OH you wicked English, how I long for your downfall. How I loathe you all,” wrote the 30-year-old Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, Indian goddaughter of Queen Victoria, in her diary in 1907.
by Anita Anand
Bloomsbury, 432pp, £20
She had just been permitted to revisit her stolen kingdom of the Punjab for the first time and had undergone a radical conversion. Radio and TV journalist Anita Anand’s first book is a biography of this Indian princess who became an upper-class British socialite, then a radical activist.
The young Princess Sophia and her sensationally beautiful sisters delighted London after they debuted at Buckingham Palace in 1894. Sophia’s emeralds were “larger than scarab beetles” and she championed such unfeminine hobbies as bicycling, smoking and field hockey.
After her first visit to India, though, she devoted herself to women’s suffrage and Indian independence – causes that were not always aligned. She marched, shouted slogans and hurled herself at the Prime Minister’s car. She refused to pay taxes, arguing that there should be no taxation without representation; bailiffs impounded her jewels. Dressed in expensive furs, she sold The Suffragette newspaper outside the grace-and-favour residence at Hampton Court Palace she had been granted by Queen Victoria.
During the First World War she volunteered as a nurse, tending to Indian soldiers in English hospitals. Though she spoke hardly a word of Hindustani, the soldiers were overcome to be treated by the granddaughter of the great Maharaja Ranjit Singh, founder of the Sikh Empire and Lion of the Punjab. “Hardened Sikh fighters were bashful and tongue-tied,” writes Anand.
Later in life, the princess stomped around Buckinghamshire in a brown cardigan and wellies, fussing over small dogs. “Oh, she’s not like a princess at all,” thought a wartime evacuee billeted with her – but she did, by then, sound quite a lot like a radical Indian version of Her Majesty the Queen.
Despite bearing Sophia’s name, this book is something of a group biography of her family. This is less irritating than it might have been, for Sophia’s family background is unusually interesting. Her father, Maharaja Duleep Singh, was forced to sign the Sikh Empire and his fortune over to the British when he was only 11. “I always feel so much for these poor deposed Indian princes,” sighed Queen Victoria, who ostentatiously wore the Koh-i-Noor diamond her agents had swiped from little Duleep.
She and Prince Albert invited the teenage prince to WindsorCastle and Osborne House. He impressed them with his decorative clothing, conversion to Christianity and apparent devotion to Victoria, whose portrait he wore around his neck. Then he fell in with her dissolute son Bertie (later Edward VII), discovered wine and women and embarked on a career of debauchery and overspending. He married and produced five children, including Sophia, all the while feeling as though he had been swindled by his hosts.
Finally he rebelled, plotting with Irish Republicans and mysterious Russians, and staged doomed attempts to reclaim his birthright. The British Indian government sat on him, and he was most decisively squashed. He lived out his last days in grotty Parisian digs with his much younger second wife, who had been a chambermaid from Lambeth before he made her his maharani.
Anand is a strong, confident writer and has amassed some excellent research, including archival material. Sometimes Sophia’s character evades the reader amid a wealth of tangents. Overall, though, it is packed with more than enough good stories and characters to be a rollickingly enjoyable read: a comprehensively researched and zippy account of a profoundly unusual life.