mignet, War and Society in Revolutionary Europe 1770 - 1870 by Geoffrey Best and Fatal Purity - Robespierre and the French Revolution by Ruth Scurr. These were invaluable and densely packed with facts.

For light relief I looked at A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel and The Glass Blowers by Daphne du Maurier. I found the latter very interesting because it was about Daphne du Maurier’s own family during the French Revolution. It didn’t cover quite the same period as in The Chateau on the Lake but gave a useful flavour of the time.

It’s impossible in a short post to mention all the books I studied and one of the things, as a non-historian, that I love most about writing historical fiction is the self-education aspect. Learning history because you are truly interested, rather than being force-fed dates and events at school, is a wonderful experience. I can’t imagine my enthusiasm for this will ever wane.

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