The Inordinately Strange Life of Dyce Sombre

Victorian Anglo Indian MP and Chancery 'Lunatic'

April 2010 9781849040006 416pp


The descendant of German and French Catholic mercenaries, a Scots Presbyterian subaltern, and their secluded Indian wives, David Ochterlony Dyce Sombre defied all classification in the North Indian principality where he was raised. Add to these influences an adoptive mother who began as a Muslim courtesan and rose to become the Catholic ruler of a strategically-placed, cosmopolitan little kingdom, which her foster son was destined to inherit, and you have the origins of a fascinating life that reflects many of the Romantic, political, and colonial trends of a century. As heir to the throne, Sombre took great advantage of the sensuous pleasures of privilege, but he lost his kingdom to the British and went into exile in London with his very considerable fortune. Despite being Indian and Catholic, Sombre married the daughter of an English Protestant Viscount, who was a prominent defender of slavery. Sombre bought himself election as a British MP but then was expelled for corruption. His treatment of his aristocratic wife led to his arrest and confinement as a Chancery lunatic. Fleeing to France, Sombre spent years trying to reclaim his sanity and his fortune from those among the British establishment who had done him down. In this thrilling biography, Michael H. Fisher recovers Sombre’s strange story and the echoes of his case for modern conceptions of race, privilege and empire.


‘A wonderfully entertaining biography of a man of great wealth who spent the last decade of his life in legal limbo, trapped in a Chancery court case that hinged on his condition as a lunatic. That would be remarkable enough for the story of any Victorian gentleman, but the subject of this fascinating narrative is David Ochterlony Dyce Sombre, a gross, corpulent and rakish man who inherited the fabulous wealth of the Begum of the principality of Sardhana in India… In Fisher’s writing [Dyce Sombre] comes to life as vividly as the best fictional creation, and in enjoying that human complexity, the reader also learns much about the absurdity and cruelty of Victorian family law’. — Times Higher Education

‘Fisher presents a compelling story, one that will fascinate any scholar interested in Britain’s Indian Empire or its legal consequences.’ – Mary Ellis Gibson, Elizabeth Rosenthal Distinguished Excellence Professor, Department of English, University of North Carolina at Greensboro

‘This is a quintessentially nineteenth-century story that constantly reminded me of the kinds of entanglements so central to Dickens’ stories in Bleak House. The tale has a novelistic quality that Fisher adroitly brings alive even as his scholarly voice reminds us of the bigger stories that lie behind this tragic life’. — Professor Philippa Levine, University of California, Berkeley

‘This is a remarkable and incredibly engaging story, one that focuses not only on Sombre’s controversial career in Britain, but also his Indian childhood and his subsequent movements through the Malay Straits, Singapore, Macao, China, continental Europe and the Ottoman Empire. Sombre is a wonderful protagonist and Professor Fisher should be lauded for recovering the richness and strangeness of this remarkable individual’s life’. — Professor Tony Ballantyne, Washington University, St Louis


Michael H. Fisher is Robert S. Danforth Professor of History at Oberlin College in Ohio. He is the author of, among others, The Travels of Dean Mahomet: An Eighteenth-Century Journey Through India.

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