Friday, April 4, 2014

Sophie, in Shadow: the historical background

Sophie, in Shadow continues a narrative which began in Wild Talent: a Novel of the Supernatural, set in London and Paris a quarter-century earlier.

Though Sophie, like Jeannie, is a fictional character, her story too plays out against real historical events. The details of the 1915 Christmas Day Plot to seize Calcutta and overthrow British rule in India were not revealed until thirty years later, when a former Viceroy of India mentioned them in his memoirs. That particular plan was discovered in time, and a bloodbath averted. However, as Sophie learns, where there is one conspiracy afoot, there are likely to be others.

Sir Charles Bell’s uneasy relationship with Alexandra David Neel, and Alexandra’s persistent attempts to cross the border into Tibet, are well documented in Government of India files and in Alexandra’s own writings. (Eventually Alexandra did fulfill her dream of travelling in Tibet, to Sir Charles’ immense displeasure.)

For background material I am especially indebted to the following titles: Like Hidden Fire: The Plot to Bring Down the British Empire, By Peter Hopkirk (Kodansha America); Women of the Raj, by Margaret MacMillan (Thames and Hudson); Calcutta by Krishna Dutta (Interlink Books); Calcutta by Simon and Rupert Winchester (Lonely Planet Books); Forbidden Journey: The Life of Alexandra David-Neel, by Barbara and Michael Foster (Harper & Row); and Two Under the Indian Sun, Jon and Rumer Godden’s delightful memoir of their East Bengal childhood, 1914- 1919 (Alfred A Knopf)

On a personal note: in 1912 my maternal grandfather, Arthur Pritchard, decided to give up his struggling farm in Worcestershire and emigrate with his wife and five children to Canada. Their plan was to make the crossing on the much-publicized maiden voyage of SS Titanic, but they were too late to book accommodation, and travelled instead on the next available ship out of Southampton. In the years leading up to the centennial of the Titanic disaster, I was reminded of how such random events can decide the very fact of our existence.

Sophie’s story, like all family histories, is a narrative of “What If’s?”

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