Cornelia Sorabji was the British Empire’s first woman lawyer, and India’s first woman civil servant.
Cornelia Sorabji (1866-1954) had a slew of firsts to her name: the first woman graduate from Bombay University, the first woman to graduate in law from the University of Oxford, the first to practise as a barrister in both India and Britain, and the first woman civil servant in India. She achieved this success on her own, without belonging to rich or royal families, through sheer determination.
A towering figure of her times, she served under and interacted with seven Viceroys, was a close friend of two of them and of their wives, of two of the Secretaries of State, and of King George V and Queen Mary.
She was however not inducted in the post-Independence Indian hall of fame in spite of a life of service, especially to Indian widows, probably because of her open support for the British Empire during its last three decades. Though she was wholly Indian, a Parsi, beautiful, and beautifully dressed in Indian sarees, she was essentially a product of the Empire, perhaps more at home in British society, with perfect English and perfect English manners. As she said, “My heart beats with two pulses—one for India and one for England.”
Her father Reverend Sorabji Karsedji was the only brother to six sisters, and the hope of his family. He was however one of the first Parsis to convert to Christianity at the tender age of 16 in 1840, influenced by the missionary school he had joined to better his English. Parsi society in Bombay was outraged by this event, with angry mobs of thousands surrounding the buildings where he had sought refuge with the British, a weeping widowed mother and six sisters, all beseeching him to reconsider, and three attempts to murder him so as to blot out the shame to the community, including casting him out to sea without provisions, which he fortunately survived.
When the tumult died down, he married Franscina Ford, a girl from Karnataka who had been adopted and brought up by a British couple. They soon found themselves in Poona, where Franscina set up four schools, with extensive fund raising, including via lectures in England. The family home still exists as Hotel Ritz with most of the furniture intact.
The happy couple, in keeping with Sorabji’s family tradition of a surfeit of girls, had seven daughters and one son. The girls led exceptional lives, Cornelia as a lawyer and civil servant, Susie as the principal and administrator of the Poona schools, and Alice, the youngest, as the first woman BSc of India, who topped the university. Alice became a surgeon and doctor, ran a hospital in Peshawar and drove herself in her old Ford on many adventurous trips including driving through Persia right up to England.
Cornelia was the first woman to be granted admission to Bombay University, and was the only girl among 300 boys in Deccan College, Poona. In 1886, she received a Bachelor of Arts degree and became the first woman graduate of Bombay University. She managed this, despite resistance from the boys, which included slamming the lecture hall doors in her face, to prevent her from attending lectures.
She won a number of prizes, and as one of the top four students, was eligible for a scholarship to England. This was denied her because she was a woman, and a question was actually raised in the British House of Commons.
A group of aristocratic women, including Florence Nightingale, however, got together and raised a scholarship for her, and she set off for England. This made her a celebrity in that country, and she found herself one of Victorian England’s darlings, feted in upper-crust salons in London and Oxford.
She joined Somerville College in Oxford in 1889, and spent four very happy years there, under the patronage of the terrifying head of Balliol, the philosopher Benjamin Jowett, who introduced her to people like Alfred Lord Tennyson and Nightingale. She was the only woman allowed to use the All Souls College library—she had to sit in a separate room reached by a separate entrance, and the books she requested would be brought to her!
Jowett had a special law course devised for her. In 1892, she cleared the Bachelor of Civil Law, but was not awarded a degree as she was a woman—she only got the official degree after 1920, when they agreed to give degrees to women. She however trained at the law firm Lee and Pemberton in London for a year before returning to India to practise as a lawyer in 1893.
Here she met with huge resistance to her practising either as a solicitor or an advocate.
A job she was to take up with some English solicitors fell through as the Chief justice of Bombay opposed it.
In the summer of 1893, she tried instead for a post for furthering the education of women, offered by the Gaekwad of Baroda.
She had to live alone in a house in the wilderness and faced problems with dishonest officials. She quit after eight months, though in this period, she got to know some women from the princely states, who offered her cases.
She joined a solicitor’s office in Bombay, and started getting cases from the princely states, sometimes simply for the novelty value of encountering a woman lawyer. In a farcical case, she was retained by an elephant who had filed a case against the Maharajah of Panchmahals to protest the taking away of his banana grove. She showed up in court in a carriage with six white horses, which had been sent for her, and realized that the Maharajah was also the judge.
He sat on a swing with a gramophone playing English songs, and immediately pronounced the judgement in her favour without hearing her argument, since his English bulldog at the gate had liked her.
More seriously, many purdanashins, women who had inherited property or were holding it in trust for their minor children, but were in purdah and could not interact with male lawyers, started engaging her to defend their property, and getting justice for them became for her a lifelong mission.
She was singularly unsuccessful in getting entry as a barrister in the British courts. In one case only was Cornelia allowed to plead in a British court—however, not as a lawyer, but as a “person for the defence of the accused” in Poona, where she successfully defended a woman charged with the murder of her husband.
Her brother Dick had meanwhile qualified as a barrister in England, and the duo moved in 1897 to Allahabad, the premier court of India with luminaries like Motilal Nehru practicing there. She had been promised by the Allahabad High Court that they would allow her to plead, but they reneged in a drawn decision where the British Chief Justice used his second casting vote to disallow her.
He jovially told her: “If you appeared before me, how could I scold you?”
She continued preparing cases and doing backend work. However, there was now an unexpected twist in the tale. Cornelia, at the age of 32, got romantically involved with a 60-year-old married British judge Harrison Falkner Blair. After a couple of years, when her family found out, they were horrified, and exiled her to England in 1901, to try and contain the scandal. Cornelia and Blair however continued their correspondence till 1907 when he died in her arms, after a boat trip in Oxford.
From 1901 to 1904, Cornelia Sorabji led the high life in England, making friends and influencing people.
In London, she moved comfortably in aristocratic society, visiting her friends in their country houses. She became intimate friends with one of Queen Victoria’s granddaughters, Princess Louise of Schleswig-Holstein, with whom she later travelled to Sri Lanka,
Cornelia was always beautifully dressed in silk sarees, often with exquisite Parsi embroidery, which she wore with elaborate blouses in the Victorian British style, setting a distinct style of her own. A contemporary comment: “She wore the most wonderfully brilliant saris and dangling jewellery, of great length, and I thought of her and her sisters as the brightest thing in London.” A British intellectual considered her as being one of the three brainiest women, along with George Eliot and the explorer Mary Kingsley.
During this period, she started an orchestrated campaign to get the Government of India to create a legal post for her in the Civil Services, to advise the purdanashins.
She used a wide range of tactics. Her first book, Love and Life Behind the Purdah, published in 1901, was an important part of her campaign because it was a set of short stories illustrating the suffering, hardships and self-sacrifice of the secluded women whom she hoped to serve. In 1902, she had a leader published in The Times of London on the need for a woman to help secluded widows in India.
This caused a question to be asked in the House of Commons about whether the Government was doing anything to provide for the needs of these secluded women by appointing a woman, and the Secretary of State for India said the matter was being looked into.
Finally, in 1904, the brother of a friend was appointed Secretary of State for India. He overrode Lord Curzon, the Viceroy, who had twice indirectly refused to create the post, and appointed her as the Legal Advisor for Purdanashins in the Indian Civil Service Court of Wards for Bengal, Bihar, Orissa and Assam. There were no women and very few Indians in the Civil Services at the time.
The period from 1905 to 1922, when she retired, was the most successful and productive period of her life. She revealed in her role in Calcutta, living in style with her office in Writers Building, the state secretariat, and travelling by palanquin to inaccessible kingdoms bounded by jungles. She rescued women and children about to be murdered, caused reconciliations, appointed tutors and in general looked after the welfare of these widows and children. At any given point, she had as many as 600 wards whose interests she was looking after.
She meticulously recorded these years, and these records give us an invaluable glimpse into the vanished world of these purdanashins, and the politics and jealousies of the Indian Civil Service. She would later write about many of these cases in her work Between the Twilights and her two autobiographies.
She believed in “education before legislation” in the field of women’s rights with two exceptions: sati and child marriage. She helped reform laws on child marriage and the treatment of widows. She excelled at her job, and was awarded the Gold Kaiser-i-Hind medal for public service in 1909. Her sister Alice was awarded this in 1918.
She travelled extensively, regularly visiting her brother in Allahabad, her sister in Peshawar and other members of the family in England, even making two extremely dangerous sea trips during the First World War.
In 1922, she retired from the civil service at the age of 55. “My heart,” she wrote, “is like a banyan tree with roots in the zenanas. The great uprooting is painful.”
She now returned to England and finally got her legal degree, 30 years after she had cleared the exam, and was called to the bar in Lincoln’s Inn, where her statue was installed in 2012.
In 1924, Cornelia, now nearing 60, an age when other people sit back and reflect on a life well-spent, returned to India to practise as a barrister in Calcutta High Court. This was very different from her previous stint. It was a period of great struggle, as, in spite of acclaimed legal opinions, and her actually winning a case against Tej Bahadur Sapru, the famous lawyer, she faced immense opposition as a woman, and was confined to preparing opinions on cases, rather than pleading them before the court.
She however threw herself into social work, founding the Bengal League of Social Service which worked for poor women who were behind the veil.
In this period, she was embroiled in a controversy regarding a strongly anti-Hindu book, Mother India, by the American writer Katherine Mayo. Many of Cornelia’s opinions were unwittingly used in the book, and her legal career was destroyed, as many lawyers now would not work with her. Mahatma Gandhi called the book “a drain inspector’s report”.
She was also opposed to Mahatma Gandhi’s style of politics, though she had earlier supported nationalists like Gopal Krishna Gokhale, and openly campaigned against him, believing in the goodness and necessity of the British Raj.
In 1931, at the age of 65, she retired to England, and lived there till her death at the age of 87 in 1954. She spent this time writing prolifically, including her autobiographies India Calling and India Recalled, advising the British government on India, and helping with the war effort during the Second World War.
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