Early life and education
Letter by Mary Hobhouse, published in The Times
, 13 April 1888, Sorabji
Born in Devlali to a Parsi, she was one of nine children, and was named in honour of Lady Cornelia Maria Darling Ford, her adoptive grandmother. Her father, the Reverend Sorabji Karsedji, was a Christian missionary, and Sorabji believed that he had been a key figure in convincing Bombay University to admit women to its degree programs. Her mother, Francina Ford, had been adopted at the age of twelve and brought up by a British couple, and helped to establish several girls' schools in Poona (now Pune). Due in part to her influential social position, Ford was often consulted by local women on inheritance and property rights. Many of Sorabji's later educational and career decisions would be heavily influenced by her mother.
Cornelia Sorabji had five surviving sisters and a brother, and two more brothers that died in infancy. She spent her childhood initially in Belgaum and later in Pune. She received her education both at home and at mission schools. She enrolled in Deccan College, and claims to have topped the Presidency in her final degree examination, which would have entitled her to a government scholarship to study further in England. According to Sorabji, she was denied the scholarship, and instead took up a temporary position as a professor of English at a men's college in Gujarat.
After becoming the first female graduate of Bombay University, Sorabji wrote in 1888 to the National Indian Association for assistance in completing her education. This was championed by Mary Hobhouse (whose husband Arthur was a member of the Council of India) and Adelaide Manning, who contributed funds, as did Florence Nightingale, Sir William Wedderburn and others. Sorabji arrived in England in 1889 and stayed with Manning and Hobhouse. In 1892, she was given special permission by Congregational Decree, due in large part to the petitions of her English friends, to take the post-graduate Bachelor of Civil Law exam at Somerville College, Oxford, becoming the first woman to ever do so.
Sorabji was the first woman to be admitted as a reader to the Codrington Library of All Souls College, Oxford, at Sir William Anson's invitation in 1890.