It's taken an awfully long time. But thanks to the Welsh women's press Honno, and to my wonderful co-editor Mohini Gupta, a collection of Dorothy Bonarjee's poetry has appeared in print for the first time. Not only that, it's included in Honno's Welsh Women's Classics series.
Almost all these poems were written while Dorothy was a student at the University College of Wales at Aberystwyth from 1912 to 1916 and shortly afterwards.
The book is very handsomely produced and sells for just £10.99 - it's available from gwales.com as well as the usual online behemoths. And this is not simply an antiquarian exercise - Dorothy's poems, many of which were published in journals in Wales, are powerful, elegiac, often troublingly sad, and eminently worth reading.
Dorothy Bonarjee is renowned for winning the bardic chair at the UCW Eisteddfod in 1914 - the first woman and the first overseas student to achieve that distinction. Only a few lines of the winning poem have survived, but that triumph gave Bonarjee the confidence to embark on a very productive few years of writing. She was published by a monthly, the Welsh Outlook, as well as by the UCW journal, The Dragon.
These poems and their author might well have been forgotten but for the detemination of Dorothy's niece, Sheela Bonarjee, who has championed her Auntie Dorf and her poetry. She also safeguarded the black exercise book in which Dorothy set down many of her poems.
Dorothy Bonarjee was born in India to a Bengali brahmin family which had converted to Christiantity. She came to England aged about ten and never headed back to India. It's a remarkable story - told here and at more length in the book - which I also explored in a radio documentary for the BBC World Service:
Hardly any of Dorothy Bonarjee's verse touches on India or her own Indian background. But there's a strong sense of the trauma and dislocation caused by the First World War. And there's also a reflection of a very personal anguish.
This is the note she wrote much later in life about one of her poems:
The poem Dorothy Bonarjee is referring to in this note is 'Renunciation'. Here's Mohini Gupta reading it:
I do hope you are tempted to read the book. We need your support - and Honno deserves strong sales. You won't be disappointed!
Dorothy Bonarjee's 'Immensity'
Dorothy Bonarjee's in print for the first time in a century. She's the Indian woman who, in 1914 when a student at Aberystwyth, sensationally won the college Eisteddfod - more on that story here.
Well, while in Wales, she published quite a few poems in The Dragon and in Welsh Outlook. One of these, 'Immensity', is included in a new anthology of women's writings on nature:
And as you can see, she in good company in this anthology -
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!
100 Years Ago: Dorf Bonarjee
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.
Dorf Bonarjee revisited
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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