History books often hide more than they reveal and the holes left by standard texts of an era become spaces to be explored by biographers and chroniclers of a different ilk; those with a curiosity that fixes upon a specific subject, a wrinkle in the dominant view, a treaty not signed, a royal succession not fulfilled. The rich tapestry of the history of the sub-continent—as indeed, the history of any geography or peoples—can never contain all the threads that would have made it complete. But between the thickly woven images these gaps exist, and the interstitial stories, with a cast of characters left out of those prescribed texts, allow us to imagine a fuller, more detailed trajectory of events and interactions.
The period traversing the nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw many movements of global scale, some leading to wars and other forms of significant social disruption. The consciousness of class, race and gender equality surfaced to visible proportions, with some struggles finding a point of origin and others discovering a vocabulary of resistance. It was the end of empire, in some ways, and the beginning of a new form of nation-state, one predicated upon participation of a wider nature—or at least, the hope of such participation. It would be impossible for any historian or storyteller to capture the entirety of this complex and interconnected era, when even the smallest movement was informed in some way by the largest, and the other way around.
While Maharaja Ranjit Singh of the single eye is a subject of both song and scholarly treatise, and his son Duleep Singh viewed both sympathetically and critically in literature, few are as familiar with the latter’s daughter, the Princess Sophia Victoria Duleep Singh, favoured god-child of Queen Victoria. Journalist and writer Anita Anand’s deeply researched biography gives us a close look at this woman who moved from being a victim of a combination of tragic circumstances to becoming an active participant in a movement that was to make women legitimate political actors.
Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary locates its subject on a sweeping canvas of events beginning with a short history of the Sikhs, the consolidation of the Sikh empire by Maharaja Ranjit Singh and its subsequent annexation by the British. The story then follows the young Duleep Singh as he becomes a ward of the Empress, his estrangement from his mother and heritage, and his induction into English society. Anand spends close to a third of the book on the circumstances of Sophia’s birth and childhood, with rich detail on the often stormy and complicated relationship between the crown and Prince Duleep Singh. The reader enters Sophia’s world in the second part of the book and then travels with her as she navigates her place as a debutante in London society, her discovery of her ancestral land, the Punjab, and finally, her transformative politics when she returns to England, more aware of socio-cultural imbalances and the dynamics of power.
Anand draws on a range of archival material, both primary and secondary, from personal correspondence to Queen Victoria’s journals to the press of the times. Sophia’s early years are only dimly reconstructed, but as the princess reaches adulthood her life appears more vividly on the pages. Her transformation from a society belle obsessed with the latest fashion and home décor to a sensitive and informed adult is traced meticulously, based on evidence from the many letters written by Sophia to her sisters and newspaper reports. Anand’s account of Sophia’s work with the suffragettes paints a picture of a strong-willed and generous woman who cared little for her own image as she joined the rebellion against the Parliamentary establishment. Curiously, however, her role in the movement has only recently received attention, and even then, not particularly marked in British accounts.
Sophia offers an important view of the kind of history that is rarely produced; the contribution of a woman of colour (from the “colonies”) to the movement for equal representation in Britain; the space and position occupied by the families, the women, marginalized by the policy of annexation. What makes Anand’s work not only interesting, but significant, is that it offers this view in a manner that is accessible to a casual reader of history.