Alice Maude Sorabji Pennell

Other names: 

Ailsa Sorabji

Mrs Theodore Pennell

Date of birth: 
17 Jul 1874
City of birth: 
Country of birth: 
Date of death: 
07 Mar 1951
Location of death: 
Findon, Sussex
Date of 1st arrival in Britain: 
01 Jan 1899
Precise 1st arrival date unknown: 
Dates of time spent in Britain: 

Not before 1894, perhaps nearer to 1899; medical training until 1905; visit 1910; from 1920s to death in 1951, between extended visits to India and travels in America, Europe and the Middle East


Alice Maude (Sorabji) Pennell was born in Belgaum, India, on 17 July 1874, the youngest of eight children of Sorabji Kharsedji and Franscina Sorabji. The family were descended from a small Zoroastrian community and Kharsedji was one of the earliest converts to Christianity. Settled in Poona, where Franscina founded and ran the Victoria High School, the children were, like their parents, ‘brought up English’, with strong educational values.

Alice came to England in the late 1890s. After qualifying at the London School of Medicine in 1905 she returned to India, and was working as a doctor at the Zenana Hospital in Bahawalpur when she first met the British missionary doctor Theodore Leighton Pennell in 1906. He had established a mission hospital at Bannu on the North-West Frontier and was renowned for adopting native dress and travelling unarmed in the hostile tribal areas; it was said that ‘the presence of Pennell on the Frontier is equal to that of two British regiments’.
Married in 1908 and widowed in 1912 when Theodore died from blood poisoning, Pennell was awarded an OBE for her work at Bannu where she remained until after the Third Anglo-Afghan War (1919). By 1925 she was living in London and had written her first novel which she successfully submitted to John Murray for publication as Children of the Border, relating the life of an Afghan chieftain’s wife on the Frontier. The Begum’s Son was published in 1928 and Doorways of the East which dealt with ‘modern affairs, unrest and political strife’ in 1931. This latter was intended by Pennell as a call for friendship and understanding between India and Britain during the Round Table Conferences (1930-2). None of her books sold beyond their original print-runs of 2,000 copies, and the latter two made losses for the publishers, who rejected her fourth novel, about an Afghan woman’s revenge.
During the 1930s and 1940s Pennell gave talks on Indian life, women and health at various literary and medical venues, including a radio broadcast in 1929 for the ‘Life in Foreign Lands’ series. She travelled widely, often with her friend Queen Elisabeth of Greece, and addressed groups of women doctors and other professional women – Austrian and American – while visiting Vienna, glad of the ‘many opportunities of speaking of the British point of view – and that of us who are loyal to Britain’. This was especially to counterbalance the widespread influences of both ‘our megalomaniac Gandhi’ and the American Katherine Mayo’s imperialist diatribe Mother India, considered by Pennell to be ‘not always true and very one sided’. It was support for this controversial book which damaged the social and political standing in India of her sister Cornelia Sorabji, one of the first women lawyers and a prolific author herself.
Pennell died at the Convent of the Holy Rood in Findon, Sussex, on 7 March 1951. Her obituary in The Times, written by her friend Brenda Spender, literary editor of Country Life, noted that like all the ‘outstanding personalities’ of the Sorabji family, Pennell ‘bore the hall-mark of fervent Christianity and complete devotion to the British throne’.



Cornelia Sorabji (sister), Richard Kharsedji Sorabji (brother), Dr Theodore Leighton Pennell of Bannu on India’s North West Frontier (husband), Brenda Spender (friend), HM Queen Elisabeth of Greece (friend and travel companion), Brigadier General Charles Bruce, Field-Marshall Earl Roberts of Kandahar.

Involved in events: 

Lady Carmichael of Skirling’s Reception of Round Table Conference at the British Indian Union rooms, Grosvenor Gardens, London, 25 November 1930 (attended)
East India Association Reception at Grosvenor House, Park Lane, to meet representatives of India at the Imperial Conference, 11 June 1937 (attended)
His Majesty’s Government Reception at Lancaster House, St James’s, in honour of the 9th Imperial Social Hygiene Congress, 12 July 1939 (attended)
Talk on ‘The Women of India’ at City Literary Institute, London, 3 April 1943
Talk on ‘Health in India' at Ling Physical Education Association, Homerton College, Cambridge, 20 April 1943
Talk at Society of Women Journalists, Stationers’ Hall, London, 9 January 1947

Published works: 

The Hero of the Afghan Frontier: The Splendid Story of T. L. Pennell retold for Boys and Girls (London: Revell 1912; London: Seeley, Service, 1915)

Pennell of the Afghan Frontier: The Life of Theodore Leighton Pennell (London: Seeley, Service; New York: E P Dutton, 1914)

Children of the Border (London: Murray, 1926)

The Begum’s Son (London: Murray, 1928)

Doorways of the East: An Indian Novel (London: Murray, 1931)

Contributions to periodicals: 

Cornhill Magazine (submitted story, September 1925)


Academy 86, January - June 1914, p. 231

Geographical Journal 44.4, October 1914, p. 400

TLS, 10 December 1926, p. 558

TLS, 5 August 1928, p. 714

Morning Post, 5 June 1931

Country Life, June 1931

TLS, 9 July 1931, p. 544

Secondary works: 

Burton, Antoinette, At the Heart of Empire: Indians and the Colonial Encounter in Late-Victorian Britain (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1998)

Gooptu, Suparna, Cornelia Sorabji: India Pioneer Woman Lawyer, A Biography (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2006)

Innes, C. L., A History of Black and Asian Writing in Britain, 1700-2000, 2nd edn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008)


Letter dated 2 October 1931, book file for Doorways of the East, Acc 12927/242, John Murray Archives, National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh


Her last novel Doorways of the East dealt with ‘modern affairs, unrest and political strife’ with characters depicting a spectrum of Indian, British and Anglo-Indian responses from the ultra-conservatives to anarchists who followed ‘our megalomaniac Gandhi’. Pennell wanted the book to be published before the Second Round Table Conference of Autumn 1931, to both inform readers and take advantage of the interest in Indian affairs. After the book was published, Pennell visited Vienna. A letter to her publisher, John Murray, detailed the interest amongst Austrian and American professionals there in events in India. Pennell was hoping to have her latest novel translated into German for the Austrian and German markets.


I had many opportunities of speaking of the British point of view - and that of us who are loyal to Britain...Though I am not a great writer, I can give a fair picture of both sides, I think, as my great aim is to help friendship between Britain and India  especially; and I look for International understanding as the solution of our difficulties


With the duality of Indian birth and English upbringing and marriage, Pennell’s work - ‘written with the understanding that is mine from being myself Indian, and yet with an appreciation of the western point of view, because of my western education and connections’ – attempted to hold on to a vision of benign British rule over an Indian empire. Sales figures for Doorways of the East were poor in Britain and India, and American publishers had declined it; Pennell was trying to widen the appeal (and sales) of her work.

Archive source: 

John Murray Archives, National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh