Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cornwallis, Caroline Frances

CORNWALLIS, CAROLINE FRANCES (1786–1858), authoress, was the daughter of the Rev. William Cornwallis, rector of Wittersham and Elham in Kent. When only seven years old Caroline produced 'histories, poems, commentaries, and essays' which would fill volumes, and at fifteen she made a vow 'to forsake all the follies' of her age. From 1810 to 1826, although suffering frequently from ill-health, she devoted herself to the acquirement of knowledge, while never neglecting her home duties. She learnt Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and German, and acquired some knowledge of philosophy, natural and social science, history, theology, law, and politics.

Sismondi, who at an earlier period had offered her marriage and had ever since remained her warm friend, lent her his house at Pescia in 1826. She studied Tuscan criminal procedure, and made an abstract of the Tuscan code. She was delighted by the 'contrast between polished society and wild nature,' and 'enjoyed life for the first time for many years.' Her father's death in December 1827 necessitated her return to England, but in 1829 she returned to Italy. In 1842 the outcome of much thought and study appeared in her first work, 'Philosophical Theories and Philosophical Experience, by a Pariah.' It was the first volume in a series entitled 'Small Books on Great Subjects,' a series projected and carried out by Miss Cornwallis with the assistance of a few friends. By far the greater number of the twenty-two volumes were from her pen. The series embraced such various subjects as Greek philosophy, theology, geology, chemistry, criminal law, the philosophy of ragged schools, and grammar. These volumes, published anonymously,were widely read both in England and America. In 1853 she was bracketed with Mr. Micaiah Hill for the prize of 200l. offered by Lady Byron for the best essay on 'Juvenile Delinquency.' She was an ardent advocate for the higher education of women, and for the removal of the legal disabilities under which they suffered. On the latter subject she contributed two articles to the 'Westminster Review' (1856, 1857). She also wrote on 'Naval Schools' for 'Fraser.' After many years of bodily weakness, but with unabated vigour of mind, she died at Lidwells in Kent on 8 Jan. 1858, having lived to see many of her hopes realised in the improvement of the laws relating to women, and in the establishment of ragged and industrial schools. In appearance Miss Cornwallis was large-featured, tall, and thin. Her 'Letters,' published in 1864, are remarkable for thoughtfulness, variety, and grasp of subject, and a delightful play of humour.

[Selections from the Letters of Caroline Frances Cornwaliis, 1864; No. I. Small Books on Great Subjects; article in Chambers's Encyclopædia; unpublished letters; private information.]

S. L. M.