The Empress follows the story of Rani Das, an ayah (Indian nursemaid) who travels to England with the family she is working for. On the journey she meets a young Lascar called Hari, who she falls for. She tries to teach him to read and is praised for doing so by an Indian politician on the ship, Dadabhai Naroji. When Rani is abandoned in England by her employees, Hari helps her find refuge at Lascar Sally’s, a boarding house, but Rani flees the next morning and Hari, despite a desperate search, can’t find her. He is forced to return to the ship and leave England.
Abdul Karmin also arrives in England. He has been sent to Queen Victoria as a gift. To the horror of the Queen’s court, a deep and unusual friendship develops between the two. Abdul is elevated to the position of Munshi (teacher) and barely leaves Victoria’s side.
Alone in an unfamiliar country, Rani tries to find work, and is eventually employed as an ayah for Lord and Lady Oakham. Initially, Rani is overjoyed with the position, until she meets Lord Oakham who takes advantage of her. She falls pregnant with Lord Oakham’s child and is thrown out of the house. Fortunately, Lascar Sally finds her and gives her and her baby shelter.
While boarding in a home for ayahs, Rani meets Dadabhai Naoroji again. She now has a child – Asha - and has educated herself. She tells Dadabhai that she wants to support his campaign to be elected to parliament. He employs Rani as his assistant and becomes a mentor to her. In 1892 Dadabhai is elected to be the first Indian member of Parliament representing the constituency of Finsbury. But he becomes disillusioned with English politics and is forced out of parliament after just two years.
Dadabhai decides to return to India and Rani agrees to go with him. Abdul Karim also boards the ship, dismissed and returning home after the death of his royal companion. But before Rani can go, Hari appears. He has spent the last 13 years looking for her, and the pair are finally reunited.
Rani does not board the ship but stays with Hari, and together with Rani’s daughter Asha, they wave off the ship and begin their new life in England.