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Collet, Sophia Dobson (1822–1894), writer and campaigner for women's rights, was born Sophia Dobson on 1 February 1822 at Judd Place East in the parish of St Pancras, London, the fifth of the seven children of John Dobson (1778–1827), a merchant, and his wife (and first cousin), Elizabeth Barker (1787–1875), a teacher prior to her marriage. John and Elizabeth Dobson came from intellectually orientated dissenting families who moved within leading literary and political circles. At some point, probably in the early 1840s, Sophia and her brother Collet [see ], to whom she was very close, changed their surnames to Collet. Their reasons for so doing remain unclear, but it was possibly connected to a wish to revive the family name of their Unitarian grandmothers. Certainly, Unitarianism remained an important guiding force in Sophia Collet's life. By the 1840s she had become intimate with the leading figures in the radical, feminist Unitarian set who revolved around the ministry of William Johnson Fox at South Place Chapel in Finsbury, London. Many of her transcriptions of Fox's sermons were later published in reforming journals, providing a vital record of his thought and work. She developed particularly close relationships with the musical composer Eliza Flower and her sister, the poet Sarah Flower Adams. In common with her brother Collet, she was a gifted musician who had a particular talent for composition. Her work (some of which was published by her friends the Novello family) included several hymns for South Place Chapel. Much of her musical work was indicative of the progressive tenor of her political beliefs, including as it did ‘A Song for the People's Charter Union’ and ‘A Welcome for Elihu Burritt’ (the American peace campaigner). A committed radical, Sophia Collet also contributed articles and reviews to many of the reforming publications of the day. She wrote frequently (often under the pseudonym Panthea) for journals such as The Reasoner and The Movement which were conducted by her close associate the secularist radical George Jacob Holyoake, whose political views she shared, though she differed with him on religious matters. She published, at her own expense, a well-received analysis of his life and work in 1855 entitled George Jacob Holyoake and Modern Atheism. During the 1840s she also moved in the literary reforming circles which were heavily influenced by the transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom she met. Her association with transcendentalist circles continued throughout her life; she later published articles in the Boston journal The Dial, and she was a house guest of the novelist Louisa May Alcott and her family.

During the late 1860s Sophia Collet, whose family had connections with India, developed an enduring interest in the Brahmo Samaj, the Hindu reform movement. She published extensively on this subject, including the 1876 Brahmo Year Book (which Gladstone read annually at Christmas) and Outlines and Episodes of Brahmic History (1884). She was the author of the entry on the religious and social reformer Rammohun Roy in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Her biography of Roy was completed anonymously by F. H. Stead and published posthumously in 1900.

During the 1880s Sophia Collet's views on the ‘woman question’, which had long been the subject of her journalism, began to develop into a more sustained contribution to the women's rights movement. She became closely involved in the campaign for social purity and was an active member of the Moral Reform Union. She was extremely close to the journalist William T. Stead, whose revelations concerning the extent of child prostitution so shocked Britain in 1885, and she provided considerable support to Stead and his family when he was imprisoned in Holloway later that year. Sophia Collet was also able to draw upon her Indian connections to help Josephine Butler in her campaign to repeal the Contagious Diseases Acts in India. Her positions on these issues severely strained her close relationship with her friend Richard Holt Hutton of The Spectator (to which paper she was also a frequent contributor).

In 1889 the Fortnightly Review published extensive lists of public figures who supported the petition for female suffrage—Sophia Dobson Collet's signature appeared prominently in the literature section. She proved to be an important inspiration to her niece Clara Elizabeth Collet (1860–1948), who achieved recognition as a civil servant and advocate for women's rights at the turn of the century. Throughout her life Sophia Collet maintained lively correspondences with many of the leading reformers of the day, including such figures as Francis Newman and Frances Power Cobbe (whose work to end vivisection she strongly supported). Despite her lifelong radicalism on social and political issues, her religious views became increasingly conformist as she grew older. She became closer to the Christian socialism of F. D. Maurice, probably from the late 1860s, and following pressure from her sister, appears finally to have been baptized in 1870. Personal associates remembered her for her sheer energy and her ‘utmost amiability of disposition’ (Garnett, 223). This vitality was in spite of a physical deformity and disabling illness against which she battled all her life. The extent of this disability is not easy to gauge. While some of her acquaintances perceived her to be severely constricted, this often appears to be more the result of a rather patronizing attitude than an accurate reflection of her physical capabilities. The evidence largely indicates that throughout her life, though often incapacitated, she attended such events as Chartist meetings and women's rights functions with little fuss or hesitation.

Sophia Dobson Collet died at her home, 135 Avenell Road, Highbury, London, on 27 March 1894 and was buried in Highgate cemetery. Her death prompted numerous (but ultimately unsuccessful) calls from both the Brahmo Samaj community in India and the British literary and reforming world for her biography to be written.

Kathryn Gleadle

Sources  

private information (2004) · R. Garnett and E. Garnett, The life of W. J. Fox, public teacher and social reformer, 1786–1864 (1910) · M. D. Conway, Autobiography: memories and experiences, 2 (1904) · J. Miller, ‘An odd woman’, Seductions: studies in reading and culture (1990), 70–107 · letters to George Jacob Holyoake, National Co-operative Archive, Rochdale · D. Killingley, Rammohun Royin Hindu and Christian tradition: the Teape lectures, 1990 (1993) · b. cert. · d. cert. · register, London, Mornington Church, 12 March 1870 [baptism]

Archives  

Co-operation Union, Holyoake House, Manchester, Co-operative Union archive, letters to and material relating to the life of G. J. Holyoake


Wealth at death  

£3665 4s. 11d.: probate, 28 April 1894, CGPLA Eng. & Wales