Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Cobbe, Frances Power

COBBE, FRANCES POWER (1822–1904), philanthropist and religious writer, born at Dublin on 4 Dec. 1822, was only daughter of Charles Cobbe (d. 1857) of Newbridge House, co. Dublin, by his wife Frances (d. 1847), daughter of Captain Thomas Conway. Her father, great-grandson of Charles Cobbe [q. v.], arch-bishop of Dublin, was a man of strong opinions but a good landlord and magistrate, who on occasion sold some of his pictures to build cottages for his tenants. Frances was educated first at home, next spent two years (1836–8) in a school at Brighton, at a cost of 1000l., then learned a little Greek and geometry from the parish clergyman of Donabate. Not fond of society, though she spent holidays in London, she read a great deal, using Marsh's library (see Marsh, Naricissus), giving attention to history, astronomy, architecture, and heraldry, writing small essays and stories, and tabulating Greek philosophers and early heretics. The household was strict in its evangelical observances; Frances became the first heretic in a family which counted five archbishops and a bishop among its connections. Having doubted the miracle of the loaves and fishes in her fourteenth year, she experienced conversion in her seventeenth, and was confirmed by Archbishop Richard Whately [q. v.] at Malahide. She drifted into agnosticism, but soon recovered, and never again lost faith in God. She continued attendance at church till her mother's death in 1847, after which her father sent her to live with her brother on a farm in the wilds of Donegal ; when recalled, after nine or ten months, she gave up attendance at church and at family prayers, retaining, however, the habit of solitary prayer. Books which helped her were the 'Life of Joseph Blanco White ' [q. v.], 'The Soul,' by Francis William Newman [q. v.], with whom she corresponded, and works by Theodore Parker, of Boston, Massachusetts, who sent her his sermon on the immortal life. One New Year's day she ventured to the Unitarian meeting-house in Eustace Street, Dublin, but got no refreshment from a learned discourse on the theological force of the Greek article. As a distraction from ill-health (bronchitis) she resolved to write. Kant's 'Metaphysic of Ethics,' put in her way by a friend, Felicia Skene, suggested a theme ; between 1852 and 1855 she wrote her essay on 'The Theory of Intuitive Morals' (4th edit. 1902), which she published anonymously lest it should cause her father annoyance. The essay was meant as one of a series to deal with personal duty and social duty. Her father's death left her with 100l. and an income of 200l. a year. She set out on foreign travel in Italy, Greece, and the East as far as Baalbec, taking a keen interest in all she saw, and impressed with 'the enormous amount of pure human good-nature which is to be found almost everywhere.' In November 1858 began her association with Mary Carpenter [q. v.], whose 'Juvenile Delinquents' she had read, and with whom for a time she lived in Park Row, Bristol, co-operating in the work of the Red Lodge reformatory and the ragged schools. Finding the conditions too trying, for Mary Carpenter had no idea of creature comforts, she removed in 1859 to Durdham Down, and engaged in workhouse philanthropy and the care of sick and workless girls, in conjunction with Miss Elliot, daughter of the dean of Bristol. To this mission she devoted her first money earned by magazine work, 14l. for sketches in 'Macmillan's Magazine.' Her love of travel continued ; by 1879 she had paid six visits to Italy, spending several seasons in Rome and in Florence, and a winter at Pisa. Her 'Italics' (1864), notes of Italian travel, was written at Nervi, Riviera di Levante. She acted as Italian correspondent for the 'Daily News.' Mazzini failed to convert her to his scheme of an Italian republic. At Florence she met Theodore Parker a few days before his death there on 10 May 1860. Subsequently she edited his works, in fourteen volumes (1863-71). In 1862 she read before the Social Science Congress a paper advocating the admission of women to university degrees : a proposal, as she says, received then with 'universal ridicule.' Her crusade against vivisection, originating in her love of animal life, began in 1863, and continued till her death. Philanthropy inspired much of her journalistic work. From December 1868 to March 1875 she was on the staff of the 'Echo,' under its first editor, Sir Arthur Arnold [q. v. Suppl. II], and made a speciality of investigating cases of misery and death by destitution. For a considerable time she wrote for the 'Standard,' till she thought it unsound on vivisection ; for some time (till 1884) she edited the 'Zoophilist' ; and she now contributed to most of the current periodicals. She interested herself in the promotion of the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1878, whereby separation orders may be obtained by wives whose husbands have been convicted of aggravated assaults upon them ; the movement for conferring the parliamentary franchise on women had her warm support. Her lectures on the duties of women were twice delivered (1880-1) to audiences of her own sex. In 1884 she removed from South Kensington, with her friend Miss Lloyd, to Hengwrt, near Dolgelly. An annuity of 100Z. was presented to her by her anti-vivisectionist friends in February 1885. In 1898 she left the National Anti-Vivisection Society, of which she was a founder in 1875 and had been joint secretary (till 1884), to form a more thorough-going body, the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection. She was left residuary legatee by the widow (d. 1 Oct. 1901) of Richard Vaughan Yates of Liverpool [see under Yates, Joseph Brooks]. She died at Hengwrt on 5 April 1904, and in dread of premature burial left special instructions for precluding its possibility in her case. The interment took place in Llanelltyd churchyard. In person Miss Cobbe was of ample proportions, with an open and genial countenance. Frankness and lucidity marked all her writing and gave her social charm. She met 'nearly all the more gifted Englishwomen' of her time, except George Eliot and Harriet Martineau. Fanny Kemble [q. v. Suppl. I] she regarded as the most remarkable woman she had known. Her advocacy of women's rights was born of her association with Mary Carpenter, from whom also she derived her interest in progressive movements in India. As an exponent of theism Keshub Chunder Sen took a place in her estimate beside Theodore Parker. She attended the ministry of James Martineau [q. v. Suppl. I], and occasionally conducted services in Unitarian chapels. In detaching Unitarians from the older supernaturalism her influence was considerable. It may be safely said that she made no enemies and many friends, quite irrespective of agreement with her special views, in the course of 'a long, combative and in many ways useful career' (Athenæum, 9 April 1904). Among her publications (which include numerous pamphlets on vivisection, 1875-98), the following may be noted:

  1. 'Friendless Girls, and How to Help them,' 1861, 16mo.
  2. 'Female Education and … University Examinations,' 3rd edit. 1862.
  3. 'Essays on the Pursuits of Women,' 1863 (reprinted from magazines).
  4. 'Thanksgiving,' 1863 (embodied in No. 6).
  5. 'Religious Duty,' 1864; new edit. 1894.
  6. 'Broken Lights: an Inquiry into the Present Conditions and Future Prospects of Religious Faith,' 1864; 2nd edit. 1865 (one of the most influential of her religious writings).
  7. 'The Cities of the Past,' 1864 (reprinted from 'Fraser').
  8. 'Studies … of Ethical and Social Subjects,' 1865.
  9. 'Hours of Work and Play,' 1867.
  10. 'The Confessions of a Lost Dog,' 1867.
  11. 'Dawning Lights, … Secular Results of the New Reformation,' 1868; new edit. 1894.
  12. 'Criminals, Idiots, Women and Minors,' Manchester, 1869 (on the property laws).
  13. 'The Final Cause of Woman,' 1869, 16mo.
  14. 'Alone to the Alone: Prayers for Theists,' 1871; 4th edit. 1894.
  15. 'Auricular Confession in the Church of England,' 1872; 4th edit. 1898.
  16. 'Darwinism in Morals and other Essays,' 1872 (reprinted from magazines).
  17. 'Doomed to be Saved,' 1874.
  18. 'The Hopes of the Human Race,' 1874; 2nd edit. 1894.
  19. 'False Beasts and True,' 1876 (in 'Country House Library').
  20. 'Re-echoes,' 1876 (from the 'Echo').
  21. 'Why Women desire the Franchise,' 1877.
  22. 'The Duties of Women,' 1881; posthumous edit, by Blanche Atkinson, 1905.
  23. 'The Peak in Darien,' 1882; 1894 (on personal immortality).
  24. 'A Faithless World,' 1885; 3rd edit. 1894 (reprint from the 'Contemporary'; reply to Sir Fitzjames Stephen).
  25. 'The Scientific Spirit of the Age,' 1888.
  26. 'The Friend of Man; and his Friends, the Poets,' 1889.
  27. 'Health and Holiness,' 1891.
  28. 'Life,' by herself, 1894, 2 vols.; 1904 (edit by Blanche Atkinson).

[Life by herself (ed. B. Atkinson), 1904 (with portrait); Tim Times, 7 and 11 April 1904; J. Chapprll, Women of Worth, 1908; Men and Women of the Time, 1899; Letters of Matthew Arnold (1843-83), 1903, iii. 91.]

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