The Other Princess: A Novel of Queen Victoria’s Goddaughter

Written by Denny S. Bryce
Review by Sarah Johnson

Novels that trace an entire life can show extraordinary depth of character as the protagonists adjust to shifts in circumstance and mature physically and emotionally. The Other Princess is such a book, and its narrator, Sarah Forbes Bonetta, endures more trials than most. Hers is a life of extremes: enslavement, violence, loss, and loneliness, but also friendship, love, and great privilege, accompanied by countless restrictions on her behavior and choices. As wonderfully conveyed by Bryce, Sarah navigates the ripples and swells of her life with grace, always confident in her innate worthiness.

Born into a royal family of the Egbado people in West Africa in 1843, and named Aina by her father (“child of a difficult birth”), she is orphaned at five, when the warriors of King Gezo of Dahomey attack her homeland, and gets transferred to a slave camp. Several seasons later, a British naval commander saves her from ritual sacrifice with the aim of bringing her to England and gifting her to Queen Victoria. As she grows up amid Commander Forbes’s family, the girl renamed Sarah, meaning “princess,” comes to appreciate life’s finer things, becoming a talented pianist and befriending Princess Alice on her regular visits to Windsor Castle to see the Queen. However, a permanent home eludes her.

The story principally covers Sarah’s childhood and adolescence, since this formative time impacts the woman she becomes. As she moves across years and places, from various British locales to Sierra Leone and back, her voice feels achingly authentic, full of strength and pride but also vulnerability; she determines to find purpose in an existence where she’s seen as an outsider or novelty. Her relationship with Africa, the source of both her childhood trauma and her royal heritage, is rendered with remarkable complexity. A beautifully resonant biographical novel about a noteworthy figure.