Untold lives blog

09 December 2013

'Cornelia Calling' - A Voyage of Discovery in the British Library

Today we have a story from guest blogger Jocelyn Watson about how the British Library collections have helped her to write a play based on the life of Cornelia Sorabji.

For Christmas 2011 my brother gave me a present of a book.  I unwrapped it to discover An Indian Portia by Kusoom Vadgama.  I had never heard of the book before and I looked at my brother quizzically; his response was:  ‘Believe me, you’ll find it fascinating’.  Sure enough, I was gripped.  The book was the diligent compilation of the letters, diaries and articles of Cornelia Sorabji, the first woman in history to read law at Somerville College and one of India’s first female barristers.

Photograph of Cornelia SorabjiFrom Cornelia Sorabji, India Calling (1934)    Noc

Before becoming a writer, I was a lawyer and had studied law at Somerville’s sister college in Cambridge, Girton.  As my interest grew I began trawling the British Library archives.  The staff were so helpful and supportive and I was delighted to discover a wealth of material about this extraordinary woman.  I came across the law paper that she sat in 1889 and looked through it wondering how I would have managed.  The Master of Balliol College had obtained congregational consent for Cornelia to be able to sit the examination; the sole woman in a hall full of male students many of whom disapproved.

Certificate of qualification to the High Court of Judicature of the North Western Provinces for Cornelia Sorabji
NocIOPP/MSS Eur F165/118

My Mother is Indian and my father English and when I asked family and friends in India, none of them had heard of Cornelia.  Similarly in England when I asked friends, former law students, they too knew nothing about her.  The more I delved into the rich resources that the British Library holds, the more I learnt and understood how invisible women’s histories can become, and how important it is that we acknowledge the women who have gone before us.  I was so grateful that the British Library had so carefully preserved all this valuable material.  

Poster for Cornelia Calling
As a result I wrote Cornelia Calling and with the help and support of Kali Theatre Company, a charity that supports and encourages South Asian women to write, I was able to bring Cornelia Sorabji, a lawyer, a social reformer, an author, an extraordinary woman, to life.   The play is to be performed in London at the Tristam Bates Theatre on Friday 13 December at 7.30pm as part of the Kali Talkback 2013.

Jocelyn Watson



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