Book Review: Sophia- Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary

Sophia front cover

Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary by Anita Anand.

Anita Anand. Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary. London: Bloomsbury, 2015. Paperback £9.99.

If you asked the average person to name individual suffragettes, they would probably say Emmeline or Christabel Pankhurst, or perhaps Emily Davison. There were, however, many individual women who contributed to the campaign for female suffrage, including Sylvia Pankhurst, Daisy Parsons, Clementina Black, and Charlotte DespardSophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary tells the story of Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, one of these lesser known, but just as fascinating, women who devoted herself to the fight.

Granddaughter of Ranjit Singh, the Maharaj of the Punjab, Princess Sophia and her siblings occupied a unique position in British society. Her father, originally beloved by Queen Victoria, had turned against the British empire which had taken his birthright. Her family relied on the British government for everything, but their status as Indian royalty gave them a degree of protection that meant they could still be troublesome. Sophia did not resent the British government like her father and some of her siblings, but she did care deeply for the people of India, which she visited several times. There was little she could do for the burgeoning independence movement from so far away, however, and women’s suffrage became the cause to which she devoted her energies.

Sophia is a well-written, thoroughly researched, and detailed biography. Anita Anand has included a wealth of rich details that makes you feel like you really know Sophia, that you understand her motivations. Personally, I welcome anything that helps to extend popular awareness of the suffragettes beyond Emmeline Pankhurst and her most famous daughter, and I also appreciate the way Sophia puts the suffragettes in the context of contemporary non-British social movements, particularly the early campaign for Indian independence. They are mostly seen as a stand-alone phenomena, but the campaign for women’s suffrage took place in the context of a whole range of other social justice movements.

Whilst I understand the necessity of context, there are times where it feels like the book goes into too much contextual detail. Sophia isn’t even born until page 44, and the narrative sometimes veers away from Sophia to dwell on other people and events. It feels a little like padding, which seems unnecessary considering how much source material Anand was able to find about Sophia herself.

Sophia is an enjoyable read, and Anita Anand deserves the praise she has received for it. I would recommend it to anyone interested in women’s history, colonialism, or the women’s suffrage movement.

Book Review: ‘Dynamite, Treason and Plot: Terrorism in Victorian and Edwardian London’

'Dynamite, Treason and Plot' by Simon Webb.

‘Dynamite, Treason and Plot’ by Simon Webb.

Webb, Simon. Dynamite, Treason and Plot: Terrorism in Victorian and Edwardian London. Stroud: The History Press, 2012.

There is a tendency today to see terrorism as some modern aberration, something that has arisen in recent years and might with luck fade away in time. This is unlikely. Terrorism of different sorts has been a constant backdrop in British history for centuries; it is likely to remain so for centuries to come. The notion that increased vigilance on the part of the public, combined with wise and good laws passed by Parliament, might one day defeat terrorism and usher in a peaceful era, where nobody needs to worry about bombs and assassinations, is a chimera.

Webb, p.151

As far as most people are concerned, Guy Fawke’s plot, the IRA bombings of the 1970s and 7/7 are probably the only examples of terrorism in London. In Dynamite, Treason and Plot: Terrorism in Victorian and Edwardian London, Simon Webb sets out to correct that misconception. From the Clerkenwell Outrage, where 12 people were killed in a Fenian prison break gone wrong; to the Tottenham Outrage (not every event is known as an Outrage, I promise!), a chase that lasted several hours and involved the hijacking of a tram and a milk cart, the stories Webb tells range from the horrific to the downright farcical.

Arguably the biggest strength of Dynamite, Treason and Plot is the emphasis on continuity. Humans have a tendency to believe that everything that happens is new, that the problems faced by modern society are unique to our time. Webb proves the inaccuracy of this belief, demonstrating that not only terrorism, but also immigration and xenophobia, are issues that the people of London have been grappling with for centuries. Irish, Jewish, and more recently Muslim; many minorities have been the subject of fear and discrimination in the city, and terrorism has frequently exacerbated the tensions.

Another of the strengths of Dynamite, Treason and Plot is Webb’s approach to terrorism itself. Webb doesn’t condemn the terrorists he describes outright, but neither does he glorify them. The first chapter of the book is devoted to discussion of the theories and motivations behind terrorism. It is not necessarily the mindless, monstrous violence which it is often portrayed as-there are particular reasons why people choose to resort to terrorism-and Webb takes them into account. Terrorism is an emotive subject, difficult to deal with in a sensitive and balanced way, but I think Webb does a good job of this.

Webb’s writing style can be repetitive; he frequently makes the same point twice in quick succession, and he often says how it was “nothing short of a miracle” that more people weren’t killed or injured in the events he recounts. He makes assertions, making a point without providing any supporting evidence, and often overlooks some of the historical controversies and debates. For example, in the chapter about the Suffragettes, Webb mentions the alleged plot to assassinate David Lloyd George by the Wheeldon family. In Dynamite, Treason and Plot it appears there is no doubt that that is what actually happened, but in To End all Wars by Adam Hochschild the event appears much more complicated. Hochschild suggests that the whole thing may have been a set-up, the plot concocted by the government to harm the opposition to the First World War, of which the Wheeldon family was a part. Whatever the truth, Webb completely ignores the debate, and as such misses out on some of the nuances of the story.

Despite the shortfalls I think Dynamite, Treason and Plot is well worth a read. It is an engaging read that deals with some of London’s darker, overlooked history. Webb puts terrorist into political and social context, rather than treating it as an isolated and inexplicable phenomenon to be instantly condemned.