UCL's Law Department is staging exhibitions to mark the centenary of the legislation which allowed women to qualify as barristers and solicitors. So they are commemorating women of distinction linked to law at UCL. And Sheela's aunt, Dorothy 'Dorf' Bonarjee, was the first woman to be awarded a law degree at UCL way back in 1917.
Dorf studied first at the University College of Wales at Aberystwyth - where she achieved the remarkable feat for an Indian woman student (albeit brought up largely in Dulwich) of winning the bardic chair at the college Eisteddfod. She was a published poet - and Sheela still has manuscript and printed copies of many of her verses.
She went on to UCL - again accompanied by her brother, Bertie (Sheela's father) - where she made an indelible mark once more. Here's what the panel about Dorf at the dinner (and there will also be an exhibition at UCL's Bentinck House) proclaimed:
Dorothy Bonarjee - UCL Laws LLB 1917
The first woman to achieve an internal law degree from UCL
Dorothy Bonarjee was the first woman to achieve an internal law degree from UCL Faculty of Laws (1917). This achievement is particularly notable because the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, which enabled women to become barristers, solicitors, jurors and magistrates, was not ratified until 1919. This means that while she was pursuing her studies, women could not formally enter the legal profession. Additionally, other leading universities did not, at that time, admit women to degrees.
Dorf's father was a lawyer but she never practised in the profession - indeed she eloped with a French artist, Paul Surtel, perhaps to avoid the prospect of returning to India. She lived for the rest of her life in southern France. Sheela knew Dorf well, and indeed regarded her as something of a role model.
I've blogged before about Dorothy Bonarjee - indeed it was after the team at UCL googled her to try to find out more about her that they made contact with me. The dinner invitation ensued. And there's more about Dorf to come!
An excerpt from today's Sunday Statesman in Calcutta/Kolkata - from its '100 Years Ago' column. It's about Dorf Bonarjee - click here for my earlier entries about this remarkable woman.
INDIAN LADY STUDENT AS POETESS
Success in Welsh Eisteddfod
An Indian lady student at University College, Aberystwyth, has scored a notable success in her 19th year. Miss Dorothy Bonarjee, daughter of Mr. D.N. Bonarjee, barrister, of Lucknow and Mussoorie, has been adjudged winner of a handsome oak chair at the college Eisteddfod for an ode on Owain of Wales (Owain Lawgoch). The examiners are required to give preference to Welsh odes, and it is rare for one written in the English tongue to secure the award. This is understood to be the first occasion of the competition being won by a non-European, or by a member of the fair sex. The odes are of the prescribed length of 220 lines, and according to the Times of India's London correspondent, the examiners report that Miss Bonarjee's poetic gifts are altogether exceptional. Mr. Bonarjee, who was in England on holiday, happened to be at the ceremony, and in response to the demands of the students made a short speech acknowledging the kindly enthusiasm with which they had received the successful competitor of a different race and country from their own.
Many thanks to Tapan Kumar Mukherjee for alerting me to this item in today's paper.
One of the happier consequences of this blog has been the bringing together of two distant wings of a large and scattered family. It's quite a story.
Some time ago I wrote about Dorothy 'Dorf' Bonarjee, an Indian-born poet and artist, who studied at London and Aberystwyth, won an award at an Eisteddfod, eloped with a French artist, and made her life in southern France. Her niece Sheela Bonarjee, who lives in north London, is a friend - and has on her wall a wonderful painting of her aunt which I can't resist posting again at the foot of this article. She also has the enchanting painting above, which I saw for the first time today.
That initial blog of mine captured the attention of Quentin Surtel, the grandson of Paul Surtel. Paul and Dorf were together for seventeen years. Paul married again (to Quentin's grandmother) and there was a breach between the two wings of the family. Quentin is now trying to trace details of his grandfather's early life, details which Paul was reluctant to share with his immediate family for fear of annoying his second wife. This morning, at Sheela's place, I had the pleasure to meet Quentin, and see some of the hugely evocative family photos he has brought with him.
The mesmerising photo on the right is dated July 1922, and it shows Dorf with her and Paul's son, Denis, who died in infancy. They also had a daughter, Claire Aruna Surtel, who was a journalist in Marseilles. The photo on the left is undated, clearly later, and shows Dorf in Indian dress, as she is in the portrait below. It raises all sorts of questions in my mind about identity - a woman from an elite Indian family, educated in Britain, living in bohemian style in France, and making a point of wearing a very smart sari.
Dorf didn't marry again after the break-up of her marriage to Paul - now a much sought after artist. Aruna never really knew her half brothers. Paul Surtel died in 1985, in his early nineties. By the time Quentin traced the other side of his grandfather's family, Aruna was a few months dead. But the barrier between Paul Surtel's two families has now been overcome.
I also met this morning Dominique Baron-Bonarjee, Sheela's niece (and so Dorf's grand niece), and a London-based performance and installation artist who, as with her great aunt, has associations with France, India and the UK. 'Dorf was a rebellious woman', she says, 'and so am I'. She's also pursuing the family history - and the Bonarjees have quite a tale attached to them - and has used some of that story in her art. (If you click here, the first two images on the carousel feature photos of Dorf, and others in the family).
And that uncompleted portrait of Dorf - it's unsigned, and while the assumption is that Paul Surtel was the artist, that's not absolutely clear. It is bewitching. See for yourself.
Another piece of fine art - encountered in a friend's north London living room.
Dorothy ('Dorf') Bonarjee - born in Lucknow in 1894 - was a poet and lawyer. She studied at Aberystwyth, attracted by the Welsh bardic tradition, and later eloped with a French man, an artist, who painted this wonderful portrait. She lived most of her life in France. She was part of the noted Calcutta Bonnerjee family. Her uncle (I think I've got that right) was W.C. Bonnerjee, the first president in 1885 of the Indian National Congress. Her niece lives in Gospel Oak.
Posted below is an example of her verse - not perhaps the most polished of pieces but written when she was about twenty, just as the First World War was getting underway, and obviously written with great feeling.
Andrew Whitehead's blog
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