Tuesday, July 12, 2011

An unconventional princess

Princess Louise, Queen Victoria's Unconventional Daughter, Jehanne Wake

I enjoyed Jehanne Wake's book Sisters of Fortune so much that I immediately looked to see what else she has written. This book, her first published, caught my eye.  All I knew about Princess Louise was that she married the Duke of Argyll (and I was wrong about that, since at the time of their marriage he had the title of Marquis of Lorne). I was intrigued to find out more about her, especially how one of Queen Victoria's daughters managed unconventionality.

Princess Louise was born in 1848, the sixth child and fourth daughter of Victoria and Albert.  By that time, her parents relaxed some of the strict disciplines that the older children had suffered under, but Louise still lived a very restricted, regimented life, seeing her mother rarely.  She was also frequently ill; an attack of tubercular meningitis at age sixteen may have made it impossible for her later to have children.  Louise was only thirteen when her father died.  Most of her adolescence and young womanhood passed in her mother's obsessive mourning. Victoria, selfish in her grief, insisted that everyone else share it. She made no allowances for the children's resiliency and quashed any high spirits as disrespect toward their sainted father.  I have read other accounts of Victoria's problems as a mother, but reading this was like seeing her from inside the family circle, and I felt little sympathy for her.

In this atmosphere of mourning, and as her sisters were married off to Europe's princes, Louise began to carve out her own place.  A gifted artist, she managed to persuade Queen Victoria to let her study sculpture, at that time considered too robust for women.  Her studies brought her into contact with a wider world, and sometimes a less respectable one, than Royal Princesses normally met. She also took an interest in women's rights, especially education and access to professions.  Once she sneaked off to visit Elizabeth Garrett, the first woman doctor to practice medicine in England.  Princess Louise would become a great philanthropist, especially interested in women and children, in hospitals and schools.  Not content with simply lending her name, or giving money, she was an active (some thought overactive) patroness, poking into everything.

Louise's marriage was also unconventional for the time.  Selfishly, the Queen wanted to keep her daughter in England, though the married Princess Helena and her husband lived close to her, and the youngest daughter Beatrice was still at home.  The Queen's solution was marriage to an Englishman or Scotsman.  The search for the right young man reads almost like a farce at times, with Queen Victoria enlisting a reluctant Lord Granville of the Foreign Office to vet candidates, with a constant stream of letters deluging the poor man. John (Ian) Campbell, the Marquis of Lorne and the heir of the 8th Duke of Argyll, was an early candidate, and after some false starts he was eventually accepted.  His position as a non-royal Royal husband would prove a difficult one, which put strains on their marriage, as did their inability to have a child and Louise's continued ill-health.

I enjoyed this book, though it wasn't an easy read.  It seems to have a cast of thousands, and Wake seems to assume a familiarity with the Court circles and the great families of England.  There are family trees of the Royal Family and the Campbells on the endpapers, and I referred to them constantly (I had a complete blank spot about Princess Louis of Battenberg and had to look her up every single time she was mentioned).  But there are others who play important parts in Louise's life, who aren't fully identified or placed in context.  Lord Ronnie Levenson-Gower first appears on page 37 as a playmate of the royal children, and he remained an important part of Louise's life until his death in 1916.  I had to google him to learn he was Lorne's uncle, his mother's brother, since her family isn't identified by last name on the family trees, just by titles.  The index is unusual in that it lists subjects by first name ("Sophie, Lady - see McNamara, Sophie") but it would have been helpful to work quick identifications or reminders into the text.  There were constant crises and feuds in both the Royal and Campbell families, which were sometimes difficult to follow in all their twists and turns.  At the same time, there are interesting omissions.  There is no discussion, not even a single reference, to the murders of the Romanovs in 1918, though Alexandra was Louise's niece (and the sister of the ubiquitous Princess Louis of Battenberg).  Nor, despite Louise's early interest in women's rights, was there any discussion of women's suffrage in the 20th century.  Did Princess Louise ever vote?

Unconventional to the end, Louise was the first member of the Royal Family to be cremated, at her death in 1939. Due to wartime restrictions, she could not be buried with her husband in Scotland, so she was reunited with her parents in burial at Windsor.

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Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!