In the late 1800s, a princess grew up in a beautiful house in Suffolk, England. She lived with her family, servants and an enormous number of unusual animals and birds. But, despite her status, the life of Princess Sophia Duleep Singh was not as idyllic as it would first appear, and Bali Rai’s The Royal Rebel:The Life of Suffragette Princess Sophia Duleep Singh brings this extraordinary life full of tragedy and rebellion to a new audience of young readers.
As the daughter of the exiled Indian Maharaja Duleep Singh, and goddaughter of Queen Victoria, Princess Sophia’s story sheds light on aspects of Victorian history that one would not normally associate with a woman of her status and background. Her life is a window into the impact of the British Empire upon India, the experience of a (royal) person of colour in England, and the rise of the suffragette movement.
Rai makes Sophia very relatable and the losses that she experiences in her early life are heart-breaking. Her childhood at Elveden Hall in Suffolk is chaotic and overshadowed by her fears for her mother’s health. Her close and loving relationship with her siblings contrasts with her confused and distant relationship with her father. The mixed feelings that she has towards her father’s homeland is entwined with the politics of the time and her visit to India is not the successful homecoming that she and her sisters had hoped for.
The explanation of the history behind this story is always simply and clearly communicated and the writing skilfully conveys complicated information in a way that shows not only what has happened but how it has impacted the figures in the story. In a particularly striking moment, Sophia’s father explains to her (and the reader) why they live in England and what happened to his parents. It is so simply done and yet packs an almighty emotional punch.
But Sophia Duleep Singh is most famous for her involvement in the suffragette movement and this book brilliantly portrays her life as an activist who uses her place in society to stand up to the British establishment. She worked alongside such significant campaigners as the Pankhursts and was even present at the ‘Black Friday’ confrontation with the police outside the Houses of Parliament in 1910. We get to join Sophia and her fellow suffragettes as they are subjected to violence but remain determined to fight for their cause.
The Royal Rebel is a wonderful addition to any classroom that is investigating the history of the suffragette movement and the history of Empire. This is a fantastic story about a woman who defied authority and achieved incredible things. It’s a wonderful achievement and, to quote a line from the book, ‘who doesn’t like a story about a revolutionary princess?’
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