Cornelia Sorabji

Portrait of Cornelia Sorabji

In This Collection



Miss Cornelia Sorabji

Indian Feminist

Miss Cornelia Sorabji, author, social reformer, and the first Indian woman to practise law, died on Tuesday after a long illness.

Cornelia Sorabji was born in 1866, daughter of the Rev. Sorabji Karsedji. an agent of the Church Missionary Society at Poona, converted from Zoroastrianism, and of Franscina Sorabji, a convert from Hinduism to Christianity. Two brothers had died in infancy, and the family of seven girls and a brother was “brought up English”—on English nursery tales with English discipline, and taught to admire all that was best in both British and Indian life. Mrs. Sorabji cared for the sick and poor around her and promoted the education of girls in an age when organized social service was almost unknown to Indians. Under her inspiration Cornelia, before she was nine, dedicated herself to the cause of Indian women secluded behind the purdah. She was the first girl student at the Deccan College, Poona. and encountered in the early days hostile and inconsiderate treatment from the 300 youths of that institution.

She came out first in a degree examination which entitled her to a Government scholarship tenable at a British university. Held to be debarred by her sex, she gained a fellowship in the Gujarat College Ahmadabad, where, still in her teens, she lectured on English literature and language. The offer of a “substituted scholarship” by certain friends in England enabled her to enter Somerville Hall, Oxford, in 1888. She had the good fortune to enjoy the helpful, stimulating friendship of Jowett and at his weekend parties she met many famous people and formed some lasting friendships. After she had studied law in chambers in Lincoln’s Inn Jowett, as Vice-Chancellor, obtained a special Congregational decree in 1893 “that Cornelia Sorabji be allowed to sit for the B.C.L. examination,” and she was the first woman to do so.

In 1902 she submitted to the India Office a plan for connecting Lady Counsel with the Provincial Governments for the purpose of protecting the legal rights of women landholders under the Court of Wards. The scheme slowly developed, and in 1904 she was appointed Legal Adviser to purdahnashins under the Courts of Wards in Bengal, Bihar, Orissa and Assam, and also Consulting Counsel to the Government of Bengal. Her varied and sometimes exciting experiences, her long journeys, her perils, her watchings and her joys as she worked among the purdah women are recorded with inimitable charm in her principal autobiographical work India Calling (1934) and supplemented two years later in her India Recalled.

Owing to the sex barrier it was not until 30 years after taking her Oxford degree that she was called to the Bar by Lincoln’s Inn. Other Indian women had become barristers but there was only one Cornelia Sorabji, and when she retired from her work for the Courts of Wards the appointment lapsed. By then some 600 wives, widows, minor heirs and orphans had received the benefit of her advice—given without charging fees in cases of undeserved penury. After her call to the Bar in 1923 she settled in Calcutta to practise in the High Court. She organized a League for Infant Welfare, Maternity and District Nursing, and it made headway until nationalist spite, hating her political views, drove it from the field. She was awarded in 1909 the Kaiser-i-Hind Gold Medal, and it was supplemented by the bar of the first class in 1922.

The first of her many studies of those aspects of Indian life she knew best was Love and Life Behind the Purdah (1902). Her delightful pensketches of Indian children Sun Babies came two years later, to be followed in 1920 by a second and illustrated series bearing the same title. She told the heroic story of the life and work of her parents in Therefore (1924), and she paid tribute to a like-minded younger sister in a short biography, Susie Sorabji (1932), who was an educationist of wide interest in western India. The middle years brought Between the Twilights, Indian Tales of the Great Ones, The Purdahnashin, and Gold Mohur Time. She had a deep love for the colour and life of the ancient East and felt that some so-called “progress” was harmful rather than beneficial.

She was a prolific writer of short stories and articles to English and American magazines and reviews, and she contributed letters and occasional articles to The Times. She had an exceptional gift of narrative: of transcribing from life in graphic, pointed phrase her experiences and conversations, and she could also resort to apt poetic parables. Her amazing tales of the intrigue, deception, cruelty and oppression accompanying zenana life are relieved by humorous episodes and by instances of serious danger for herself or her clients being out-manoeuvred, or by expressions of a wise philosophy met with in unexpected places. Her last literary effort, proposed by her and undertaken when she was more than half way through her eighth decade was her editorship of Queen Mary’s Book for India in support of the Indian Comforts Fund (1943). Her perseverance in this labour of love was the more amazing since her visual powers were severely reduced in the last years.

The Times. Thursday, July 8, 1954. p. 10.

*  *  *

Miss Cornelia Sorabji

Mrs. Helena Normanton. Q.C., writes:-

To Cornelia Sorabji all women in the legal profession owe a real debt, not only for her own years of preparation for her work in India among the Purdahnashine and her ability in its conduct, but in this country also she stood out as a pioneer. Throughout 1919, discussion among the men already in practice was prevalent upon the then much-mooted problem of the opening of the legal profession to women in Great Britain and Ireland, becoming particularly warm after my own rejection as a Bar student by the Middle Temple in March, 1919.

The influential Union Society arranged a debate on April 9 to take place in the Old Hall of Lincoln's Inn, in which I was asked to propose that opening, and Mr. I. A. Symmons, a well-known Metropolitan magistrate, was to oppose it. The only woman speaker who supported my motion was Miss Cornelia Sorabji; and this she did by a speech so eloquent, relevant, and telling, illustrated by analogies from her own legal work in India, that a handsome majority resulted in the end, in spite of much opposition; an opposition by no means unfair, or unchivalrous, but very serious in tone. She was the only woman who came forward to support me and I desire now to say how largely the victory, that night in the debate, and subsequently in the Sex Disqualification (Renewal) Act, 1919 was due to her career and to her advocacy.

The Times. Saturday, July 10, 1954. p. 8.

Cornelia Sorabji (Wikipedia)