Born in England and a favored goddaughter of Queen Victoria, Princess Sophia Duleep Singh was thoroughly British. Yet she was also Indian — her father had signed his kingdom over to the British Empire — and that left Sophia caught between identities, something it would take her half a lifetime to understand.
Once she did, she went from being a self-indulgent socialite to a political activist. In “Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary,” Anita Anand traces the life of the princess, a fascinating small player in revolutionary movements in England and India at the turn of the 20th century.
Sophia was the granddaughter of Maharajah Ranjit Singh, the Sikh leader who united competing regions and religions into one massive kingdom of the Punjab. After a bloody power struggle, his youngest wife and their son briefly held power, but she was imprisoned and, at age 11, the boy signed over the kingdom to Victoria.
Maharajah Duleep Singh converted to Christianity and moved to England in his teens. Victoria adored him, bestowing him with a comfortable annual allowance that later would prove to be not enough. Duleep Singh did well in England at first, a bon vivant and popular host at a grand country house remodeled Indian-style. But he went through his fortune, indulging in gambling and women, and began decades of appeals to England’s India Office for more funds. The more he heard no, the more he agitated publicly that he was owed more, saying the Punjab had been taken from him.
It was not easy for his family. Duleep Singh had married the sheltered daughter of a German merchant and his Ethiopian slave mistress; she had six children in 10 years and was prone to depression. Sophia, born in 1876, was the youngest of the five who survived. Like her mother, she often fell into depression, and she was quiet and shy.
This made Victoria all the more fond of her. Sophia was invited to debut at court and after, perhaps emboldened by the royal support, she embraced the role of socialite. The gossip pages delighted in writing about the Indian princess, with her fashionable address, newfangled bicycle and dresses fresh from Paris,
Anand, a television presenter in England, ably moves through Sophia’s family life chronologically but sometimes sticks a little too close to her subject. We learn what the newspapers wrote about her dog breeding but not what it might have been like in her social world. How many other women of color were allowed to debut in London during the late 1800s? Was Sophia the only one at these fancy parties?
If so, she didn’t appear to have a sense of otherness — not until she visited the country of her father.
Britain had forbidden the family from returning to India, fearing its appearance might foment dissent against the Raj. In 1902, a window opened: An enormous celebration was planned near Delhi for the coronation of Edward VII, and Sophia and her two sisters made a request for tickets. While it was rejected, they were told they should visit another time, and the three sisters took that as sanction.
Sophia stayed in India nine months, and she would return and return again. The country was a revelation.
“Sophia had seen poverty and depravation on a scale that had overwhelmed her. Also, for the first time, she had come face to face with all that her family had lost. Never would she find life as a socialite fulfilling again,” Anand writes.
On her trips to India, Sophia met and aided some of the key players in the fight for self-rule. Meanwhile, back in England, she began doing good, establishing housing for lascars, Indian sailors who were often maltreated. That project taught her that she could use her social connections to raise funds and her social standing to raise awareness, lessons she took to the suffragette fight for women’s right to vote.
Sophia was present at that movement’s most critical moments; in 1914, when suffragette radicals were known for breaking windows and setting fires, she was the single-biggest individual donor to the Women’s Social and Political Union. Sophia walked with leader Emmeline Pankhurst on Nov. 18, 1910, Black Friday, the day hundreds of suffragettes were beaten by police outside Parliament. She once made the papers after throwing herself at the car of Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith while holding a banner reading, “Give women the vote!”
Yet for all her passion about women’s rights, Sophia comes to life in this biography most vibrantly when she’s traveling through India. It’s there that her diaries and correspondence have complaints and jokes. She seems to find her voice and personality and purpose all at once.
Anand has done a yeoman’s job of pulling together Sophia’s fascinating biographical history. Yet she hews so closely to the source material that it’s only when her subject reveals herself through her own writing that the book is at its most compelling.
Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary
Bloomsbury: 432 pp, $30