10 Questions... Anita Anand

1. Tell us about the process behind writing Sophia. Where did the idea come from, and how much did it change as you wrote?

I have been a political journalist for most of my professional life, and am of Indian Punjabi heritage. One day when I was on maternity leave with my first son, a local magazine came though my door. In it was a sepia tinted picture of "Suffragette selling newspaper outside Hampton Court." I couldn't get past the page - the woman in the photograph, in smart Edwardian clothes, looked Indian to me - not only that, she looked Punjabi, like one of my aunties in fact... I needed to find out who she was. This was the start of a five year obsession for me - which resulted in the book Sophia.

2. Until your work Sophia was almost entirely deleted from history. How hard was it to piece together her story?

The British were understandably perturbed by the idea of an upstart Indian princess openly defying them with the regiment of 'wild women' in the suffragette army. It was not a useful message to filter back to India, where the nationalist movement was gaining momentum, and she could have become a figurehead for resistance against the Raj. The authorities were very successful at stifling Sophia's story, but being British, they were also meticulous in their bureaucracy, keeping records of how they attempted to supress and delete her - once I knew where to look, a wealth of secret documents revealed a startling picture, not only of Sophia, but a vast cast of extraordinary women. In addition, this is a story which is not so very old. I found living links to the princess, who remembered how she talked, walked, laughed... the details, down to the perfume she wore, helped put flesh on the bones of an remarkable life.

3. When doing your research, what moment of the suffrage movement did you find the most shocking or surprising?

Black Friday, November 18 1910 is a singularly horrifying chapter in British political history. The Suffragettes clashed with police outside the House of Commons, and were given free rein to use sexual assault as a weapon to force the women back. I had to wade through boxes of horrifying testimony from women that day. The memory of some of those accounts still makes me shudder.

4. Since you wrote the book the #MeToo conversation has brought another moment of reckoning for society and gender inequality. What parallels do you see between then and now?

The #MeToo movement, like the suffragette movement, is all about sisterhood; where stronger women, with powerful voices, find themselves shouting for those with little agency. A few become many, and their collective calls becoming deafening. The sound of those voices united, then as now, shakes the establishment, and things have to change.

6. What do you think Sophia would make of Britain today?

I think she would be proud to see the women who take their places in political life, but would be profoundly depressed by the obstacles they face. Threats of sexual violence, belittling and patronising treatment from opponents, and the fact that representation is still far from equal would perhaps amaze her. The fact that we needed a #MeToo watershed would doubtless have made her as angry as she was during those Black Friday clashes on the streets of Westminster. The gender pay gap; the lack of women in positions of power in business, civic and political life; access to equal opportunity; none of these things would have impressed her much. We are one hundred years on and there is still so far to go.

7. For readers who loved Sophia, what other books would you recommend?

I would recommend Caroline Criado Perez's Invisible Women, We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Di Atkinson's Rise Up, Women!: The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes, and while you are at it - reach for The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood again - a book which feels less like fiction when you look at the news.

8. What was the first book you loved?

Matilda - Roald Dahl

9. What was the last book you read?

Normal People by Sally Rooney

10. What are you working on now?

I have just published my latest book - The Patient Assassin (Simon & Schuster UK), a tale of massacre, revenge and the Raj, so I am touring with that - hopefully shining a light into some very dark corners of imperial history.


Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary is Hay Festival Book of the Month for May, continuing the festival's campaign to celebrate and ignite conversation around current and backlist books that have contemporary resonance.

Anita Anand is a political journalist who has presented television and radio programmes on the BBC for twenty years. She currently presents Any Answers on Radio 4. She is the author of Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary and, with William Dalrymple, Koh-i-Noor: The History of the World's Most Infamous Diamond. She lives with her husband and two children in London. Her new book, The Patient Assassin, is out now and coming to Hay Festival Wales 2019 on Sunday 2 June.