Being dyslexic I have always found non-fiction, with its impossibly small and curly fonts difficult to read. Audiobooks being really expensive to buy I had accepted that this was a genre that was mainly off-limits, apart from the occasional graphic novel. However I’m now able to plunge in thanks to the excellent service Edinburgh City Libraries offer in downloads.
I jumped at the chance to listen to Sophia: Princess, suffragette, Revolutionary by Anita Anand. Sophia’s story, as far as I know is unique. Her father had been born Maharajah Duleep Singh of the Sikh Kingdom – at a time when Britain was clenching its iron fist around India. He lost his kingdom while and infant, and was brought to Britain to be brough up. Queen Victoria was charmed by the young Maharajah and made him something like a pet – she respected his royal title and admired his good looks, but not his personhood. It was absolutely fine for him to exist as long as he behaved in a manner of deference to the British crown and all it represented.
For the early part of his life he did mainly that, enjoying the money and position that he held. However over time he began to realise what he had lost, and when he started to agitate against British rule in India, and his spendthrift ways were less tolerated, his fortunes took a turn. His wife died, he married a woman many saw as beneath him and lived the rest of his life in a kind of self-imposed exile in Paris.
Sophia had been brought up in a luxurious home and was well-connected, boasting the Queen as her godmother. When her mother died, and father abandoned his family she and her siblings were given to trustworthy guardians. Despite the privilege she was given by class and money (money that was only ever allowed her, rather than her right), her early life lacked the stability and consistent love that all children need.
Once Sophia was “out” she enjoyed the dresses, the jewelry and the balls of high society – she was given rooms in Hampton Court and started to breed dogs. Sophia embraced British culture and life. Much like her father, she was treated like a pet, adored as long as she behaved in the way expected of her.
The event that really changed her was visiting India for the first time. The family had always been prevented by the British from entering, but circumstance meant the sisters could finally see the country of their ancestors from which her family had been barred. Her experience of India, and the high esteem in which her family was held, effected her profoundly and she remained in contact with many of the leaders in the Indian nationalist movement.
Sophia spent much of the rest of her life as an activist for Indian causes and a Suffragette. She took part in the Black Friday march on Parliament, when Winston Churchill gave Police permission to sexually assault the women protesting. She tried many times to get arrested. While Sufragettes of lower classes were suffering up to 200 force feedings in jail she could not even be taken to court for throwing herself in front of the Prime Ministers carriage.
When she refused to pay her taxes (no taxations without representation) her jewellery was confiscated and auctioned. The auction house was flooded with suffragette who made sure they bought their jewellery back for her.
Sophia’s life (and that of her sisters) is fascinating because she was a woman who had to intricately negotiate who she was, and her image, with the rest of the world, her family, friends, peers and the British Crown.
How a woman negotiates her identity within society is still a pressing issues for many. Sophia, may have been more fortunate in terms of finance, but her understanding of herself and then the conundrum of how to negotiate the reaction to that presentation continues to impinge on the happiness and prospects of many.
Through Anand’s telling of Sophia’s life we also gain a snapshot of the British Empire. It was a time which some may call “glorious” for Britain, but was built on the subjugation of others. Anand lays out before us some of the atrocities and myriad slights Britain suffered upon India, charts our invention of the concentration camp (in South Africa) and the fear, obligation and guilt, which it expected the suffrage movement to buckle under.
This is an era of British History that is only beginning to throw off the false pride of patriotism and face the honesty of its actions. If the British Empire had been a human being, it would have long ago been diagnosed with a personality disorder.
While Sophia acts as a brilliant conduit to understand an era of British/Indian history and the British ruling class, there is another reason why it is an important book. The stories and successes of individual women are often written out of British history. The stories and successes of women colour don’t even get written in the first place.
Much is made of the suffragettes by the modern feminist movement – and rightly so. These are the pioneers who have allowed British women the rights and freedoms many of us enjoy today – even though they have not yet been fully realised. But so very often the movement is portrayed as a middle class one, and incredibly white. Anand’s book goes some way to (literally) writing this wrong.
Wether you are already emerged in feminist argument and know a lot about the suffrage movement, or whether you have never investigated the subject at all, this will be an excellent, interesting and thought-provoking read.
If you would like to know more about the working class women in the suffrage movement the I would also recommend Sally Heathcote Suffragette.