The Cosmopolitan Biography of the English Religious Liberal, Feminist and Writer, Sophia Dobson Collet

Introduction: Representing Cosmopolitan Lives

Abstract This chapter explores the cosmopolitan life of the little-known English religious liberal, feminist and writer, Sophia Dobson Collet (1822-1894). It examines Collet’s close connection with members of the Brahmo Samaj, a movement founded in 1820s Calcutta by Ram Mohan Roy to promote religious and social reform among Hindus. It shows her pivotal role in shaping a ‘cosmopolitan thought zone’ connecting Brahmos with British and American Unitarians, Transcendentalists, Theists and liberal Christians. Collet, it argues, enacted spiritual fellowship and a shared commitment to social reform within a respectful trans-racial and trans-faith affective community. Although she did not articulate an anti-imperial politics, she was committed to bridging the racialised divisions and hierarchies that characterised the ‘imperial social formation’ between Britain and India.

Keywords Sophia Dobson Collet • Brahmo Samaj • Spiritual cosmopolitanism • Cosmopolitan feminism • Affective community • Unitarianism

In June 1894 a seven-page obituary of the English religious liberal, feminist and writer Sophia Dobson Collet (1822-1894) appeared in the Bengali-language publication Bamabodhini Patrika [Journal for the Enlightenment of Women]. Describing Collet as ‘India’s dearest friend and well-wisher’, it was noted that she ‘kept on mentioning how much © The Author(s) 2017

J. Haggis et al., Cosmopolitan Lives on the Cusp of Empire, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-52748-2_2

she wanted to finish writing the biography of Rajah Rammohan Roy before she died’.1 The article went on to describe Collet as ‘one of the noted scholars and learned women of her time’ and to emphasise her important role in promoting the Brahmo Samaj. This was an influential Indian movement for religious and social reform which Ram Mohan Roy had founded in the 1820s in Calcutta, and of which the male editors of the journal were currently the leading members.2

Collet’s The Life and Letters of Raja Rammohun Roy was finally published in 1900 after its completion by her friend. It became the standard English-language biography of this ‘father of modern India’, who had already become an international celebrity during his lifetime.3 Collet herself has, in contrast, remained an obscure figure, and is now unknown beyond a small circle of scholars interested in the role of religious radicals in the emergence of feminism in Britain.4 The significance of her close involvement with Indian reformers over a 30-year period awaits detailed study, while the most extensive biographical account of her life to date is in the form of a prefix inserted into the 1913 Calcutta edition of her Life and Letters of Raja Rammohun Roy.5 The difference in the public status of the two figures whose lives appear in the 1913 book is poignantly brought home by the contrast between the two images accompanying the two biographies: reproductions of a tiny sketch portrait bust of Collet (see Fig. 2.1), and a grand full-length oil portrait of Roy commissioned by one of his English women admirers.

This chapter focusses on the ‘life and letters’ of this English woman who devoted so many years of her life to researching Roy’s life. It presents her as a woman with a cosmopolitan outlook who sought to bridge the gendered and racialised divisions and hierarchies that characterised the ‘imperial social formation’ between Britain and India.6

In interpreting Collet’s close relationships with the Indian religious and social reformers of the Brahmo Samaj, I have found helpful Bose and Manjapra’s concept of ‘aspirational cosmopolitanism’, which they define as ‘the pursuit of conversations across lines of difference, between disparate socio-cultural, political and linguistic groups, that provisionally created shared public worlds’. They define such ‘shared transnational public spaces’ as ‘cosmopolitan thought zones’ which were ‘marked by irreducible incongruities of power and cultural values, yet also by a degree of shared dwelling’ based on a search to ‘solve problems together’.7 Collet’s close connection with the Brahmo Samaj, and the wider history of transnational connection, interchange, friendship and practical collaboration

Portrait Drawing of Sophie Dobson Collet

Fig. 2.1 Portrait Drawing of Sophie Dobson Collet

Source: H.C. Sarkar, ed., Life and Letters of Raja Rammohun Roy by Sophia Dobson Collet (Calcutta: A.C. Sarkar at the B.M. Press, 1913).

on matters of religion and social reform between Indian members of the various branches of the Brahmo Samaj on the one hand, and a loosely knit community of British and American Unitarians, Transcendentalists, Theists and liberal Christians on the other, provides a sustained example of this phenomenon.8 While Brahmoism began as a movement to reform Hinduism from within, and Unitarianism and Transcendentalism were rooted in Protestant Christianity, connection across faith boundaries was articulated as a sense of ‘spiritual fellowship’ transcending cultural differences, and a feeling of being ‘kindred spirits’ - what we might usefully label spiritual cosmopolitanism. It also involved a sense of mutual inspiration in matters of social reform, including a shared commitment to improve the position of women. As English Unitarian poet and feminist Lucy Aikin wrote to leading American Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing in 1831 after meeting with Ram Mohan Roy: ‘Just now my feelings are more cosmopolite than usual; I take a personal concern in a third quarter of the globe, since I have seen the excellent Ram-Mohun- Roy’.9

Bose and Manjapra open up a useful analytical space for considering the web of connection which Collet helped to weave between the Unitarians and Brahmo Samaj. They emphasise how cosmopolitanism in the context of South Asia in the colonial period was an ethical project complementing the political project of nationalist resistance. While the Brahmo-Unitarian network did not directly challenge imperial power relations at the level of governance, it operated as a voluntary web of association outside official colonial networks. The network promoted forms of respectful crosscultural and inter-faith exchange that undermined racist cultural attitudes and social structures; it also explicitly challenged missionary imperialism and offered a model of inter-faith cooperation as an alternative to the polarisation between orthodox Hindus and evangelical Christians.10

There are, however, limits to the applicability of Bose and Manjapra’s existing model of aspirational cosmopolitanism to understand Collet’s life and the broader history of Brahmo-Unitarian connections. This chapter argues for the value of a more capacious definition of cosmopolitanism. In particular, it calls into question the primacy accorded to shared public space and public worlds in Bose and Manjapra’s definition. Such a primacy ignores the gendered nature of public spheres in the nineteenth century and results in an unproblematised focus on male actors. Leela Gandhi’s concept of ‘affective communities’ offers a useful antidote to this, bringing to the fore the more intimate dimensions of cosmopolitanism as a ‘politics of friendship’ characterised by ‘affective gestures that refuse alignment along the secure axes of filiation to seek expression outside, if not against, possessive communities of belonging’.11 As this chapter will show, Collet’s life vividly demonstrates that it was the interplay between the intimate, domestic and affective world of friendship, hospitality and personal support and the global circulation of ideas in the public world of religious and social reform that was crucial to ‘spiritual cosmopolitanism’. As such, it fits well with an influential recent definition of cosmopolitanism as ‘thinking and feeling beyond the nation’.12

Another aspect of aspirational cosmopolitanism that is ignored by Bose and Manjapra is the differences in the ways in which members of a transnational network might position themselves, and be positioned by others, as cosmopolitan in the context of their gendered and racialised positioning. Insight into this complexity is gained if we compare representations of the cosmopolitan identity of Collet with that of her close friend, the charismatic leader of the Brahmo Samaj, Keshub Chunder Sen. On his visit to England in 1870, Sen asserted a masculine cosmopolitan identity, implicitly challenging the colonial denigration of the ‘effeminate Bengali’ by describing himself as ‘a man of the world’ in his farewell address to the British and Foreign Unitarian Association.13 In a fascinating mirroring of the universalising language of Victorian Protestant missionaries, this identification was made on the basis of a new understanding of the place of his theist spiritual beliefs in the world:

On the banks of the Thames, as on the banks of the Ganges, I have opened the secrets of my aspiration and prayers to the one loving and holy God, and He has heard me here as He did there... I am now, thank God, a man of the world, and can say that England is as much my Father’s house as India.14

In this statement, Sen publicly presented a masculine cosmopolitan identity as developed through overseas travel, public prayer and recognition of religious universalism. In contrast, Collet’s cosmopolitanism is represented in her obituary in the Brahmo Journal for the Enlightenment of Women thus:

[H]er love and affection for India shaped up in a way that she soon started feeling one with the millions of Indians - she suffered at their pain, smiled at their happiness. Just as the British living in India waited for that one letter from Britain, she waited for her Indian friends to write to her. Often those close to her would ask whether she had an update from her home, i.e. India.

In spite of being a Christian herself, she took up the cause and the movement of the Brahma-Samaj as her own, and helped spread its ideas through her work.15

Here, Collet’s cosmopolitanism is presented as an internal process of selfidentification with India and Indians, which was rooted not in physical travel overseas but rather in the cultivation of friendships and exchange of private correspondence. Her promotion of the Brahmo Samaj is presented as being based on her respect for a different faith rather than a religious universalism. The challenge to colonial discourse also comes from a different direction. While Sen states that he has come to realise through travel that his theism means he can be at home in the imperial metropole, Collet is described as identifying India as her home despite never having travelled there from her London home. Any necessary correlation between overseas travel and the development of a cosmopolitan outlook is challenged by contrasting her to English colonial ‘ex-pats’ living in India, who continue to see England as their home. The contrast between the cosmopolitan positioning of these leading members of a transnational network of religious liberals and social reformers alerts us to the varied ways in which cosmopolitanism could be articulated. This is a useful starting point for the fuller exploration of the nature of Collet’s cosmopolitanism which forms the focus of this chapter.

In analysing Collet’s cosmopolitanism, this chapter adopts a transnational perspective that seeks to bridge the gap between the two existing biographical sketches of her life: Brahmo activist Hem Chandra Sarkar’s prefix to the 1913 edition of her Life and Letters of Raja Rammohun Roy, and English feminist historian Kathryn Gleadle’s entry on Collet for the 2004 Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Sarkar presents India as the focus of Collet’s life work and emotional energies and asserts that ‘The Brahmo Samaj was uppermost in her heart and mind’.16 In contrast, Gleadle, though she includes a paragraph on her support for the Brahmo Samaj, concentrates on Collet’s life as a journalist, a feminist, a supporter of Chartism, a promoter of peace and anti-vivisection, and a religious liberal within a British context.17 Bringing together Collet’s Indian, British and broader transnational engagements, the chapter discusses her religious cosmopolitanism as a search for affective religious community, draws out her significance as a cosmopolitan writer on religion, and shows how her religious cosmopolitanism influenced her feminism.

In conclusion, it addresses the implications of this case study for our broader understanding of the nature of cosmopolitanisms emerging out of imperial contact zones.

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