When she was eight years old, Cornelia Sorabji witnessed the anguish of a Hindu woman who had been swindled out of her inheritance by her sole trustee. The experience so affected Cornelia that she devoted the rest of her life to improving the rights and education of Indian women.
Her story has been published by another remarkable Indian woman who has made her home in England, historian and doctor of optometry Kusoom Vadgama, from Golders Green.
“About 25 years ago I was researching Indians in Britain during the Raj,” Kusoom says, “and I came across this lady and she impressed me no end so I started finding out more about her.”
Cornelia was the first woman to graduate in law from the University of Oxford, in 1892, and the first to practice as a barrister in both India and Britain.
“Women weren’t allowed to take advantage of scholarships then,” Kusoom explains, “but her English friends made petitions on her behalf – one of whom was Florence Nightingale."
It was to be another 31 years before the law changed and she was called to the English bar. In the meantime, Cornelia returned to India and worked tirelessly to improve the rights of women there, not least by helping to reform the laws on child marriage and the treatment of widows.
The Cornelia Sorabji archive in the British Library includes 233 volumes of letters and writings, which Kusoom has selected and edited and which has a foreword by the Rt Hon Lady Hale of Richmond, the first woman to have been appointed Lord of Appeal in Ordinary and the most senior female judge in British history.
“This is a story about a woman who has been a bridge between India and England,” Kusoom says. “She said ‘my heart beats with two pulses – one for India and one for England.' She was a super, brilliant woman.
Kusoom, who has lived in Golders Green since 1954, says: “My obsession is the history of Indians in Britain during the Raj. I want people to treat us as equals. We did a lot in this country, in London – we’d like to be recognised. The history of the empire isn’t complete without the story of the people of the empire. It’s my mission in life.”
An Indian Portia – Selected Writings of Cornelia Sorabji 1866 to 1954 is published by Blacker Limited and available to buy in bookshops and from www.amazon.co.uk