Mary Hart Perry
August 2012, Historical Fiction (1870s England and Scotland)
William Morrow, $14.99, 417 pages, Amazon ASIN 0062123467
This debut novel about Queen Victoria's rebellious daughter Louise had the potential to be a riveting read. After all, The Wild Princess features a heroine recognized as a strong, unconventional lady in her own day, the tantalizing hint of a story to explain some of the more mysterious aspects of this princess's life, and a background of political unrest. At times, the story gelled and I found myself fascinated by Louise's world. However, too much of the story got told rather than shown and that had me putting this book down to take breaks more often than I should have.
As some history buffs may already know, Princess Louise was one of Queen Victoria's younger daughters. Less conventional than her mother and many of her siblings, she insisted upon getting an art education and mixing with commoners far more than the royal family normally did in her day. Though much of her life is a matter of historical record, parts of her private life remain the subject of speculation and Perry delves into this area to create a romantic work of historical fiction. The book opens with Louise's marriage to the Marquess of Lorne. Unlike her siblings, Louise will not marry royalty. It appears that Victoria arranged this marriage in part because whisperings over Louise's scandalous behavior as a teenager may have put off royal suitors. However, various surprises revealed soon after the wedding make one wonder if Victoria had other motives in mind.
With the main action of the story taking place in 1871, the issue of Irish self-governance roils the country and Victoria's family has been the subject of attack. In addition to Victoria's usual security, she has also engaged the services of an American Civil War veteran, Stephen Byrne, to help protect the royal family and determine the source of threats. This brings Stephen into contact with the recently married Louise. It does not take long for Stephen to realize that Louise is headstrong and intelligent, that her marriage is not what it seems - and that they are attracted to one another.
The attraction between Stephen and Louise is not the primary focus of the story, and so it develops subtly and rather slowly. Much more time is spent on the various threats against the royal family as well as on untangling the various secrets of Louise's life. Readers learn early on that Louise had some type of relationship with a fellow art student, the details of which stay mysterious for quite a while. However, as we learn more about Louise's past, she starts to look spoiled and painfully naive rather than appearing as the independent, passionate, and unconventional soul that the author so clearly wanted readers to see. As a result, it's hard to like or admire Louise much of the time and, therefore, difficult to cheer her on in her search for love. In a story involving an illicit affair, that's probably an even bigger problem for readers than it otherwise might have been.
The author excels when writing scenes that show the dynamics of the English court and royal family. Her characterization of Victoria shows not only the proper Victorian matron many associate with her name, but also a rather keen mind for plotting and a very strong will. That strong will drives a lot of the family dynamic and the author's theories about this family make for intriguing reading. However, when it comes to Louise, Lorne, and Stephen, the author tells a lot more than she shows, and this makes the story drag. We are told of Louise's devotion to art and frequent mentions are made of her projects to help poorer women, but the scenes involving these parts of her life lack a certain vividness.
In the very best scenes of The Wild Princess, one can see that Perry's writing hold promise. However, it needs a bit more polish. More showing and less narrative telling would raise this story farther above the ordinary and hopefully with time, that will develop in future books.
-- Lynn Spencer
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