INSPIRING TALES | We talk to Bali Rai, author of The Royal Rebel: The Life of Suffragette Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, about capturing such an inspiring woman from history’s life in a book, and how fiction allows us to explore someone’s life in new ways.
Can you introduce readers to Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, who is the focus of your book?
Yes, Sophia Duleep Singh was the daughter of an Indian maharajah, Duleep Singh, and was born in England. She grew up to become a leading suffragette, and supported Indian independence from the British Empire, and also served as a nurse during the Great War. She was a true British hero and her story was widely forgotten by many, or simply unknown to them.
The book is entitled ‘The Royal Rebel’ – how did Sophia warrant the title?
Sophia’s father was a maharajah (king) whose empire was taken over by the British. She was born a princess and was also goddaughter of Queen Victoria. After growing up as an aristocrat, she went on to fight for women’s votes and support Indian independence. This was frowned upon by aristocratic society and earned her the rebel tag. She was someone who caused a stir in “polite society” that’s for sure!
“[Fiction] gives us the chance to feel with the heart of another human being – my favourite definition of empathy.”
How did you approach researching Sophia, and distilling a vast life into an accessible story for children?
The key was to condense the research and her life down to the parts that worked best for a narrative. I concentrated on some key themes about loss and identity, and her Indian heritage, which allowed me to focus on specific parts of my research, and not just try and cram it all in. It wasn’t easy to narrow it all down but having key themes helped a great deal.
How do you find fiction as a form for exploring real – and in this case vast, revolutionary – lives? How does it allow writers and readers to engage with someone’s story differently than non-fiction?
Fiction allows the reader to step into the mind of the protagonist and hear their thoughts and feel their emotions. It gives us the chance to feel with the heart of another human being – my favourite definition of empathy – which is one of fiction’s greatest strengths. When you read their words, and engage with their thoughts and feelings, they become a friend – one that is sharing their life with you. It’s a connection that can be extremely powerful and often long lasting.
Were there any particular anecdotes or stories from her life that particularly stood out personally, whether big or small?
For me, the biggest one was how much Queen Victoria adored Sophia and her family. As a person of Sikh heritage, I had no idea how close the bond between Victoria and the Duleep Singh family was. When the Queen bought Sophia a doll, and sent her clothes for that doll, crafted by a dressmaker in Paris, to help her feel less sad, that was a ‘wow’ moment.
“[Sophia Duleep Singh] was someone who caused a stir in ‘polite society’ that’s for sure!”
Why do you think it’s important we continue to shine a spotlight on those from history, particularly for children reading of past eras?
It’s important because far too many stories have been ignored or forgotten. Important stories about people who have played roles in shaping and defining Britishness (in this case). When we teach children history, they can often have a very one-sided view of the people who took part, and it’s vital that they know about the service and sacrifice made by those who came from the Empire. The role of India in both world wars, and Sophia’s central role in the Suffragette movement, should not be ignored. They are part of our shared history.
What do you hope readers take from your book?
This is always a very difficult question to answer. I think it’s for the reader to decide what they take from any book. I just write the story and show the themes and explore those themes. If I have done my job correctly, the readers will gain empathy for the protagonist and begin to understand their place in the world. If that leads to a better understanding of hidden voices or lost histories and diversity, great. But the first thing is to create a story that they enjoy, and that makes them engage with the voices I’m writing about.
The Royal Rebel: The Life of Suffragette Princess Sophia Duleep Singh by Bali Rai is published by Barrington Stoke.