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CHAPTER 3 Cornelia Sorabji in Victorian Oxford
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Cornelia Sorabji in Victorian Oxford

One cannot come away from Oxford the same as one goes there.
Cornelia Sorabji, Letters (1891)

Nowhere does the English temper show itself more clearly than in its relation to the universities.
M. Creighton, Historical Lectures and Addresses (1903)

In a letter to the London Times of April 13, 1888, Lady Mary Hobhouse—the wife of a former law member of the Governor General's Council in India and a patron of Indian women's education in her own right—announced that Cornelia Sorabji of Poona would be coming to Britain to pursue a degree in medicine. The letter, which provided details of Sorabji's educational and family background, described her as a young woman "of pure Indian birth," and made public the fund that had been established by the Hobhouses to finance Sorabji's medical education1 A Parsi born into a Christian family in Bombay presidency in the 1860s, Sorabji was neither typical of Indians who traveled to Britain in the nineteenth century (the vast majority of whom were Hindu men) nor was she necessarily "purely" Indian, if such a purity of identity, may be said to exist outside the fantasy of colonialism and its adherents.2 Hobhouse's attempt to figure Cornelia Sorabji both as a kind of unalloyed colonial and incontrovertibly "national" subject represents one of the discursive means by which imperial Britons sought to consolidate the cultural contradictions and internal divisions that


were in part the effect of colonialism as irreducibly, coherently, and ineluctably Other. Hobhouse no doubt viewed it as her task to "sell" Cornelia Sorabji to an English metropolitan audience that was sympathetic to the plight of Indian womanhood but not necessarily well versed in the variety of local and regional differences that might be subsumed under the overarching, homogenizing category of "the Indian woman." For Hobhouse, as well as for a number the well-meaning British patrons who helped to subsidize Sorabji's Oxford education, Cornelia's com-modification under the sign of "the" authentic Indian woman was a testimony to their own capacity to discern her essential difference, to exoticize it, and not least, to make it available in the metropolitan marketplace—all ostensibly for Sorabji's own good.

In fact, Sorabji's experiences reveal how travel to and circulation through the various domestic landscapes of imperial Britain could throw the axis of colonial difference into bold relief and, indeed, could even disclose the precariousness of the binaries upon which such difference was predicated. This chapter treats Cornelia Sorabji's Somerville correspondence as an ethnography of late-Victorian Oxford in an attempt to excavate the particular conditions under which an Indian woman sought to speak in the voice of "the Indian woman" in late-Victorian Britain.3 Sorabji had much in common with Pandita Ramabai—both were from western India, both came to Britain originally to be doctors, both experienced the intrusive benevolence of imperial Britons who believed they had the best interests of their colonial charges at heart. And yet their social locations were not exactly identical, and their strategies for navigating imperial culture in the metropole differed significantly. Sorabji had been born to Christian parents. As a result, her family history acquired a particular set of cultural meanings for her in Oxford—meanings that were to structure her apprehensions of Englishness and colonial culture from the 1880s until her death in 1954. Despite the fact that her plans to study medicine were thwarted by well-meaning English philanthropists, Sorabji remained an anglophile who returned to Britain over and over again during the course of her lifetime. She considered herself an "ardent . . . little Tory,"4 opposed nationalist reformers' efforts, and rejected both the vote for women and what she considered the unfemininity of the few suffrage reformers she met in Britain. Her life's work on behalf of purdah women—whom she represented in court, thereby securing for them rights to property and inheritance that social custom might otherwise have prevented them from claiming—did not so much advance women's legal emancipation or social independence as


Figure 2 Cornelia Sorabji, from The Queen, 1889.


Figure 3 Somerville College, class of 1891. Cornelia Sorabji is first on the left, second row.


it preserved the gender segregation regulated by cultural norms and hence, one might argue, upheld the status quo. According to Susie Tharu and K. Lalita, she was "both a fighter and a victim of her times." In Vera Brittain's estimation she "chose the wrong direction at an important moment in history, and was repudiated by the currents of her time with a completeness which tends to withhold from her the status that is due her."5 Although she was in many respects a "pioneering" Indian woman—transgressing gender boundaries in India and race and gender boundaries in Britain - like Pandita Ramabai, she cannot necessarily be understood by recourse to the analytical categories offered by either nationalist or feminist historiographies.6

An analysis of how Sorabji was shaped, without being fully determined, by her movement from Poona to Oxford—the heart of the heart of the Victorian empire, as it were—provides insight into the impact of colonial mentalities on a woman who was differently "Indian," in her mind and in the eyes of many who engaged with her, than Pandita Ramabai. Sorabji's Oxford experience illustrates the ways in which the category of "Indian," as well as that of "woman," is historically specific and culturally contingent—the product of complex negotiations between a subject and her contexts. Rather than rehabilitate Sorabji as an unsung feminist heroine—a project she would have abhorred, having no time for the "women's rights women" of her day—what I want to do is "restore her to appropriate memory"7 by exploring the coexistence of her anglophilia with the oppositional attitudes toward British imperial ideologies she developed privately as she negotiated the very public social and colonial reform cultures of late-Victorian England. As with Ramabai's correspondence, Sorabji's offers us an opportunity to see how instrumental an Indian woman could be in consolidating Britons' convictions about what "Englishness" was and what the fight and proper path to reform and celebrity should be—suggesting again that ideas about what it meant to be or act "English" were made and remade at the level of the local as well as the "national" sphere and were produced in relationship to colonial images and manifestations of empire at home. Sorabji's letters from Oxford, written to her parents in Poona between 1889 and 1894, offer a critical reading of middle- and upper-middle class Victorian culture, from Oxford to the Church Missionary Society to the female social reform movement in London. Like all ethnographies, they also tell us much about Sorabji herself. Her investments in the class status offered by Oxford, combined with a kind of Parsi nationalism and her strategic use of the celebrity surrounding her image as "the Indian


woman" in Victorian Britain, complicate the traditional lens through which we tend to understand colonial subjectivities and, with them, history-writing on empire, "home," and women's particular negotiation of the sociopolitical spaces in between. For her story suggests that not all colonial subjects rejected the values of Victorian imperial culture, and that when they did it was accomplished unevenly and unpredictably. As it did for some other late-Victorian colonial subjects, an identification with "Englishness" functioned as a socially sanctioned means of becoming a citizen for Sorabji, albeit an imperial one.8

Between 1889 and 1892 Cornelia Sorabji resided at Somerville College, Oxford, where she studied law in anticipation of becoming a barrister. Unlike Pandita Ramabai, whose conversion to Christianity in England in 1883 had sent shock waves through the Indian social reform community in Bombay, Cornelia Sorabji had been a lifelong Christian when she arrived in London in August 1889 at the age of twenty-three.9 Her father, the Reverend Sorabji Kharsedji, was a convert from Zoroastrianism; her mother Franscina was a tribal (possibly a Toda) woman raised as a Christian in India by an army officer and his wife, Lord Francis and Lady Cornelia Ford.10 Kharsedji's conversion had provoked outrage not just in his family but in the Parsi community around Bombay more generally, an experience that Sorabji was to recount later in her memoir of her parents' lives.11 Both Cornelia's parents were active in the Christian social reform community in Poona, where her father was an agent for the Church Missionary Society and her mother had run the Victoria High School for Girls (VHS) since 1876. Franscina herself had traveled to England in 1887 and extracts from the annual report of her school were featured in the Indian Female Evangelist, an English mission magazine, in the 1880s and 189os.12 The impact of her parents' religious devotion, their social work among the less fortunate in and around Poona, and, above all, their commitment to education, was enormous on their fifth daughter, Cornelia—not only for her own career path, but also in terms of the adoration for them it generated in her. "There is one circumstance . . . in my life, of which I may boast, unashamed," she wrote in her autobiography, India Calling (1934): "that is my inheritance, the fact that I am the child of my Parents. For there are no two people in all the world whom I would have chosen as my parents, if choice had been given me, save just my very own Father and Mother."13 Sorabji admired her father's conversion (which had occurred, in her words, "in the manner of the Early Martyrs of the Christian Church, at


peril of death") and her mother's "understanding in heart and mind" as well as her "gifts of construction and organization which were unknown among the Indians of her day." Cornelia's weekly letters home to them (always addressed to "Dearest Ones") during her time at Oxford and her memoir of them, Therefore, together attest to their centrality in her emotional world well beyond her adolescence. Indeed, she remained dependent on their approval well into her twenties. Her parents' hard work and their unselfish devotion to educational reform causes produced the same discipline and socially minded commitments in several of their children as in their most famous daughter. In addition to Cornelia's becoming a pleader in the Court of Wards, her sister Susie founded a girls' school; her brother, Dick, became a barrister; her sister Alice qualified as a medical doctor; her sister Pheroze was a professional singer; and her sisters Lena and Mary both worked in the VHS.14 Individually and as a family, the Sorabjis of Poona were an influential presence in the social and cultural landscape of Bombay presidency from the late nineteenth century until the Second World War.

Despite the impact of her father's conversion on Sorabji's Christian convictions, it was her mother whom Cornelia chose to remember as the heart and soul of the Sorabji family, the very embodiment of its conviction that "we were in the world to serve others."15 In Franscina's eyes, daughters were not the calamity most Indians considered them to be (she had seven in all).16 She viewed them rather as "women that Indian wanted . . . for her service." Franscina Sorabji, whom the London Times called one of the "pioneers of progress and of education for women and children" in western India,17 not only believed in the gospel of work through which such sen, ice might be accomplished, she lived it—both in the VHS and outside it. Throughout Cornelia's youth her mother traveled to local villages to visit the poor and sick and welcomed the same in the family house at Poona. "There were great excitements in store," Cornelia recalled in later years, "for the child who was allowed to accompany her on her visits to the villages, and to see how airless huts were cleaned and readjusted at her asking: how she dealt with child and woman, whatever the trouble, or with the whole village if an epidemic were afoot."18

In her autobiography, Cornelia credited her mother's encounters with local women in distress with directing her toward the law. When Cornelia was eight or nine, a Gujerati Hindu woman came to the Sorabji home to ask Franscina for help with a legal matter: she was a widow who had sought out a businessman to manage the property that had


been left to her in accordance with Hindu law. She later discovered that he had swindled her out of her inheritance by making himself her legal guardian without her knowledge but with her (de jure) consent, since she was illiterate and had signed the necessary papers over to him in good faith. Cornelia did not record what advice, if any, Franscina gave to the woman. But she did recall the incident over fifty years later as a formative one for her future career choice. Franscina told her daughter that "there are many Indian women in trouble that way," and if she wished to be useful she should study the law: "that will show you the way to help in this kind of trouble." From that moment onward, according to her autobiography, Cornelia knew that she was going to be a lawyer; "and my little sister was equally determined to be a Doctor."19

Memory is highly selective, and Cornelia's reconstruction of her path toward the law represents an interesting and, for our purposes, a significant revisioning of events. She undertook this revision partly out of a sense of indebtedness to her mother, but also in an attempt to link her later work for purdahnashin with a family tradition of self-sacrificing outreach to Indian, and more specifically to Hindu, women. That a Hindu woman disenfranchised by a scheming Indian man should function as the explanation for Cornelia's choice of the law as a profession is extremely revealing, and not only because it was medical qualification, rather than the law, which she had initially sought when she headed for Britain to pursue higher education. Sorabji's relationships with other Hindu women—such as her prominent contemporaries, Ramabai and Rukhmabai—as well as with that highly charged Victorian category, "the Hindu woman," were fraught with an ambivalence that is in some measure attributable to her Christian upbringing. For proselytizing Indian converts no less than for European missionaries in India, Hindus were the object of evangelical instruction, reformist scrutiny and, inevitably, social and cultural "Othering." For Parsi Christians like the Sorabjis, to religious difference was added another dimension: a sense of ethnic difference and national feeling. As Cornelia put it bluntly in India Calling, "I am Parsee by nationality."20 With that declaration, Sorabji announced what she had long adhered to as the defining differences between her community and that of the Hindus. What's more, she established herself as the interpreter of peculiarly Hindu religious customs and social practices to an audience that was presumed to be non-Indian and probably British—an audience that would also, she appears to have presumed, read her sympathies as similar to their own. Her descriptions of her childhood in India Calling are full of didactic examples of what


differentiated her family from other Indians. Whereas the Sorabji children were "'brought up. English'—i.e., on English nursery tales with English discipline"—most Indian children were, in her view, spoilt and misbehaved. The treatment of women was for Cornelia the ultimate index of cultural difference: orthodox Hindu women "live[d] in subjection to their husbands"; "Moslem women remained in purdah"; "but our women have never been secluded."21 The independence and careerist goals of the Sorabji women were an explicit contrast to what Sorabji saw as the slavish lives of women in the Hindu community, from whom Parsis sought and maintained an "apartness" that their Persian "origin, temperament, and habits of life . . . made inevitable."22 Dress—a cultural marker that preoccupied Sorabji throughout her time in Britain—represented the most eloquent manifestation of Parsi distinctiveness. "Our women wear a sari certainly," she wrote, "but it is of silk, and draped differently from the Hindu sari (over the right ear, behind the left)."23

In articulating her own hybrid identity, Cornelia attested to how inseparable its Parsi and Christian components were.24 Christian values surfaced even in her expressions of Parsi pride: in rejecting caste, the Parsis, she argued, "are one body"; the Zoroastrian temple, she reminded, is dominated by an altar, a priest, and a prayerful congregation.25 And she was certainly not alone among Indian reformers in emphasizing the commonalities between Indian religions and Christianity; much of the history of social reform in the nineteenth century is grounded in arguments about Hindu theism. If Sorabji cultivated a sense of difference from Hindu women, then, it was an equal mixture of Christian religious and Parsi cultural superiority—masked more or less successfully by a sentimentalized Victorian commitment to the improvement and uplift of Indian womanhood. Structuring this conviction of superiority at every turn was an unabashed admiration for things English and a sense of identification with the British civilizing mission in India. Her pride in her English upbringing has already been indicated. She took equal pleasure in detailing the full extent of her family's English customs: "The houses of our Parsee friends were furnished English (and early Victorian) like our own. We ate in the English manner off English plates, and with English adjuncts, and our diet included meat." "We were as cosmopolitan in our diet," she wrote, "as in our general upbringing."26 Historians of the Parsi community in Bombay and in western India more generally have suggested that such anglophilia was part of how Parsis understood, and in turn invented, their role in colonial


India: as merchants, traders, and capitalist entrepreneurs they saw themselves as middlemen, both economically and culturally, between the British and a variety of Indian groups in the subcontinent.27 Sorabji participated in this characterization when she wrote that "Parsees have shown no desire to compete with Hindus or Moslems for sovereignty in India. They have, like the British, helped the development of trade and, being, as a community, rich and prosperous, have been responsible for many public benefactions in the cities where they dwell; giving the lead, indeed, in these directions to native Indians themselves."28 To take the lead in the reform of Hindu women's condition, in cooperation with the agents of Britain's civilizing mission, was an aspiration that emerged from Sorabji's location at the intersection of a variety of sociocultural identities (Parsi, Christian, Maharashtrian) even as it was forged in the crucible of family life in Poona. Ultimately, it was what took her to Britain in search of professional qualifications and that characteristically Victorian female moral obligation, "useful work."

Like Ramabai, Sorabji was a young woman who had gained a certain notoriety by challenging gender prescriptions in India even before she undertook the unconventional step of traveling to Britain to attend university. She had been the first girl student at Deccan College, where she encountered opposition and some hostility upon matriculation. Placing first in a degree examination entitled her to a government scholarship at a British university, but she was debarred from this opportunity on the grounds of sex—despite the fact that protestations over her disqualification were raised in the House of Commons by friends of Indian female education. Expressing sentiments similar to those held by individuals then fighting for the admission of women to British universities, Cornelia later noted ruefully that it was considered "impertinent of any woman to produce circumstances which were not in the mind of the Authorities as a possibility when they dangled a gilded prize before eyes that should have been male."29 Soon thereafter she applied for and was appointed to the position of lecturer in English literature at a men's college at Ahmedabad in Gujerat. In an era when speaking in public (i.e., mixed company) was taboo for women not just in India but in Britain as well, this was an unprecedented step, and it brought tremendous criticism down on her head. She stuck with it because she thought "it would greatly benefit the cause of women generally, for a woman, even once, to have been entrusted with directing . . . men's intellects."30

Unlike Pandita Ramabai, who financed her travels in the 1880s to Britain and America through her writing, Sorabji had well-to-do patrons


awaiting her when she disembarked at Liverpool. From at least 1888, Sorabji was in correspondence with Lady Mary Hobhouse, whose husband Lord Arthur Hobhouse had been the law member of the Governor General's Council in India from 1872 to 1877. Both of the Hobhouses had taken an interest in female education while they were in India, especially in the activities of the Brahmo school that Keshub Chunder Sen's daughter (later the Maharani of Cooch Behar) attended. One of Arthur Hobhouse's colleagues later remembered the couple's "desire to cultivate the society of Indians of the better class," and the Sorabjis of Poona may have been among those Indians with whom the English couple fraternized.31 It was evidently Lady Mary Hobhouse who encouraged Cornelia to come and study in England. It was also she who took the lead in arranging to have the fund that she and her husband had established advertised in the columns of the Queen and in administering the money to Cornelia throughout her time at Somerville.32 The Queen estimated that the total cost of Sorabji's expenses (for "outfit, journey, tuition, and vacation arrangements") would be £300, £160 of which had been collected by August 1889, and the magazine encouraged subscribers to send their contributions directly to Lady Hobhouse.33 As with Ramabai, money was always a source of anxiety for Sorabji. She felt beholden to the Hobhouses during her fours years in Britain, perhaps especially since they insisted on calling the fund her "substituted scholarship," in compensation for the injustice she had experienced at being barred from the government grant. But while she worried over her expenses and justified nearly every penny to Lady Hobhouse, she did not reject their generosity—even when they steered her away from medicine into a teaching and then a legal career.

Because the Michaelmas term at Somerville did not begin until October, Sorabji spent her first month and a half in Britain in Maida Vale, living at the home of Elizabeth Adelaide Manning, whom she had met when Manning traveled to Bombay the previous January.34 By then Manning had been the secretary of the National Indian Association for almost a decade, and her home was the center of its activities. Begun as an organization for promoting knowledge about India and understanding between its inhabitants and Britons, the NIA was a secular association, committed in principle, as its founder Mary Carpenter had been, to noninterference in Indian social and religious customs.35 As Manning wrote in the association's journal, "[W]e do not seek so much to originate as to lend strength and support" to reform, and especially educational programs, in Britain and India.36 Increasingly, however, the wide


variety of schemes for the medical and general education of Indian girls that the NIA supported made this position untenable, even though it persisted as an ideal. As early as the late 1870s association branches throughout Britain and India were financing scholarships for teacher-training colleges and medical schools as well as a line of books called "The Mary Carpenter Series" for use in zenana teaching in India. One correspondent from India, a Mrs. Etherington, who was the inspectress of government schools in the North West Provinces, offered the discerning opinion that "the very attempt at improving the condition of women is an interfering with their social customs." For her, as for many who belonged to the NIA, it was neither possible nor desirable to avoid such intervention, especially when it came to issues like child marriage and widow remarriage.37

Promoting educational opportunities of all kinds was at the heart of the NIA's philosophical and practical commitments. As has been noted in chapter 1, by the mid-1880s chief among the association's schemes was an organized effort to oversee Indian students attending British institutions of higher education. The vast majority of these students were men who, according to a table published in the Journal of the Indian National Association of January 1885, came from all regions of India, mostly to study law and/or prepare for the Indian Civil Service examination. The author of the article (who may have been Manning herself) estimated that there were presently about 180 Indian "gentlemen" in Britain and that over the past two decades as many as 700 had come to live and study in Britain.38 In response to these numbers, the NIA began actively to advertise itself as a clearinghouse for Indian students. It produced circulars publicizing what it could do for young men looking for lodging, for advice on what kind of clothing to bring, and for "exposure to English home life." One feature in the Journal even offered to help young Indian students with their money and to send a yearly report back to their parents.39 It is difficult to know precisely how many Indians used the NIA services. We do know from the Journal (renamed the Indian Magazine and Review in January 1886) that Indians in residence at Cambridge and Oxford used the magazine—which had subscribers in India—as a space for discussing life at Britain's leading universities and for dispensing advice to their fellow Indians on what to expect at Oxbridge should they have the good fortune to attend.40 Partly as a result of Sorabji's residence at Somerville, its principal collaborated with Lady Hobhouse on a piece about women's colleges in England for the


journal, which was designed to attract more Indian women students to Oxford.41

Sorabji thus ended up at E. A. Manning's through a combination of circumstances: because of Mannings personal interest in her, because of the NIA's commitment to shepherding Indian students in England and, not least, because of Lord and Lady Hobhouse's active involvement in the association. She became something of a celebrity in missionary circles and was sought after by magazines for both her portrait and her opinions on Indian women's condition, but she turned up only occasionally in the pages of the NIA's journal, usually as part of the crowd at the association's annual soirees or special events. And although Lady Hobhouse and E. A. Manning considered her their personal responsibility, she was not in any sense sponsored by the NIA. Less straightforward was her relationship with the CMS and its representatives—to whom Sorabji referred in her correspondence home as "the Society." Even before she had gotten off the ship bringing her to England she was trying to keep invitations at bay from representatives of the CMS to speak about Indian mission work in London, though she had no official connection with the group except through her father's attachment in Poona. In the three years between Ramabai's departure and Sorabji's arrival in Britain, the quest for "native" missionaries had accelerated, making a Christian-born Indian like Sorabji of potentially critical use in the mission field, as well as good publicity for the work of the CMS in India.42 Sorabji's activities and accomplishments had been broadcast in Britain via the Indian Female Evangelist, a women's mission magazine that chronicled a variety of "native" evangelization efforts; reports on Franscina Sorabji's projects at the VHS and elsewhere received regular attention throughout the 1880s, as did Cornelia's educational successes.43 Indeed, well before she arrived at Oxford, Cornelia had to cope with competing claims on her person and her future, and to navigate her way through the expectations of the English philanthropists who were sponsoring her passage, her education at Somerville, and her professional aspirations.

During her first month in England Sorabji faced genre and not-so-gentle pressure to follow the paths laid out for her mainly by well-meaning English women—women who had different and competing goals in mind for her and who fully expected that she would follow their direction. Throughout the long voyage to Britain, Cornelia fretted over her plans for a medical career. "My heart begins to fail me a bit about the Dr. scheme," she wrote on the voyage out. "Suppose no one will


rise [to it], I will have to come back with my tail between my legs. Suppose also I fail—but I daresay these morbid broodings are another result of the sea."44 As it turned out, she was quite prescient: during her very first meeting with Madeleine Shaw-Lefevre, the then outgoing principal of Somerville College, she was told that "medicine had better be given up." Shaw-Lefevre offered a series of good reasons for the decision: the course was very trying and it would have to be done in London since in her view, the Oxford Medical School was unsatisfactory.45 Equally persuasive was the fact that Shaw-Lefevre had written to the Countess of Dufferin about getting Sorabji a scholarship from her Fund to Supply Female Medical Aid to the Women of India and was told that the countess "does not think Indian girls ought to study out of their own country, as the Grant Medical College is quite good enough for them."46 Cornelia reported to her parents two even more compelling reasons to abandon medicine: both of her patrons, Elizabeth Adelaide Manning and Lady Hobhouse, "rather expect . . . me to keep to the Educational line." In fact, as Carol Dyhouse has noted, teaching was the major occupational outlet for women graduates from British universities in the nineteenth century.47 "I have submitted," she told her parents, "not because I easily relinquish my plans, but if my health would not stand it and if the money cannot be procured—then the wisest thing is to give up."48

Fears about an Indian woman's health in the damp, cold climate of England were not totally unfounded. Several years earlier Anandibai Joshi had died of complications from a cold while studying to be a doctor at the Women's Medical College in Philadelphia, making her something of a martyr in Indian communities abroad.49 It was a fate of which Cornelia was well aware (she "submitted" to flannel clothes because "of course I do not want to be a second Anandibai Joshi"), and she took extra precautions by dressing warmly and having colds and other minor health setbacks quickly seen to.50 But she was also dearly influenced by Elizabeth Mannings long-term plans for her: "Miss Manning is so very kind to me. She thinks it is a pity to forsake Arts and Education, as she says I seem to have a special gift for that line, and there are really so many to devote themselves to medicine."51 Manning may have been thinking of Kadambini Ganguly and Rukhmabai, both of whom were in Britain at the time studying medicine. Rukhmabai was the more well-known of the two, partly because she had been "the unwilling heroine" of a much-publicized legal case in which she, a child bride, contested her husband's conjugal rights in the later 1880s. She was


attending medical school in London at this time under the patronage of Walter McLaren, member of Parliament, and his suffragist wife, Eva.52 Manning was, however, also steering Sorabji away from medicine toward teaching because she had some specific plans in mind for her: she wanted Sorabji to head up "Mr. Bhownaggree's Institute." Bhownaggree was a Parsi merchant and philanthropist who had studied law in London and was called to the bar in 1885. He was known for his interest in women's issues, and he was eventually elected to the House of Commons in 1895 as a Tory member of Parliament.53 Sorabji was not entirely averse to this idea ("this you know is just the position I should most like—teaching young Parsee girls"), but she told her parents not to broadcast it because "I have seen Mr. Bhownaggree's scheme and he wants an English lady as head; so that if I were appointed it would have to be after various plannings on the part of Miss Manning and her friends. Mr. B. is coming to England in the Winter, and I daresay the plan will then be fully discussed."54 The question of English women being chosen over Indians for positions of administrative responsibility would arise again during Sorabji's time in England, but Sorabji had faith at this point in Mannings influence and connections. Manning's arguments also appealed to Sorabji's desire to stand out, to be considered unique and exceptional: "Miss Manning says she wants to save me for Education and for something new and special, like this future college in Bombay.55

Giving up medicine so soon after arriving must have been disappointing and, at particular moments, hard to live with. Shortly after settling in with Manning, Sorabji was taken on a tour of the "Ladies' Medical Halls" (presumably at University College, London), where she heard Elizabeth Blackwell read a paper and was introduced to both Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Mary Scharlieb. All three of these women were pioneer "lady doctors" of the day, and Sorabji could barely contain her excitement: "The first London M.D. [Scharlieb] was actually close to me." Having chosen Somerville over medicine, Sorabji was fated to be reminded of her decision again and again while in England, largely because of her contact with Rukhmabai, whom she saw at Blackwell's talk. Although she wrote home that she was "very pleased to see an Indian face," she did not appreciate Rukhmabai telling her that Cornelia had had many more advantages than she, among them Sorabji's educational background and her flawless command of the English language. As time went on, Sorabji expressed more and more resentment toward Rukhmabai, quite possibly because Rukhmabai was pursuing the course


of study Sorabji had herself desired. In fact, she speculated to her parents that Rukhmabai might not even end up reading medicine because Sorabji doubted she could pass the necessary exams. Such cattiness stemmed in part from fear about what her family would think of her having abandoned her plans for medicine. She insisted that "Mother will have her doctor in the fam[ily] after all in our lime balsa [Alice]."56 In order to ensure this, Sorabji wrote letters of inquiry on Alice's behalf to Lady Dufferin and to heads of medical colleges in Britain in order to try to get her sister matriculated and funded.57

In spite of the fact that Manning was pressing her to give up medicine and pursue teaching or educational administration, Sorabji had nothing but praise for her in these early days.

I feel it such a privilege to be with her. She is very busy all day and for others, interviewing Indian students . . . arranging for their work, sympathising in their troubles, throwing herself into their interests, supervising even their wardrobes, listening to all their plans, so kindly advising and helping. She is really wonderful.

She says I must look upon this [the house in Maida Vale] as one of my English homes, and come whenever I can. Is it not good of her? . . . I am quite sorry. I shall be leaving her so soon.58

While Manning was full of admiration in return for Sorabji's parents and for the good work done by missionaries in India, she was also frank with Cornelia about her views on religion, declaring that she had some ideological difficulties with Christianity and was at present a theist. Sorabji, for her part, pronounced Manning "so tolerant," particularly in contrast to the women of the CMS with whom she had contact and some conflict during her first month in Britain. Cornelia recounted to her parents how Mrs. Gilmore (a member of the Society's London Committee who had also had contact with Ramabai) had criticized Manning's lack of religious principles and worded that she would try to "influence" Sorabji's faith. Even more galling to Sorabji was the criticism Gilmore and other Society women made of her having taught in a men's college. They thought it "not at all proper" and treated her, she felt, as something of a "moral leper." Her reaction was to let them know in no uncertain terms that she was "not Society"—that is, not under obligation to them—and that she would work to get them some subscriptions among the influential people she might meet but would not be their agent in England. This contretemps set Sorabji on the offensive against the Society and, privately at least, she made her position clear: "I have


faced this righteous committee now, and am not afraid of it. I shall speak for them at holidays, as Mr. Lewis is wanting me to promise to do . . . [T]hey are under obligation to me, for the happy fact that I am Indian is an advertisement in itself." Prompted by the CMS's expectation that she would do as they wished, Sorabji discerned what capital there was to be made out of being "the native."

She soon discovered that she could exploit that capital in order to control her time and her studies (hence her insistence on speaking only during vacations). She began to realize how crucial her independence from organizational control would be: "I am glad I am not Society for I can say what I please." She knew too that her parents, who were dependent on grants from the Society for the running of the VHS, would worry that she was offending their benefactors. "Meanwhile dear Mother and Father do not think I am being rude or otherwise unpleasant to these good people. I am sweetness and gentleness itself as they will write and tell you, I have no doubt—and this is diplomacy . . . I have stood up for kind Miss M. when they question her faith . . . but otherwise I have kept my hair on."59 Because she understood what might be at stake for the Sorabjis in Poona if she alienated the CMS people in London, Sorabji worked hard to remember that "they are good people" who had been kind to her mother when she visited England some years before. But this did not blunt her critique of the CMS members, who, in her view, "lose the interests of the individual in the desire for the good of the Society."60

Why Sorabji was more willing to take direction from Manning, a self-confessed Christian doubter, than from local ladies of the CMS, is a matter for speculation. Manning's connections with the NIA, and hence with her patrons the Hobhouses, may have had something to do with it; Sorabji's perception that the Society presumed to exploit her surely did. Just before she left for Oxford, Manning had another talk with Cornelia in which she pressed her to consider doing a course in teacher training after only one year at Somerville. Manning's reasoning was that this way, Sorabji would be likely to secure the position of in-spectress of a normal school in India—a post unusual for an Indian women to hold at this time. Sorabji was clearly ambivalent about this and agreed to relinquish doing a degree in Anglo-Saxon honors chiefly because she feared being accused of "striving after fame rather than useful work." "And besides," she wrote to the family, "I ought not to be spending too many years acquiring [knowledge] when there is work to be done . . . I shd not like to be too big for work at home in dear old


India."61 If she was in danger of doubting the wisdom of this noble and serf-sacrificing scheme, another meeting with Rukhmabai shored up her conviction about Mannings plans for her. "Rukhmabai came to see me yesterday. She is bent on some grand scheme for a Ladies Assn for which she wishes to raise funds. I wish all Indian women would work steadily and usefully instead of aiming at original schemes. I feel that about myself. There are too many unfinished projects extant in India. I told Rukhmabai she ought to help Ramabai, but that would be second fiddle, and she does not want that."62 Rukhmabai was clearly becoming Sorabji's shadow—one might even say her double—with Cornelia constructing the career paths she was torn about acquiescing in as superior to those that her Bombay presidency sister seemed to be carving out for herself.63

In the end, very little was fixed about Sorabji's course of study when she arrived at Somerville. Lady Hobhouse advised Sorabji before her departure for Oxford that she should take one step at a time, suggesting that she might do two years at Somerville, take an examination, and then proceed to the training school in London that Manning had recommended. Although Sorabji did not comment on it, it seems quite likely that Hobhouse's and Mannings different perspectives are explicable at least in part in terms of class: given Hobhouse's aristocratic background it is hardly surprising that she would have emphasized Somerville over a training college. Manning too had her reasons: she had been actively involved in the whole training school movement since the 1870s, and it would have undoubtedly been a coup to get Sorabji, an Indian woman, enrolled in one of the metropolitan institutions she had been promoting for years.64 What these differences indicate is that, among other things, several versions of "the right way of doing things" were made available to Sorabji, as Britons offered possibilities for a quintessentially "English" success story that were differently inflected by class and hence cultural concerns. Sorabji was probably unaware of these backstage details and, in any event, she was too dependent on Hobhouse's and Mannings financial and emotional support to have questioned their motives. She was determined to get to Oxford and her first glimpse of it prompted this response: "So at last I am here, in the town of my dreams."65

The Oxford that greeted Sorabji when she moved into Somerville Hall in mid-October of 1889 was to become famous as the nursery of imperial statesmen: between 1888 and 1905, three viceroys in succession were Balliol men and, over the whole period of British rule in India, fifteen


viceroys or Governors General came from Oxford (versus five from Cambridge).66 Home of the Oxford Mission, the university would also send out missionaries to all parts of the empire and dominions during the decades following Sorabji's time there. Although the transformation of undergraduates into semiprofessional proselytizers for the Christian faith coincided with the "new imperialism" and the "scramble for Africa" of the 1880s, this particular dimension of the civilizing mission had deep roots at Oxford. For Victorians interested in religion "saw the Empire as providing a framework within which the heirs to the Oxford movement could advance their work from the shores of Britain to India, Africa and the Pacific."67 Teachers, civil servants, and lawyers were also among those educated at Oxford for imperial service. Although there were critics of imperial policy at Oxford in the nineteenth century—Goldwin Smith, Regius Professor of History, chief among them—few seriously entertained the notion that the empire should be dismantled or done away with. Most Oxonians were convinced that imperialism was a beneficent force, exporting what was most valuable in British civilization and culture. As the young Curzon (later chancellor at Oxford) confided to a fellow undergraduate, "[T]here has never been anything so great in the world's history as the British Empire, so great an instrument for the good of humanity. We must devote all our energies to maintaining it." And while he was not exactly a disinterested observer, Curzon was to say in later years that "he could not understand how anyone educated at Oxford in his time could fail to be an Imperialist."68

Richard Symonds has argued that "the highest tide of Imperialism" reached Oxford between the Boer War and 1914, and that from the mid-1880s to mid-1890s there was but a "mild interest in Empire."69 At the same time, evidence of Oxford's role in the empire, and more specifically of its connections with the colonial administration of India, was everywhere to be found during Sorabji's residence there. This was largely because Oxford had been such a major force in reshaping the Indian Civil Service examinations in the 1850s.70 Benjamin Jowett, later master of Balliol College (from 1870 to his death in 1893), was instrumental in opening recruitment to men from English universities, a campaign facilitated by the events of 1857, which eventuated in the British Government dismantling the East India Company. Oxford men joined the ICS in large numbers in the wake of these changes, and, in response to demand for scholastic preparation that would help future colonial administrators, Oxford appointed a teacher of Hindustani and a Reader in


Indian Law and History by the early 1860s.71 Debates about the preparation for and administration of the ICS exam continued to enliven the Oxford community and to solidify its links to the India Office until the First World War, thus fulfilling Jowett's wish that Oxford's "true relation to the country" and the empire be recognized.72

Even before these institutional changes, however, Oxford had formal and semiformal connections with India that were as old as the empire itself. There had been an endowed chair in Sanskrit since 1832. Competition over who was to succeed to the post pitted the two Indianists at Oxford, Max Muller and Monier Williams—both of whom advised and tutored Sorabji—in a bitter rivalry that did not subside even after the loser, Max Muller, got a chair in comparative philology as a consolation prize.73 Nineteenth-century Oxford was also home to the Indian Institute, conceived by Monier Williams as "a center for union and intercourse for all engaged in Indian and Oriental Studies."74 As Chris Baldick has shown, not just the development of English studies at Oxford but the total university experience itself was bound up with imperial concerns. According to members of the ICS contributing to a symposium on "The Duties of the Universities towards Our Indian Empire" in 1884, "the culture that men got at Oxford or Cambridge was of the greatest importance in dealing with the natives."75 Significantly, there were those at Oxford who did not approve of the university's cultivation of ICS appointments. This led Ruskin to oppose the Institute on the grounds that "Oxford, as I understand its position, has to educate English gentlemen in the dements of noble human knowledge—not to prepare them . . . [to be] clerks in foreign counting houses."76

Ruskin was perfectly right about the historic mission of Oxford: educating English gentlemen had been the university's raison d'être for five centuries by the time Sorabji graced its lawns and lecture halls. There was an Indian student presence at Oxford in the late-nineteenth century, albeit a small one. Technically, Indians could attend the university from 1871, when religious tests were no longer required for entrance. By 1893, the year after Sorabji left Oxford, forty-nine Indian students had matriculated—twenty-two of them at Balliol, one of those being Sorabji's brother, Richard (Dick), another the celebrated Indian poet Manmohan Ghose.77 The tolerance for "native races" apparently exhibited by some colleges was not necessarily practiced by everyone at Oxford. Despite the interest he took in Cornelia Sorabji during her time at Oxford—despite even his conviction that India had as much to teach the West as vice versa—Max Muller had a reputation for disapproving of Indians


who came to Oxford in the 1880s. He believed that they should be studying their own ancient literature so that they might produced new texts of their own, "impregnated with Western ideas, yet retaining [their] native spirit and character."78 As Rhodes scholarships promised to bring more and more "natives" to Oxford in the early twentieth century, fears and fantasies about a colonial invasion grew apace. To wit, the anonymous Lament of an OM Oxonian:

The married mussalman arrives
With 37 moon-eyed wives
And fills a quad at Oriel
While Magdalen's classic avenues
Are occupied by shy Yahoos
Whose habits are arboreal.

The Afghan hillsmen, knives in hands
Pursue the Proctor in his bands
From Folly Bridge to Johns
And Dyak head collectors stalk
Behind the elms of Christ Church walk
Decapitating Dons.

O—that such things should come to be
In my old University
But if some folk prefer 'em
And like a Barnum-Bailey show
Then Oxford's where they ought to go
My son shall go to Durham.79

If colonials were considered interlopers at Oxford—the inevitable, if unwelcome, burden of imperial commitments—women seeking university education failed to provide the same kind of self-congratulatory confidence in Britain's civilizing mission that Macaulay's "little brown Englishmen" may have done for some Oxford dons. This, despite the fact that large numbers of women graduates took up the mantle of imperial service themselves during life "after Oxford."80 By Michaelmas term in 1889, there had been women at Oxford officially for ten years—since 1879, that is, when two women's residence halls, Lady Margaret and Somerville, opened their doors. It is worth emphasizing "officially," since women had long been at Oxford as the sisters of heads and professors—and as domestic workers in those households as well. Wives were a phenomenon only after the 1870s, when fellows were allowed to marry for the first time.81 Other women tried to get in via a more academic route. Annie M. A. H. Rogers headed the list of senior candidates


in 1873, hence technically gaining her entrance into Balliol. She was ultimately denied matriculation because she was female, a fact overlooked when she sent in her exams because she used only her initials, not her full name.82 Reaction to the opening of Somerville and Lady Margaret Halls was hostile. Edward Pusey, Regius Professor of Hebrew at Oxford, reckoned their establishment to be "one of the greatest misfortunes that has happened ever in our own time at Oxford."83 In an era when education for women was considered unorthodox, potentially damaging to their reproductive organs, and a harbinger of the end of civilization, Pusey's observation seems almost benign. The dean of New College conveyed more of the righteous indignation with which women at Oxford were greeted by some, if not many. "Inferior to us God made you," he intoned in a sermon at Oxford in 1884, "and inferior to the end of time you will remain"—a fate the good bishop, one presumes, doubted even an Oxford education could alter.84 "The ordinary undergraduate rarely saw ladies," Annie Rogers wrote in her memoirs, and when they did, it was all the more rarely as equals, intellectual or otherwise.85 As late as 1896, when the battle for women to be able to sit examinations for B.A. degrees was on, opponents of women's education at Oxford persisted in seeing female students as "honoured guests." The resolution was defeated 215-140 by the Oxford Congregation, and women did not secure the right to a B.A. from Oxford until 1920.86

If Sorabji was aware of the struggles that had surrounded the history of her beloved Somerville, she gave no indication of it. As Vera Brittain has described it, Oxford women "lived, inevitably, a self-centered life with few distractions, in which their hopes and aspirations created their world."87 In this sense, they were little different from Oxford men. According to Ved Mehta in Up at Oxford, his memoir of his time there as a student in the 1950s, "most of us structured our lives around the Oxford year—short, concentrated terms for enjoying everything the university had to offer, and vacations for reading and travel."88 The primary space in Sorabji's Oxford world was undoubtedly Somerville Hall, then presided over by its new principal, Agnes Maitland. She was known fondly to students as "the Warden," a term Sorabji used frequently and affectionately to describe her in her letters home.89 As Janet Courtney recounts in An Oxford Portrait Gallery, "Somerville, behind its high walls at the beginning of Woodstock Road, kept a cloistered seclusion, though [it was] a little more in the Oxford world [than Lady Margaret]. Its undenominational character gave it rather a wider appeal amongst Oxford tutors and the friends of Higher Education for Women."90


Somerville in fact had a reputation for embodying "the life of an English family," whereas Lady Margaret Hall was thought to provide the life of a "Christian family."91 Given Cornelia's own "English" upbringing, Somerville suited her perfectly. When she visited Holloway College in the summer of 1890 she deplored its "painfully new red brick" and its lack of a common drawing room, which made it much "less natural and home like" than what she had grown used to at Somerville.92 Her nickname in the hall quickly became "Myjee" (Gujerati for "mother") because she nursed several of her fellow students through an early-winter cold.93 Sorabji was not the only Indian woman at Somerville in this period: the daughters of the Maharajah Duleep Singh arrived in the spring of 1890. Cornelia anticipated that they would be "snobbish," would demand to be called "princesses," and would offend the other Somerville girls by wearing "uninteresting English garb."94 When they arrived she was more gracious, reporting home that the two newcomers were "very nice" and "I have taken them under my wing."95 Nonetheless, she enjoyed being singled out as exceptional, the only Indian woman doing law—so much so that she worried that other Indian women she heard might be coming to Britain to study might upstage her.96

Cornelia's letters are full of the thrill and excitement many women in this generation experienced living away from home for the first time, surrounded by books, interesting people, and the chance to mix in a university community.97 She decorated her rooms at the beginning of each term, hosted guests and had tea parties, pulled tricks on "freshers," took boat rides with college friends, and generally seemed to thrive in the socially active milieu of Somerville.98 Partly because her brother Dick was at Balliol, and partly because of links between Somerville's governors and Jowett, Sorabji went often to concerts, lectures, and parties at Balliol. She became personally acquainted with Jowett, who took a special interest in her studies and her future. They met in her first few weeks there and she described him at the time as "a sweet old man" of the "courteous old school" who insisted: "Allow me, Madam, to conduct you across [the quad] in safety."99 She later recalled that he told her she was smart and "original."100 Sorabji gloried in Oxford life from the start and quickly joined in on the good-natured rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge in sports, academics, and achievement.101 "You can't think what a lovely place Oxford is, and how perfect its academical life is," she wrote enthusiastically to Poona after less than a month at Somerville. "I think one's ideal of a happy life is nearer being realized here than


anywhere else: in the way of gentle and intellectual intercourse, with something of happiness for the future, as one looks back in after life on this beautiful spot in one's memory."102

Almost immediately upon arrival at Somerville, Sorabji announced to her parents that she was to read for two years for the Literature Honors exam and do a course in teacher training, "if possible," in the third year.103 She was soon busy attending lectures in her Anglo-Saxon course, writing papers on Spenser, and passing many happy hours in the Bodleian, reading and making notes "undisturbed for hours. Perfectly delightful."104 Hilary term was hardly underway when she rather abruptly announced a change of plans: "I am to read Law and to have an extra year at Somerville." Her new curriculum was prompted by an advertisement Miss Maitland had seen announcing that the Nizam of Hyderabad was seeking to appoint two "lady legal commissioners for the purpose of taking evidence from zenana residents.105 Among the qualifications required was law and three Indian languages besides English. Sorabji told her parents that Lady Hobhouse had connections with the Nizam and that while her appointment was not assured, she had a good chance once she had done her qualifications. "To think of [it] . . . jurisprudence!" She was soon visited by Sir William Markby, who suggested she read Persian and Sanskrit as well as Hindu law.106 He offered to be her tutor and after consulting with him, she laid out her course of study as follows:

I find that neither the Honours Jurisprudence nor the Pass (sic) Greats is exactly what India needs—so Sir William suggests that I do a Law Course he will sketch parallel to that done by the Indian Civil servants when they come into residence—and submitting myself to the same exams—I shall then be sent out a certificated Indian Legal Practitioner and if I want a degree can easily earn one in Bombay. Anyway I shall have had as much training as an ICS judge—Sir William did think I might do the B.C.L. exam but that includes Roman Law which he says I do not want and he does not think it right I should waste precious time on what will not be useful: so "little me" had to choose between Notoriety, and Usefulness, and "me's" been able to choose the latter, and "me's" heart is glad and for me too things look happy. Lady H. has written to Hyderabad about the post and if it is right I will get it and after all your "C.S." . . . will be a sort of real Indian Civil Servant—and some day, who knows she may even wear a wig and hold Court. One more thing about myself—I am to read Hindu Law and Mohammedan Law, and the Penal and Criminal Code, and the Law of Contract and Property . Ain't it scrumptious? I feel no longer as if I were brought up inside a Hottentot, and my heart is glad indeed.107


Sorabji's reference to the Hottentot is unclear; she may have been aware of the Hottentot Venus or she may have been mistaken for an African on the streets of London, as Indians in Western metropolises were and are.108 This idiomatic expression was also no doubt evidence of her concern for status, suggesting the ways in which colonials in Britain understood and made use of taxonomies of colonial-racial difference as casually as some Britons "Othered" Indians.

In any event, Sorabji was ecstatic about this mm of events because she thought she could finish her course within twelve months. She had expressed the desire to return home from the moment her boat left India, perhaps because she knew that her funds were limited and she did not relish taking more money from the Hobhouses.109 "I [feel] delicate about the money part . . . Indians have so often taken advantage of English people's kindness that I did not want [Lady Hobhouse] to imagine that I was going to do likewise"110 Sorabji was also eager to be financially independent so that she could help her other siblings realize their educational goals, especially her sister Alice, whom she wanted to see obtain the medical education she herself had forsaken.111 A sense of responsibility for and obligation to the family in Poona weighed on her heavily during her whole stay in Britain, and she was often visibly torn between enjoying Oxford life and feeling that she must hurry home to help her parents in their old age.

As W. W Hunter wrote in Bombay, 1885-1890: A Study of Indian Administration, "[I]n Bombay as in other provinces of India, the keenest intellects are attracted . . . to the study and practice of law."112 Law was certainly a more respectable choice than medicine at this particular historical moment: the medical profession was still in the process of constructing its own sociocultural identity even as the entrance of women was challenging its claims to a certain kind of status. The choice of law was a declaration of Sorabji's desire to move into a certain kind of elite male space as well.113 Of all the motivations that drove her as she undertook this difficult and unprecedented course, however, the idea that she might be the first and only Indian woman of her time to do the law had special appeal for her, in the first instance because it would mortify her detractors in India.114 Her belief, supported as it was by the Hob-houses, Sir Markby, and especially Jowett, that law would translate into "useful" work in India further pleased her, and allowed her during her time at Somerville to distinguish herself from women whose educational and reform pursuits she deemed more frivolous, less worthy of attention, and above all unwomanly.115


Serious female students were referred to in late-Victorian educational parlance as "women," while those in pursuit of "general culture" were deemed merely "ladies"—a distinction Sorabji herself was continually in the process of negotiating,116 Doing serious work—"what India needs"—became her badge of honor, and it enabled her to carry on with her heavy course work, long hours in the library, and dread of examination, at moments when even the desire to be exceptional was not enough to sustain her. Once the decision for law had been taken, there was a tremendous amount of work to be done, some of it in trying circumstances peculiar to her status as an Indian and a woman. Until 1893, all women students at Oxford had to be accompanied to lectures; Sir William Markby was Cornelia's chaperone.117 From a letter home in 1890 one has the impression that she was not allowed to call out questions in class like the men, but had to write them down so that she could ask them discreetly in private of her tutors.118 While there is no reason to believe that her assignments were any different from those given to male students, her professors gave her tasks that required traveling to London during vacations to use the British Library at a moment when the whole question of "women in public" was extremely contested. Taking public transport was still not entirely respectable for middle-class British women, and it took Sorabji several trips from Mannings house in Maida Vale to the British Library to decide that "the underground is more convenient though less wholesome" than the bus.119 Indeed, Sorabji's mobility is in striking contrasted to the kind of purdah Ramabai's benefactors tried to impose on her. Once at the British Library, it was incumbent upon Cornelia to prove herself as not just respectable, but as worthy of working in the public of the Reading Room. In 1886, three years before Sorabji came to England, the Saturday Review had featured an article on "Ladies in Libraries" that complained that "woman makes the Reading Room a place where study is impossible" because "she talks and whispers and giggles beneath the dome . . . [S]he flirts, and eats strawberries behind folios, in the society of some happy student of the opposite sex." The author went on to say that the Reading Room was "not the place for a fastidious scholar," in part because "the natives of our Oriental dependencies are thought to come here because it is the warmest place in London."120

Sorabji negotiated this situation (which may or may not have been her personal experience) by throwing herself into her work and criticizing the other women readers in the British Library as slovenly and unkempt and effectively "not her." She deliberately sat at the "Ladies' Ta-


bles," where "happily there is always room for me as most of the ladies prefer working at the men's Quarters." "One who sat near me yesterday," she wrote her parents during September of 1890, "was a caution. They many of them look dirty, and dress badly (they think it is literary to do so—Girton started that filthy College Etiquette: but we at Oxford do not do so) but this dame beat them all. Her hair was matted and ragged, on her head she wore a black monstrosity meant for a hat. Her garb was what had once been a brocaded silk black robe—but was now green with dirt and age. The shape of it, how can I describe? . . . It was moreover short, and to remedy this, from underneath it peeped a rusty black ragged frill—she'd tacked that on her petticoat no doubt . . . but me! She was a specimen."121 Sorabji, who viewed a neat personal appearance as a sign of respectability and who prided herself on her beautiful and distinctive saris, here invoked the woman reader's "bad" dress as a marker of cultural and even class inferiority. She was by no means unusual in this regard: modesty of dress was a common theme among contemporary Indian women, as Ramabai's attention to dress codes in Stree Dbarma-Neeti testifies.122 Her disdain is evident not just in the detailed description she gave but in the language she used to represent this woman as having fallen from grace—that is, from fashion, finery, and propriety—so that Sorabji ended up representing her quite clinically ("she was a specimen"), as if she were looking at a bug under a microscope. If, as Inderpal Grewal has suggested, the Reading Room (like the British Museum which housed it) was an imperial project became it represented a "love of order," Sorabji was clearly quite enamored of that order herself.123

Who knows exactly what kinds of scrutiny Sorabji was subject to in public and what impact it may have had on her reading of other women in the British Library. Years later she was to recall how she had to "undeceive a proselytizing old [English] lady" who told her reproachfully, "but you look so very heathen!"124 It may well be that the urban spaces of the British Library, and of London more generally called her "native" body into question as a sexual subject in ways that Somerville did not, insofar as it was not a mixed-public space.125 Sorabji's parting shot in the British Library affair was to differentiate her work as serious and above all respectable compared to what the woman next to her was doing. "She consulted huge volumes half my length—I found afterwards they were bound volumes of an old newspaper. I suppose she is a novelist and was getting material for a tragedy from the newspaper scandal . . . [T]he worst of the museum is that others, [for example,]


newspaper writers and such, are admitted—not only students as at Oxford, so that one misses the 'rapport' one gets at one's own dear Bodleian."126 Not only had Cornelia quickly made Oxford her own, she identified with its sense of superiority and adopted its snobbery. And significantly, in order to cope with her own exceptionalism—an exceptionalism that was both real and actively cultivated by her—she internalized some of its chauvinism as well.127 In point of fact, the law digests Sorabji had to read were also "half her length." There was, in other words, little to distinguish her from this woman—or from what Sorabji read as her disrespectability—except physical appearance and dress. These differences were not inconsiderable, and they broadcast images on the streets and in the public spaces of Victorian London that Sorabji had little control over—as the comment "you look so very heathen" could not but have reminded her.

As if preparing for exams and all that that entailed were not stressful enough, there were a number of people and problems that threatened to distract Sorabji if she let them. The round of parties, the holiday trips, and the endless At Homes she attended were undoubtedly a welcome break from her work, but she also acquired social debts she felt obligated to reciprocate and these were always pressing into her study time. She kept abreast of everything that happened in Poona, especially the intrigues around her mother's school, Alice's attempts to get to England, and her sister Mary's struggle with Miss Hurford to be appointed head of the Poona Girls High School (a government school, as opposed to the VHS, which was mission-run).128 News from home was a welcome and at times agitating weekly event, and Cornelia devoted large Portions of her letters back to giving advice, asking for more details, and expressing concern over her mother's overwork. Her brother Dick had been in England since before her arrival but he leaned on her, in those first months especially, more than she did on him, chiefly because he was having trouble matriculating at Balliol. As the older sister she had responsibility for him: she worried over his fate and his finances and hastened to reassure her father that all would be well with Dick's future.129 From November of 1890 her widowed sister Pheroze was also in England with her daughter Elsie—two more family members for Cornelia to worry about. Phiz, as she was called, could not make up her mind about what she wanted to do in Britain and her indecision was a source of anxiety and frustration for Cornelia, particularly once she had decided on her own path toward the law.130 She was concerned too because Phiz lived in a boarding house, was allowing herself to be courted by an


English doctor whom Cornelia did not trust, and seemed on the verge of entering into a marriage that might throw the Sorabjis' respectability as a family into question.131 Cornelia must have spent hours writing letters home on this subject alone, in addition to all the time she spent talking to Phiz and making sure that her niece was being well taken care of. All this while she was trying to go to lectures, absorb case after legal case, and stave off her terror at the prospect of the examinations, which always loomed large on her horizon. Through it all she remained committed to and enthusiastic about the intellectual challenges of her work. She copied questions handed out in lecture into letters home, commenting, "[T]hey look most interesting [and] I am looking forward with pleasure to writing them for next week."132 Although she didn't lose weight, and actually warned her family that they would find her "stouter" on her return, she did suffer from bouts of "neuralgia"—back and head pain—that could lay her up for days at a time. Some indication of her constant busy-ness may be adduced from her offhand remark in a letter home that even "my minutes are full."133

In addition to her studying and socializing, Sorabji was in regular contact with the agents of the Church Missionary Society in Britain, chiefly because of her father's affiliations with the CMS in Poona. She spoke at their meetings and helped them to fund-raise, not just in Oxford but all over England. These commitments did not, however, preclude critiques of what she perceived as the Society's imperialist prejudices. She objected, for example, to some CMS members' characterizations of Indian women as "impure." "It is a side I have never seen, nor have most, I am sure. Why then present it as the only one, and let Missionary work in India seem [to be] rescue work[?]"134 Perhaps Cornelia did not wish to be mistaken as the kind of Indian woman who qualified in missionaries' eyes as the right and proper subject of "rescue."135 If Sorabji, like Ramabai, acted as the foil against which Britons could consolidate what was English (and hence superior) about their reform practices, she was nonetheless always subject to slippage—to characterization not just as the willful "heathen" but as the helpless one as well. Sorabji was clearly worried that the CMS was trying to turn her into a missionary, and she wrote to Lady Hobhouse somewhat anxiously to tell her that while she admired those who undertook it, "I do not feel every one is fitted for it—and that it is too sacred a calling, like holy orders, to be entered upon by those whose vocation it is not."136 Nor was her willingness to rally publicly behind the CMS cause unconstrained by family obligations. The longer she was in England the more


firmly she believed that the Society's support for her mother's school was contingent on her own cooperation with the CMS in England. She began to refer to one CMS lady, Mrs. Gilmore, in unflattering terms ("the Cat," "the Hag," "that grasping female") and to resent the hold the Society seemed to have on herself and through her, the Sorabjis in Poona. She was sure that the CMS continued to fund her mother's Victoria High School in large measure because they wished to control what was taught there and who taught it, rather than to alleviate the pressure on Franscina and her staff, as one committee woman, Mrs. Duncan, claimed.137 If Sorabji was suspicious of their motives, she may have had good reason to be. Everywhere she turned she saw English women controlling the purse strings of, and with them the power of appointment in, educational institutions in India. She believed that her sister Mary had been cheated out of a headship, and, what was worse, that there were English women in high posts in schools in India who had had no training at all, in spite of the fact that people like E. A. Manning insisted Indian women could not hold such positions unless they had teacher college training, preferably in England.138 She was equally upset when she heard that Ramabai was taking "an active part" in the Indian National Congress.139 Sorabji also expressed chagrin at learning that Ramabai might be appointed head of a high school in Bombay presidency—partly because she believed that Miss Hurford was campaigning against her sister Mary. Given her attitude toward Hindu women, especially those in the public eye, Sorabji's reaction was more than the result of family feeling or personal jealousy, though these were dearly at work. It was the product of a triangular set of power relations among Hindu, Parsi Christian, and English women whose dynamics were dictated, if not fully determined, by the operations of colonial rule.

This state of affairs angered and disheartened Sorabji. In the end, it tested her relationship not with the CMS women or Ramabai, but with E. A. Manning, pushing their friendship to its breaking point. Manning and Sorabji had remained on good terms through Sorabji's first several terms at Somerville, with Manning coming down for tea and tours of the university and Cornelia spending the part of her vacation she was not traveling living at Manning's house in Maida Vale. She continued to write weekly to Manning at least until the winter of 1891.140 But in April of 1891, when Cornelia was in London between terms, she had a conversation with Manning that altered their relationship permanently. Manning told her that she thought Sorabji was making a mistake by not going to the Maria Grey Training College.141 Cornelia began relating


her response in a letter home by patronizing Manning a bit: "I do not mean disrespect—but she is very faddy—dear old thing that she is—and thinks no one Educational who has not done the Maria Grey." As she warmed to her subject, she drew upon that Oxford snobbery she had used in the British Library Reading Room, describing the Maria Grey as "a stupid Training School which Miss Maitland disapproves of." Later, at dinner at the Max Mullers, she recounted Manning's criticism to her dinner companion, Sir Montstuart Elphinstone, who reassured her that she had chosen by far the more useful path for India's future, and suggested she ask the India Office to make her some kind of specially appointed lawyer in Bombay. She felt tremendously reassured by her conversation with him, even though in the end he said that should she be offered a lectureship or an inspectress-ship at an educational institution, she would be foolish to turn it down.142

In spite of the fact that what distinguished Elphinstone's advice from Manning's was not necessarily ends but means, things were never the same between Sorabji and Manning. In January of 1892 Sorabji wrote home that she had recently learned that before she had come to England, Manning had recommended an English woman over her for a teaching post in Mysore on the grounds that "an English lady would be best for so high a post." Sorabji offered the following explanation: "Miss M., though a good woman, . . . is still greedy for her own nationality to have the first place on all occasions. She is curiously unjust too—when there was talk of that Legal Commissionership in Hyderabad she said I would not do because I did not know the language—and yet none of these ladies she sends out know anything about India much less about language. I think she has unconsciously more than once wronged us . . . However, the best of women and men are but Imperfect . . . I am going to have it out with her some day."143 Whether Sorabji ever did "have it out" with Manning, we do not know. She was not given to personal confrontation, and as her earlier conflict with the Society ladies suggests, she was able to transform the Victorian stereotype of the docile Indian woman into what Penelope Russell has called "the genteel performance" in the Australian colonial context.144 Judging from her correspondence with the family in Poona, it was a strategy, she made a habit of whenever she felt she was being interrogated by people who appeared to be questioning her career plans. After being asked at a garden party about the wisdom of doing law by a Miss Tammylander, who had the temerity to suggest that medicine might be more useful, Cornelia acted the perfect lady. She recorded that she "made up my mind at once. The old gift had


no business to exercise her mind about me but sarcasm would be lost on her hardened nerves [so I decided] I'd amuse myself. I looked bright at once" and went on to lecture Miss Tammylander not about the value of law but, revealingly, about the fact that the woman had never even been to India. "It was such fun," Cornelia reported to her parents mischievously. "Miss Tammy prays no doubt that I may be shown the error of my ways."145

Sorabji had considerably less fun—and less patience—dealing with British women active in female emancipation whom she met on the party circuit in Oxford and around London. They were few in number, but Cornelia could not hide her contempt for them. She told her parents that she had little time for suffrage women. Even "bible women," whom in other circumstances Cornelia did not much care for, did more worthwhile work "than fighting Women's Rights battles and getting up Franchise meetings."146 Sometime in the late autumn of 1890 she met Lady Sandhurst, who had run for the London County Council, and her daughter, whom Sorabji described as "a pale-faced insipid girl—not even feminine; a sort of neuter, most colourless." She called this "nature's revenge" on the daughter—"what comes of trying to appropriate a sex not one's own."147 Of Mrs. Sheldon Amos she had this to say: "I like [her] partly and partly do not like [her]. She is a rather striking looking individual. I like her natural manners and she is devoted to her son and daughter but she is a women's rights person, a type I cannot appreciate. She also loves the franchise and would die for radicalism—so there are many points of argument between us. She also despises a woman with nerves—while to me a platform is like melons to our Ailsa. She turns me sour."148

Rukhmabai's attraction to the local women's rights community in southeast England was one of the things that further alienated Sorabji from her after Cornelia moved to Oxford. Rukhmabai visited her at Somerville and Sorabji felt that "her conversation was one long comparison between us." What made it worse for Sorabji was that "[Rukhmabai] has put aside her brown saree and wears red like me now."149 Rarely did she encounter Rukhmabai, in fact, that she did not comment on her choice of sari.150 As Madame Blavatsky wrote after a trip to India in 1892, "Parsee women could only be distinguished from their Hindu sisters by very slight differences"—their mode of sari-wearing being one of them.152 Given Sorabji's investment in being the only Indian woman doing law, and given Rukhmabai's already "public" reputation in the wake of her trial, distinguishing herself from Rukhmabai through her


saris may have seemed the only way to keep her identity, her plans, and her respectability distinct. In keeping with this concern, Sorabji always belittled Rukhmabai's schemes for women's education in India—which Rukhmabai put before important politicians in Britain, and in 1892, before the Lord Kimberley, then Secretary of State for India—as "vague" and "unformed."152 Sorabji recounted to her parents that Rukhmabai had had an interview with Lord Harris, "and she most amusingly appeared as the champion of Female Education in India!! Did you ever?" Cornelia sounded her usual theme: "I suggested that a visit here brought responsibilities, and that we ought to seek usefulness not notoriety and fame. She is quite spoilt and thinks no end of herself."153 For all her criticisms, Sorabji thought Rukhmabai "a nice gift at bottom." The problem was that she had fallen under bad influences. "The McLarens' . . . Women's Rights Women are not the best people to advise her: and it is really sad to see how much she is left to herself."154

Cornelia did not like to be reminded of her relatively privileged life at Oxford, a fact Rukhmabai was evidently keen to talk about.155 "She came to see me and made disparaging comparisons of our respective lots—[lectur]ing me on the necessity of happiness since I was at Somerville while she toiled in a noisy street in Town and had no aids to work as I had [here]," Sorabji wrote in the spring of 1891. She talked "until I was sick of her jargon."156 The two were thrown together during vacations and in the fall of 1890 they ended up at Mannings house together. Under duress, Sorabji went out and about with Rukhmabai in London and also to Hampton Court, where the two romped in the maze, much to the amusement of the guards there.157 Sorabji had to admit that "Rukhmabai is tired by nothing" while "I was mad with despair and fatigue." What Sorabji could not countenance, however, was Rukhmabai's "wandering about most publicly alone" and worse, walking the streets with an Indian man she had taken up with.

She has taken a great fancy to a stuck-up fop from Kolapoor, the most despicable youth I've ever set eyes on—who is reading for the C.S. and spent a Vac in France, with the result that he dresses and talks [like a] "masher" now and wears his hair in furbellows [sic] around his head. I loathed him the first time I saw him, when at Miss Mannings he talked big about his attainments and expressed his indignation at being taken for an Abyssinian Prince—'that black fellow'—as he said with the worst taste possible, seeing his complexion and his remarks were present at the same time. His name is Mutgatkar. And Miss Bailey told me that he and Rukhmabai


wander about the streets together—most disgraceful I call it. That comes of opposing existing laws, and breaking loose from proper restraint.158

Sorabji was no doubt referring in those last two lines to Rukhmabai's suit against her husband in Bombay, which brought great publicity to her and great public attention in Britain to the question of Indian child marriage.159 Once again, Sorabji's harsh reaction was refracted through a critique of clothing—this time, it was the "foppishness" of Rukhmabai's male friend that helped to make Rukhmabai the object of her scorn. Blackness also recurs as a trope of her superiority to other Indians in Britain, a significant maneuver here given both Parsis' light skin and Sorabji's own possible Toda ancestry.160 As for Rukhmabai, the smugness of higher breeding and traces of Somervillian superiority combined as Sorabji constructed her countrywoman as decidedly disrespectable, both in absolute terms and in comparison to herself.

The strain of performing "the Indian woman student at Oxford" combined with the pressure of doing well academically was taking a toll on Cornelia—whether her audience was her family in Poona, her peers at Oxford, fellow travelers in the British Library, or Rukhmabai, whom she perceived as a rival for the attention of the colonial reform community in England. In the midst of all this, Sorabji's benefactors were trying to rearrange her course once again, this time so that she could sit for the Bachelor of Civil Law examination. This idea had originally been Cornelia's, and at first Sir William Markby had discouraged her, telling her it was "off [her] lines."161 Over time he realized that she was moving more quickly through the Civil Service preparation than he anticipated and, together with Jowett and Maitland, he set the wheels in motion for a petition to let her sit the BCL. The stakes were again being raised, since Sorabji now had one year in which to prepare an exam that, when she had first come to Oxford almost two years earlier, Markby did not think she could have succeeded at in that time frame. But she was undaunted, except by the delay it meant in returning to her family in India. She was buoyed too by positive feedback from her tutors and an almost filial relationship with Jowett and Muller.162 A. V. Dicey was another character altogether. While he assured her that her papers were better than those of many of the men, she thought his interactions with her strained. "I wish he would treat me like a man and not make gallant speeches about my 'intellect' and 'quickness of perception' . . . [H]e is so ugly, it offends the innocence of my eye to look at him while he deals me criminal precepts."163 After returning from the Christmas vacation


in 1891 she lamented, "Mr. Dicey is just as flail of knowledge and as clear and as uncouth and badly dressed and unwashed as he was last term."164 Ever frank and to the point, Cornelia Sorabji left us a portrait of Victorian Oxford not easily matched in its intimacy, its humor, and its utter lack of self-censorship.

Perhaps understandably, Sorabji's predisposition toward candor was more easily realized in private than in public, where she sensed that even well-meaning observers were apt to make rash and stereotypical judgments about her based on their presumptions of what an "Indian woman" was. She was not necessarily averse to doing public speaking but she was far more comfortable in the all-female debating club at Somerville, in which she participated with great enthusiasm and some success, than in her talks for the CMS.165 Understanding that she was an "advertisement" for India and for the Christian mission there, and performing that role, were vastly different experiences. When she arrived at one CMS meeting in the spring of 1890 to speak, for example, she discovered that it was "a large public affair, and to my great annoyance I saw I had been placarded about. I hate this publicity."166 She was furious whenever articles were written in the press about her because they inevitably recorded inaccuracies about her story—the Times misrepresented her as studying literature when she had been doing philology, while the Graphic had her down as doing education when she had told them she was decided for law. She even turned away two women photographers who came to visit her while she was staying in London, politely but firmly declining their offer to take her picture.167 On another occasion, when she was apparently having second thoughts about allowing a picture of herself to be published, Lady Hobhouse advised her as follows: "[T]hough you may not desire thus to circulate your portrait, yet the objection on the score of taste is too slight . . . to counterbalance the publisher's wish."168

This was in an important sense exactly what Sorabji objected to. She was not against "being public" as much as she resisted being made public without any control over how she was represented. She was quite upset when Mrs. Chapman's Sketches of Some Distinguished Indian Women appeared in 1891: she called the book "largely fiction" and told her parents "I am annoyed to find myself in it. I hate my finances and everything to become public property—and there are some mistakes in the article."169 These latter she blamed on Chapman's carelessness, on Manning having given the author inaccurate details, and on her own failure to have insisted that some of what she had shared with Chapman be kept


private. She had a similar reaction to the essay on English women's colleges Lady Hobhouse and Miss Shaw-Lefevre had contributed to the NIA's journal: "I was so angry when I saw my plans in print."170 When Phiz announced her intention to come to England, Sorabji warned her more than once in letters home to keep her plans to herself. "She must announce her intentions to no one— first she must make her friends—then use her voice, or else she will use it to no purpose."171 Cornelia was no doubt remembering her own vexed attempts to maintain control over her course in Britain and she wanted to spare her sister the same fate.

And yet, Sorabji's relationship to publicity was not exactly as straightforward as this. To be sure, she was entitled to her privacy, especially over her financial arrangements; being a good sister was also important to her. But she was loathe to see her plans in print because she did not want any other Indian women coming to Oxford, to study law or anything else, while she was there.172 Her desire to be "the" Indian woman at Oxford, and indeed, in England—a desire manifested in her response to the princesses, to Rukhmabai, and to the woman novelist in the British Library—was never more pronounced than in her reaction to the possibility that one of her countrywomen might come to Britain to study law. In response to her sister Lena's inquiry about whether she had heard of another Indian woman doing law, Sorabji replied that she knew nothing about it. "There is no one else at Oxford but myself . . . Happily I have my School to myself—and doubtless will to the end of my course unless a Bhore appears to compete with me."173 She had heard rumors that the Bhore sisters (who were from an Indian family whom the Sorabjis knew) were thinking of coming to Britain to study. She admitted to her parents that her reluctance to see her plans made public was "only a petty monopoly of my ideas—lest the Bhores should get them. I am resigning myself to 'a shadow' within the next year or so—Lily Bhore perhaps or even the fair Isabel."174 One of the Bhores figures heavily in the family correspondence as a rival with Mary over a school superintendentship in Poona, so that Sorabji's jealousy of her uniqueness and of her family's interests was as complicated as it was intense.175

Perhaps because she was so invested in being the one and only Indian jewel in the crown of imperial Oxford, exercising control over her career and her public image was of the utmost importance to Sorabji throughout her time at Somerville.176 She was less reticent about speaking her mind—and hence perhaps about being herself—in print than in person, even when her printed word entered the public arena. While she was in


Britain, Sorabji wrote several articles for the Nineteenth Century.177 One of these, "Stray Thoughts of an Indian Girl" (which she had originally titled "Social India"),178 was quite controversial for the position she took in it on the question of child marriage reform—a question very much in the public eye in Britain and India since the Age of Consent Act controversy the year before. "I fear I am very unorthodox," Sorabji wrote home in March of 1891, before her piece was in print, "for I do not see how any legislation can meet the difficulty. India lacks the moral courage to make her own social reforms and I think legislation would only be giving her a crutch which however I doubt whether she will use. The fault of our country has always been . . . talking and agitating too much and acting too little. I will refrain from corrupting your respectable ideas on the subject . . . It is sufficient if one of the family be heterodox."179 If Sorabji reveled in being unorthodox with regard to her parents' views, she took even more pleasure in agitating "the Congress people" in India, some of whom had reacted strongly to Sorabji's remarks in the Nineteenth Century. The fact that Rukhmabai's legal case had been among the fillips for the age-of-consent legislation may have also motivated Sorabji's remarks, especially since Rukhmabai herself had written a piece for an English periodical on the subject in 1890.180 In any event, the antinationalist stance for which Sorabji was later to become infamous was in the process of being articulated for the first time here. "All the Reformers talk big and act small," she wrote home in November of 1891, a month after the publication of her essay. "India has the [gift] of the gab and a painful inertia [in] action."181

Doing instead of talking was Sorabji's motto, and it must have been frustrating to find herself so ready for action while she still had the hurdle of the BCL exam to get over. As the exams approached, Sorabji went into virtual seclusion at Somerville, reading and revising, getting very little sleep and, because of the physical and mental strain, thinking she saw ghosts in the residence hall corridors at night.182 Once again, the fact that she was Indian and a woman intruded upon her course. As late as a week before the BCL she learned that "owing to some mismanagement," the conditions under which she was to be allowed to sit the exam—that is, whether it was to be "in public," with the men, or privately—were still not settled. She was "driven nearly mad with distraction" until Jowett sent her word that she was to write her papers in the examination hall like everyone else.183 Cornelia's description of the experience is worth reproducing at length, for it is a rare enough


account of what women faced who sought university credentials from Oxbridge in the nineteenth century.

My Fellow-Candidates were very, comic indeed. I went down to the Schools in company with Cherub [her nickname for a Somervillian friend] and one or two others who were in for History and Classics—pale anxious undergraduates in white ties thronged the Schools Entrance Hall. To the left stood my co-victims—25 in number with . . . Graduates' gowns and furlined hoods—scared Barristers who had waited 50 years for a brief, Country Clergy (some of them M.A.s) and all in the style of Fathers of Families and Grandfathers and Paternal Relations of sorts—except for one or two aged 30 or thereabouts who were [closest to the] brother type, fresh from working in Chambers.

I felt so small and humiliated in comparison. They treated me very kindly . . . I was conducted to a seat and taken care of till that awful electric bell went, and the clerk shouted—"Civil Law. BCL. East School, through the quad." Then one squeeze of Jackie's hand (she is a friend of mine here) and a "good-bye old fellow you're going to floor them" from her—and I followed the clerk to my place, in the wake of the ancient Father to the funeral pyre. I was not at all frightened, I was quite calm outwardly, but very curious as to what would happen, half-fearing I would have to scratch (i.e., retire because I knew nothing), half-despairing.

. . . I clenched my left fist hard, and wrote for my very life. The Papers were very difficult—and they gave [the] stiffest things in my nicest subjects so that I felt I could not have done myself justice: but I know that a power outside mine was helping me for my pen wrote so many things that I did not think I knew. The standard is exceedingly high so don't expect more than a third even if I am through).184

When Sorabji spoke of the experience as a humiliation, she anticipated the characterization that other first generation university women would use to describe their collegiate experiences. Florence Rich, writing to Helen Darbishire, the principal of Somerville, in 1938, recounted that she had wanted to read zoology in the early days of the college but discovered that it was not open to her—though one of the professors she approached suggested that she apply anyway. "I shrank from having this fuss made for me. I dreaded the horrid publicity (!) of being the first woman to take the examination, and the awful humiliation that would ensue if I did not do well, so I begged to be allowed to take some branch of science that was already open."185

Sorabji, for her part, may have been referring to the fact that she was the only woman in public in a crowd of older men; being the only Indian as well as the only woman was no doubt an added strain. Taking the


exam under these circumstances must have made it extremely difficult to concentrate. Her description of the exam takers as "co-victims" and her equation of approaching the exam site with mounting a "funeral pyre" is, however, undoubtedly the most remarkable feature of this passage. Sorabji's nephew Richard has suggested that this is an instance of classic Sorabji wit, as well as a subtle jibe at Oxford—a place that, for all its civilizing pretensions, nonetheless required women to commit a ritual sacrifice (exam taking) for the sake of an Oxford degree.186 Geraldine Forbes has suggested that Sorabji may also have been referring to the Rajasthani ritual of Johur, when the wives of the defeated mounted a pyre together to escape abduction and rape at the hands of their enemies.187 In addition, I think, Sorabji's choice of language signals an identification with the Hindu sati that tells us how acutely aware she was at this critical juncture of her Indianness as well as her femaleness—and how dense the web of signification was around the self-sacrificing Hindu woman in Victorian imperial culture.188 And if, as Indira Chowdhury-Sengupta has argued, satis represented chastity (as well as conjugal devotion), Cornelia may have been attempting to prove her sexual respectability in this particularly public mixed space.189 To seek to become "the Indian woman" at the heart of the empire meant, in some profound if not ineluctable way, identifying with one of the most available, and most stereotypical, behaviors of Indian womanhood: self-sacrifice. Even though she was not a Hindu woman but a Parsi Christian, and even though she had invested so much time and energy in differentiating herself from "the Hindu woman" in the person of Rukhmabai, when she faced the judgment of the Oxford examination system, Sorabji laid claim to the same powerful image that shaped much contemporary opinion of Indian women.190 In this particular theater of empire—which is to say, playing to both Oxford and the audience of her family—adopting the identity, of the Parsi Christian could not finally match the spectacle of performing as "the" Indian, if not "the Hindu," woman.191 There appears at this moment to have been little heroism in it for her. For while she had enthusiastically embraced the BCL and its challenges, she may have felt in the end that she had been maneuvered into this close and terrible space by a set of systems—Oxford, philanthropy, imperial culture—that demanded submission, with consent, of the female colonial subject.

Sorabji did not of course give up her will or relinquish control: she wrote the exam and got a third. She was disappointed and upset, partly as she felt that she had been bullied by a Professor Nelson in the viva


when she challenged some unspecified canonical interpretation of "private law." She was also embarrassed at not having got a first or even a second, no doubt because she understood that those were a direct avenue to important careers for men at Oxford, if not for women as well.192 "The world in general seeks to console me," she wrote her parents in one of her most dejected letters home since arriving in Britain. "They say I ought to be proud of it and all the rest—but I am conceited enough to feel it."193 To Lady Hobhouse she wrote, "I feel I have betrayed the faith which so many of my friends were kind enough to put in me. Write and tell me that you are not very ashamed of or disappointed in me though if you are it will be only what I deserve."194 Later she expressed amazement at the " enormous amount of work I was able to get through in those two years" and wonder "that I did not go out of my mind as I had so much anxiety with it all: and it was audacious to attempt the highest Law School, straight away like that."195 She hardly had time to digest everything that had happened since as soon as the exams were over she had to move out of her rooms at Somerville—a prospect that filled her with sadness and nostalgia. "All the College is nearly down. I am staying to dissolve and pack—[O]n Monday I turn my face forever on the happiest time life can have for me. I feel it intensely. Dear Oxford—no other place can ever be to me what thou art!"196

Sorabji remained another year in England after leaving Somerville. During this time she visited friends all over the British Isles, worked as a clerk in the London law offices of Lee and Pemberton (where her friend Alice Bruce's uncle was also employed), and tried to settle a more permanent position for herself consonant with her training and new qualifications in India. It was an uphill battle, in part because on the colonial no less than in the "domestic" British scene, patronage and connections were key to getting work.197 She had well-placed contacts in London and indeed, throughout England, who gave her conflicting advice about what kind of work to seek and how to find it. Lord Reay thought she should aim for the Indian bar; Sir Ameer Ali recommended a post in a solicitor's office in Bombay; while Sir Raymond West counseled her to set up independent practice in Kattiawar after passing the pleaders' exam.198 Nothing more was mentioned about the Nizam's advertisement for a "lady legal commissioner," but Sorabji continued to hope for a post that would enable her to work with women's property cases.199 Purdabnasbin were already uppermost in her mind. As she put it in a talk she gave in Chelsea in March of 1893, "[T]he man can do the plead-


ing in the Courts of Law but none but a woman can put in train for him cases which come from behind the purdah."200 In the meantime, her clerkship kept her very busy, as did her attempts to get her sister Alice settled in a medical course in Britain. Cornelia was reluctant to deliver her sister up to Mrs. Gilmore and the CMS, for she felt certain that the Society would bind Alice to missionary work in exchange for their financial support. "They will not scruple," she wrote of British missionary women, "to do anything . . . in the name of religion."201 And, with her own schedule more flexible now that she was no longer a student, Cornelia had more time and energy to devote both to researching and worrying about Alice's future. It may well have distracted her from dwelling too much on her own. In the end, Alice qualified as a doctor in London in 1905.202

Sorabji continued to consider Dick and Phiz her responsibilities, but what she most worried about was money. Lady Hobhouse relieved of her the necessity of paying back the fund the Hobhouses had established and Lord Hobhouse provided the fifty guineas necessary to article her at Lee and Pemberton.203 Meanwhile, she had few funds of her own with which to support herself and was forced, almost immediately upon leaving Somerville, to ask her father to loan her money for her eventual passage home. In keeping with what Reba Softer has noted about other British university women of her generation, Sorabji discovered that independence ended rather than began with graduation.204 This was not easy for her: "[Y]ou can't think how I feel having to come upon you like this, dear Father, but how can I help it? I have no one else to provide for me."205 Her lack of economic independence and her dim prospects for work in India made her even more self-conscious about "being public," out of fear that those people who had questioned the wisdom of her pursuit of the law would feel vindicated in their criticism of her "impractical schemes."206

These were in the long run merely temporary setbacks. Upon her return to India she eventually qualified as a barrister of the High Court, Calcutta, worked as a legal adviser to women landholders under the Court of Wards, and served as consulting counsel to the government of Bengal. Sorabji traveled back and forth between Britain and India often during her lifetime. As she put it in 1908, "[I]f to feel in one's pulse the great axioms of two continents, if to love two worlds as different as East is from West, to vibrate with one set of susceptibilities to the griefs and joys, the folktales and literatures of both, be a privilege, then indeed I am blessed and privileged among women."207 There were a variety of


influences that shaped the woman she became, Oxford being only one of them. Her years at Somerville and in London are interesting and important not necessarily because they were formative, but because they reveal the complexity of the late nineteenth-century colonial encounter as it occurred on British soil, as well as the hybridity of colonial subjectivities, historically speaking. That Sorabji could see through what she called "the brutal oppression of [missionaries] which they label zeal for the cause";208 that she analyzed and resisted her exploitation and that of her family by all manner of colonial reformers' schemes; that she succeeded in negotiating the chiefly male, white world of Victorian Oxford and, in the end, remained an anglophile, no less—all this is testament to what Ania Loomba calls the "torturous but dynamic movement" of identities under colonialism.209 This "torturous but dynamic movement"—and the fixity it defies—is an index of the contingency of colonial hegemony, evidence of the possibility that it may be negotiated and resisted, that it is ultimately always transformed by those who encounter it, and not always in predictable ways. If Sorabji represents an unusual and even unique instance of this kind of transformation, one can only imagine that she would be delighted to hear it.


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CHAPTER 3 Cornelia Sorabji in Victorian Oxford
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