Bloomsbury, 2015, 416 pages
Review by Phil Shannon
Sophia Singh boycotted the 1911 Census in Britain, writing on her form, in protest at the denial of the vote for women, that ‘as women do not count, they refuse to be counted’. She also risked fines and imprisonment through refusal to pay taxes to a government she had no voice in. This was no way for an Indian Princess in Britain to behave, swapping her VIP seats in the spectators’ gallery in the House of Lords for anti-government street protest with militant suffragettes.
As Anita Anand writes in her biography of Singh, the Indian Royal was, however, prepared to shock. Singh was the daughter of the last Maharaja of the Punjab, who had been deposed and exiled to Britain and bought off with a large allowance to dissuade him from returning to India to stoke insurrection against British colonial rule. Made god-daughter of Queen Victoria, Singh, too, received a generous political pension (£600 a year) and a luxurious palace with all the trappings (cooks, servants, prize-winning Pomeranians and thoroughbred horses).
Her politically docile upbringing was, however, shaken by trips to India where her hectic social round of grand balls and dog shows in Britain lost their gloss when compared to the poverty and deprivation which resulted from India being drained economically dry of its natural and human resources by India’s British rulers. The British aristocracy’s refusal to allow Singh’s proposed mixed–race marriage also soured her attitude to Britain.
After adopting the cause of Indian self-determination, Singh’s radicalisation really flared from the fiery campaign for the vote for women in Britain. An exotic, celebrity member of the Women’s Society for Social and Political Union (WSPU), Singh gave money, sold the WSPU’s paper outside her palace and put her body on the line in the violent street battles between suffragettes and the police whose state-sanctioned ferocity shocked even the police’s political boss (Winston Churchill). Often arrested, Singh was never sent to prison because of the embarrassment this would cause to the government from jailing a favoured royal ward.
Singh was a WSPU loyalist, becoming a nurse and fund-raiser for the British empire’s Indian troops as she followed the WSPU’s descent into shabby patriotic compromise when it did a deal with the government to cease all protest and to support Britain’s war effort during World War 1 in return for government reconsideration of the women’s franchise after the war. The vote was granted in 1918 but only to middle class women.
There is much biographical material here for a politically vibrant history of colonialism and feminism but Anand, a BBC journalist with a touch of princess worship about her, squanders it. Anand clogs up with numbing literary detail the emptiness of the privileged life of the vacuous social parasite whilst Singh’s radical transition is told with draining slowness.
Although the political narrative picks up with Singh’s WSPU activism, Anand, with bland BBC reserve, shirks analytical reflection on the class brakes applied by a socially elitist, middle class WSPU leadership to the feminist struggle for the vote. Singh shared this shortcoming – her instincts for the working class ran to philanthropy, the preserve of the wealthy, whilst, totally mystified by public transport, she attended suffragette rallies in liveried horse and carriage, wearing expensive furs. Singh was a socialite feminist, not a socialist feminist.
Both the tactical desperation of the WSPU’s campaign of property damage (which Singh supported) and its ultimate class allegiance to the men who ran Britain’s war for empire trumped the mobilisation of working class women for the vote and for broader political, social and economic justice for women. A biographer less regally awestruck and more politically enquiring could have made more of Singh’s class-conflicted contribution to full women’s voting rights in Britain (won in 1928) and Indian independence (1947), a contribution that deserves to be both properly critiqued and honoured.