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Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, Marchioness of Lorne and Duchess of Argyll, was the 6th child born to Britain’s Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, in 1848. She was a real, honest-to-goodness person, and under Mary Hart Perry’s loving care, she comes gloriously to life in the new historical novel, The Wild Princess.
It’s amazing that Louise isn’t better known – she was quite the royal rebel in her time. Much to her mother’s chagrin, she loved to mingle with commoners, and insisted on attending the National Art Training School in South Kensington rather than being tutored at the palace. She became an accomplished artist, was an early advocate of the feminist movement and purported to have married for love rather than political considerations. But she was also known as being beautiful and indiscreet, linked to her fair share of romantic scandals. What wonderful fodder for historical fiction!
Mary Hart Perry has obviously done her homework, and she gives Louise an immediate personality full of restlessness, youthful idealism and idealistic passion. After an opening cautionary salvo, we are placed smack dab in the middle of Louise’s confidence on her wedding day, as she prepares to walk down the aisle towards her “breathtakingly handsome” groom, John Lorne, a Scotsman of minor title but a good man, nonetheless. She is blushingly excited, but there seems to be a pall cast across the day: the crowd that has gathered outside the palace is unruly and oppressive and Louise feels the absence of her father keenly. Author Perry underscores the unease subtly:
“She felt the swish of stiff petticoats against her limbs. The coolness of the air, captured within the church’s magnificent soaring Gothic arches, chilled her bare shoulders. Yards upon yards of precious handworked lace seemed to weigh her down, as though holding her back from the altar. An icy clutch at her throat felt suddenly too tight, making it hard to breathe.”
Although the wedding goes off with only the smallest concern, we soon learn that Lorne is not the man Louise believes him to be. This is where Perry takes the facts of Louise’s life and starts to interweave them with threads of delicious fantasy, taking the historical woman and developing her into a character full of impulses, doubts and dangerous passions.
Perry is very emphatic in stating that The Wild Princess is a work of fiction: “The wise reader will consider this story nearly entirely the result of the author’s imagination.” This is no better brought to life than through the character of Stephen Byrne, a rugged Texan complete with leather duster, blue riveted “canvas” pants, and the ever present Stetson. A veteran of the American Civil War and a Union authority on terrorist tactics and explosives, Byrne is “on loan” from President Grant to aid Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Scotland Yard with the threat of a Fenian separatist uprising. He finds himself assigned to the royal family itself and charged with their safety in travel, putting him at times at odds with Victoria’s personal attendant and self-appointed bodyguard, the burly Scotsman John Brown.
So, the stage is set, and the story proceeds pretty much as expected. Louise and Byrne are drawn to each other yet struggle to maintain a professional and hierarchical distance. Byrne and Brown knock heads (sometimes literally) in their methods of protection of the royal family against the impeding Fenian threat. Louise’s sheltered upbringing and exulted position puts her at risk emotionally as much as her impulsive and rebellious nature does bodily. Secrets are hinted at, then exposed; royal politics are seen as both vain and inspired; evil stalks our players on a national and a personal scale.
Would that Mary Hart Perry’s vivid imagination was enough to carry this story; she certainly created Louise as a lively, conflicted yet engaging heroine. Unfortunately, her promising start quickly devolves from historical fiction into mainstream romance, and what could have been a taunt reworking of actual events immersing the reader deeply into the life of an unfamiliar yet beguiling public figure instead slips to fluff and cliché.
Did Louise’s dearest friend, Amanda, really have to be a destitute scullery maid who scrubs floors to escape prostitution yet still is well spoken enough to not suffer any repercussions when sassing back to Louise at their first meeting (and yes, she realized Louise was royalty), then turn out to be beautiful, refined and gracious enough to enter into a loving marriage with an up and coming surgeon and be accepted as one of Louise’s inner circle in society? A lovely fairy tale, but not something that would have been so blithely allowed in Victorian England. Would a high ranking royal really be able to so consistently and so easily outwit, slip past, and bribe all of the servants, custodians and chaperones assigned to her and charged with her safety, so as to be so often out and about by herself or in common company (and yet still complain about how she felt trapped in the palace)? Not unless she was completely surrounded by incompetents, which historically was quite unlikely. And did sensitive, new age guys really exist in either frontier America or Victorian England? Byrne, with all his yearnings, personal conflicts, and understanding of the feminine mind and sensibilities, could certainly fit that role. (Not to mention that open hansom cabs – especially those emblazoned with the royal crest – are, well, open, and indiscretions, no matter how romantic, would not have gone unnoticed in London proper in any era.)
Had Ms. Perry shown more restraint in her writing – had Amanda been a student rather than a scullery maid, had the occasions when Louise slipped away been less frequent and more perilous, had Byrne been more constrained by convention – then the story would have rung true, and would carry more literary weight. While tightening the historical veracity would have caused the need to rework some of the storylines, the heightened reality would have rendered them even more effective. As it is, by the end of the book there is absolutely no drama left in the unfolding events, because all is sacrificed on the altar of romance and the outcome is pretty much rote.
That being said, The Wild Princess is a fun read, as long as one knows what one is in for. Mary Hart Perry does bring Princess Louise to life, and as a romance, it is a fun romp. If you’re looking for a light read to close your summer, or enjoy a bit of pretty fluff in your reading adventures, then there is no better way to spend your time than by acquainting yourself with the fascinating and impetuous young royal in The Wild Princess.