Book Review: The Mystery of Princess Louise by Lucinda Hawksley and Those Wild Wyndhams by Claudia Renton

princess louise book

In writing a biography of Princess Louise Duchess of Argyll (1848-1939), Lucinda Hawksley ran into two crucial obstacles – she was denied access to the Princess’s papers at the Royal Archives at Windsor and the same was the case when she tried with the papers of her husband, the 9th Duke of Argyll at Inveraray Castle. A question arises, what is it that is so sensitive about this princess and by extension her husband who have been dead for more than seventy and one hundred years respectively?

Like her older brother Albert Edward (later King Edward VII), Louise has been dogged by rumours chief among them; of having lovers (the sculptor Edgar Boehm and her brother-in-law Prince Henry of Battenberg among others), bearing an illegitimate son (the father was said to be Walter Stirling, a governor to her younger brother Leopold) and that her marriage to the 9th Duke of Argyll was a sham owing to his homosexuality. Unlike Bertie however whose numerous affairs are public knowledge and have been verified by various sources, Louise’s own affairs are fated to be mere speculation so long as historians and biographers are denied access to her papers.

Undaunted, Hawksley makes the best of trying to make sense of the mystery by using available sources to flesh out the rumours but without access to the main primary sources, any hopes of shedding light on the mysteries that surround Louise’s life are doomed to fail. And this is where the book falls short.

Where I believe this biography is much more successful is her examination of Louise as an individual against the backdrop of a large family headed by a mother who was later described as a mother to the nation and empire but hardly had a maternal bone in her body and a father who was intelligent and cultured but damaged by the trauma of his own family life. Described by Queen Victoria several times as “difficult”, perhaps it’s not surprising as Louise was born in 1848, the year of revolutions. It was a debut to an interesting, turbulent and in her own way revolutionary (by the standards of her time and status) life.

Louise was a princess with ideas and interests far ahead of her time. She and her husband were supporters of women’s rights, female suffrage and both had a genuine concern for the poor. There was also the determination to pursue a career as an artist, forging a wide circle of friends and being the first female member of the royal family to attend a school. Even within the constraints of her role as a Princess of the Blood, she went further than the usual ribbon cutting and laying of foundation stones by being a tireless worker for the charities she was associated with, championing unfashionable causes and through her husband’s stint as Governor-General of Canada, a bridge between Britain and its largest dominion which earned her and her husband the affection of the Canadian people. However, Louise was not all sweetness and light, she could be spiteful, petty, and neurotic and longed for the spotlight, all of which could be traced back from her desire for the affection and love she craved as a child.

Despite Hawksley’s best efforts, Princess Louise’s story is destined for now to remain an unfinished puzzle so long as the custodians at Windsor and Inveraray keep a tight leash over Louise’s and the 9th Duke’s papers. Hopefully if the fullness of time, the-powers-that-be will relax their grip on the primary source materials which will undoubtedly help shed more light on the life of this interesting princess.

wyndham book

While Princess Louise’s name lives on due to a Canadian province, a lake and an army regiment among others; the Wyndham sisters (Mary, Madeline and Pamela) have passed on to relative obscurity, appearing as mere footnotes on any study about late 19th and early 20th century British political and social history. If they are remembered at all, it’s for the famous John Singer Sargent portrait that was exhibited to great acclaim at the Royal Academy in 1900 which led the Prince of Wales to dub it “The Three Graces”.

Claudia Renton’s debut biography chronicles the life of Mary (1862-1937), Madeline (1869-1941) and Pamela (1871-1928) Wyndham, the daughters of Percy Wyndham, a wealthy politician and his wife Madeline; they were brought up together with two brothers into a life of wealth and privilege. Befitting women of their class, they received the education deemed suitable for them and were expected to make good marriages and raise children to which they fulfilled, but with heart-breaking consequences.

Of the three, only the middle daughter Madeline had a happy and contented marriage with Charles Adeane, a landowner and farmer while the other two Mary who married Hugo Charteris, Lord Elcho (later 11th Earl of Wemyss) and Pamela who married Edward Tennant (later 1st Baron Glenconner) found that marital happiness eluded them. Both marriages were punctuated by infidelities on both sides (the Elchos) and on hers (Pamela who carried on an affair with Harry Cust among others who her parents had forbidden her to marry) played against the backdrop of holidays abroad, secret assignations, letters and illegitimate children. Percy Wyndham once noticed that of his daughters, Madeline with her level headedness was the only one who was neither mad nor sane which does contrast with Mary’s Eeyore-ish sense of gloom and Pamela’s bouts of self-absorption.

What makes this biography interesting is giving us a glimpse of the world the sisters inhabited and the people they knew as friends and acquaintances from the likes of Oscar Wilde to Wilfrid Scawen Blunt (who would have an affair and a daughter with Mary Elcho) and Marie Stopes which was a carryover from their childhood when their parents entertained a diverse group of people in their home. Importantly, the sisters (especially Mary and to a lesser extent Pamela) became involved with the “Souls”, an artistic and intellectual group that sprang around Arthur Balfour, a rising star in the political scene and a future prime minister.

Renton subtitled her work “Three Sisters at the Heart of Power” but in my opinion, this is misleading. It’s true that Mary and Pamela were intimate with two statesmen – Balfour and the Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey respectively but those “Souls” who were in politics despite their potential and hype were never destined to reach the Olympian heights that they were expected to. If anything, the sisters’ story represents a case study of the decline and fall of the aristocracy, their gilded life and loves masking the growing impotence and redundancy of the aristocracy as they were increasingly being eclipsed by the middle and working classes as a political, economic and social force to be reckoned with.

In the end, it’s the First World War that sounds the death kneel for the pampered and cosseted world of the Wyndham sisters – Mary and Pamela suffered tragedy when they lost sons in the battlefields of France and the Near East and by the 1920s and 30s, the sisters were feeling the economic pinch and increasingly taking a back seat to a different type of social group of which one of Pamela’s children (Stephen) was a leading member. The sale of their beloved family home, Clouds in 1932 was the final severance of the link to a way of life that had vanished with the Great War.

Despite the bewildering array of names and events, Renton has managed to produce a readable and fascinating account that does contribute in some way to understanding the changes Britain was undergoing during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.


Both reviews are based on the paperback versions released in December 2014.