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Elisabeth Cobb (nee Sharpe)

Elisabeth Cobb (nee Sharpe), wife of the nonconformist banker, solicitor and Liberal MP, Henry Cobb, was an older woman friend of Karl Pearson and helped him to establish the Men and Women's Club in 1885. Mrs Cobb's younger sister Maria Sharpe later married Pearson. Schreiner met Elisabeth Cobb at Hastings in November 1884, and it was Cobb who 'recruited' Schreiner to the Club. Schreiner was at first very drawn to Elisabeth Cobb, writing to Pearson about her 'beautiful face' and commenting in a letter to Ellis of December 1884, 'Harry, she's a splendid woman.' However, over time it appears that Cobb's propensity for gossip began to make Schreiner wary of her. Some commentators have suggested that Cobb was 'obsessed' with Pearson and that 'her life as a suburban matron did not fulfil her; she wanted something more than her husband or children were able or willing to supply. In Pearson, brilliant, outspoken, young, good-looking, unattached, she saw the embodiment of her ideal' (Brandon 1990: 47). Whether Elisabeth Cobb's actions towards Schreiner were based on jealousy or not, Schreiner certainly named Cobb as central to the rupture and upset which took place at the end of 1886 and resulted in Schreiner's hasty departure for Europe. It was this rupture, in which it appears that both Elisabeth Cobb and Bryan Donkin at different times decided that Schreiner was 'in love' with Pearson and conveyed this to him, which finally estranged Schreiner from Cobb.

There are just seven extant letters from Schreiner to Cobb, all very measured, careful letters with proper dates and addresses. These give very little sense of a personal friendship, but contain much on 1880s London networks, the beginnings of the Men and Women's Club, Schreiner responding to various things Elisabeth Cobb had sent to her including Pearson's writings, making arrangements, and Schreiner in turn sending Cobb things to read. There are a number of interesting aspects of these letters. They emphasise the importance of writers remaining independent and not being swayed by publisher's into modifying what they write or publish. They also propose that then high walls between men and women should be not be lowered by setting up things exclusively around women - women had to operate in the 'real world' and not operate in an artificial and separated off one. The activities and likely social and political impact of Karl Pearson is another concern, and in particular Pearson's responsibility to print what he had written on the woman question, as one of the very few prominent men to recognise the key importance of such matters. Another issue they comment on concerns different kinds of friendship, and the idea that it is what people 'are' that binds them. Perhaps of more concern in the 1880s, Schreiner comments on the fact that women are shut off from men and also from each other in terms of knowledge about how people 'are', particularly in a sexual sense, and as a consequence were often led to generalise wrongly from their own experience. She further requests information from Cobb (and other friends too) on such matters as sexual feelings during menstruation and pregnancy. These letters also explore the question of different sexual moral standards for men and women - and reject this.

For further information see:
Lucy Bland (1995) Banishing the Beast: Feminism, Sex and Morality London: Tauris Parke
Ruth Brandon (1990) The New Women and the Old Men: Love, Sex and the Woman Question London: Flamingo
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collection icon Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin: The HRC, Austin, is one of the world leading locations for archival papers pertaining to literary life and manuscripts across... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon National English Literary Museum, Grahamstown: The National English Literary Museum is the leading location for collections pertaining to the imaginative and creative writi... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon University College London: Special Collections at UCL is one of the leading university collections of manuscripts, archives and rare books in the UK. It... Show/Hide Collection Letters
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