‘The only woman I have ever known who is a real orator, who has the gift of public persuasion’, Beatrice Webb noted when she met Annie Besant. ‘But to see her speak made me shudder. It is not womanly to thrust yourself before the world.’ Extraordinary ‘self-assurance’ was the quality picked out by Gladstone, when, as prime minister, he took time off to review Besant’s autobiography in 1893. He attributed it to the lack of a sense of sin, which enabled her to change direction without a qualm. For W.T. Stead, the crusading journalist and once her hoped-for companion in ‘a political and spiritual marriage’, she was a profound religious leader and, together with Catherine Booth and Josephine Butler, one of the three remarkable women of the century. But for another of her political companions of the 1880s, George Bernard Shaw, she was above all an actress. ‘She was successively a Puseyite Evangelical and Atheist Bible smasher, a Darwinian secularist, a Fabian socialist, a strike leader, and finally a Theosophist exactly as Mrs Siddons was a Lady Macbeth, Lady Randolph, Beatrice, Rosamund and Volumnia.’ Off-stage, her behaviour was often hard to bear. ‘Tyrannical’, ‘headstrong’, ‘proud’, ‘humourless’, ‘egotistic’ were only some of the epithets; and in the memoirs of those assigned unglamorous bit-parts in her day-to-day life, the tension remained palpable many years afterwards. According to Charles Bradlaugh’s daughter, Hypatia, ‘she was the most tactless person I ever knew.’ But even for those who disliked her methods, denied her inspiration and opposed her opinions, there was something about her which compelled admiration. To Nehru, who had known her when he was a child, she was ‘the most magnificent lady’ he ever met.
After the majestic Nethercot biography published in the early Sixties, another full-length study might need some justification. But Anne Taylor has compressed Besant’s inordinately eventful ‘lives’ into a managable book half the size of Nethercot and pulled the threads together into a single life. Both contemporaries and earlier biographers tended to divide Besant’s career into two unbridgeable halves, divided by her conversion to Theosophy at the end of the 1880s. The first forty years belonged to England and the history of free thought, radicalism, feminism and socialism; the second to India and Eastern mysticism. Even worse, there was a tendency to attribute the undoubted volatility of her career to a succession of leading men with whom she was associated, from Voysey and Bradlaugh at the beginning, through Aveling, Shaw, Stead and the peculiarly androgynous Madame Blavatsky in the middle, to the notorious paedophile Charles Leadbeater at the end. Anne Taylor, on the other hand, succeeds in restoring a unity and continuity to Besant’s life and thought. As she shows, her progression was not as unpondered as both her critics and her admirers liked to believe. As for the role of men, the standard picture takes little account of the difficulties confronting a Victorian woman set adrift from the respectability of marriage and driven to fight her battles in public. Besant may well have felt attracted to Bradlaugh and Stead, but what she most needed from men was companionship in the pursuit of moral ideals. Certainly, her life had a richly quirky and wilful side. But was it any more quirky than those of her male contemporaries – Shaw, Stead, Wilde or Yeats? This book goes a long way towards rescuing Besant from a condescending double standard.
By any standard, this life was extraordinary: not because of any special originality of thought or deep spiritual insight, but because it charted so eloquently the chaos of contradictory aspirations unleashed by the Mid-Victorian religious crisis. Looked at negatively, you could say that it was like High Victorianism seen through a fairground mirror, its dimly discernible blemishes magnified to an extraordinary degree. Looked at more positively, it is a reminder of how many of the more humane features of British society, from the right to knowledge and freedom of speech to cultural pluralism and a global humanitarianism, were first asserted and secured by Besant and her generation.
Born in 1847 into an impoverished branch of a powerful London merchant family, she was sent away as a child to a wealthy and charitable spinster, Ellen Marryat, the sister of the famous novelist. Miss Marryat’s strongly Evangelical household not only imparted a strenuous sense of calling, but also a rigorous education When as a 16-year-old Annie returned home, it was with strong Anglo-Catholic yearnings, nurtured by a reading of the Church Fathers, and with what her mother considered an unbecomingly earnest desire to ‘serve Christ’. The best solution to such sentiments was no doubt marriage and it was in this spirit that Mrs Wood encouraged the courtship between her daughter and the aspirant curate, Frank Besant.
The marriage, which took place in 1867, was a disaster from the rude shock of the first night. Frank was ‘serious’, a code-name for Low Church Evangelical; he was also politically conventional and narrowly patriarchal in his views about the duties of a wife. Annie was High Church, intellectually restless and already touched by a radicalism which was soon to blow their relationship apart. Before her marriage she had often stayed at the Manchester house of a family friend, the radical lawyer W.P. Roberts, who had once represented the Chartists. In 1867, with Annie in attendance, he defended the doomed Fenians in a conspiracy trial which was to result in two executions. This early involvement in the fate of the ‘Manchester martyrs’ was to leave Annie with an abiding sense of identification with the Irish cause.
After a period in Cheltenham where Frank taught at the College, then a bastion of the Low Church, Annie acquired a living for her husband through the influence of her uncle, now become Lord Chancellor, in the bleak parish of Sibsey in Lincolnshire. The satisfactions of writing to relieve her frustration were thwarted by Frank’s refusal to allow her to keep the money she earned and the strains of illness and child-rearing were made intolerable by his increasing exasperation. All this might have been no more than the unrecorded lot of many clerical wives, but in Besant’s case, the fate of the marriage became intertwined with a simmering crisis of faith. As her domestic situation worsened, Annie began to entertain doubts about Original sin, eternal punishment, the divinity of Christ and the revealed truth of the Bible.
These issues were originally forced into the open with the publication of Essays and Reviews in the early 1860s, but then damped down in a compromise of 1865, in which reservations about the 39 Articles were permitted, so long as they were not broadcast. Frank’s violent reaction to her voicing of these heresies resulted in her fleeing back to her mother in London. A final attempt to save her faith – through an audience with Dr Pusey – resulted in the command: ‘Don’t read, pray!’ Her new hero was the Reverend Charles Voysey, the standard-bearer of those who would not accept the 1865 compromise and who now attempted to raise funds for an independent ‘theistic’ Church.
There was no way back to her station as a clergyman’s wife; and in 1873, a deed of separation was drawn up. This absolute refusal to compromise set the pattern of her subsequent life. Mrs Besant was no longer ‘fit for respectable society’; she faced an uncertain financial future and before long risked the loss of her children. But ‘Heterodox London’ in the 1870s possessed networks of cultural and material support unheard of in Sibsey. In particular, she soon gained the friendship of Moncure Conway, the fashionable Emersonian leader of metropolitan free thought, and was employed as a pamphleteer by Thomas Scott, Voysey’s wealthy patron.
These unconventional yet genteel circles were only the prelude to a yet more drastic move into the plebeian world of secularism. By 1875 she had accepted employment on Charles Bradlaugh’s National Reformer and begun her career as an orator in the Halls of Science. The need to earn a living, intoxication with her newly discovered eloquence and an attraction to Bradlaugh, seem to have precipitated this shift; and it was soon to lead to an even more audacious defiance: her association with the cause of ‘neo-Malthusianism’ – birth control. The idea of a ‘preventive check’ to population was taken up by Bradlaugh’s National Secular Society as the main solution to the problem of poverty and low wages. The question of means, apart from abstinence or deferred marriage, was not publicly touched upon. One or two pamphlets detailing methods of contraception had been published in the 1830s and remained discreetly available from free-thought publishers. But nothing new had been written. The famous Bradlaugh-Besant trial for obscenity in 1877-8 had its origin in the prosecution of a Bristol bookseller for republishing Charles Knowlton’s Fruits of Philosophy in a new and more salacious format.
The decision to challenge the law by publishing a more sober edition of this work had been Besant’s and it was her decision to conduct her own defence. Conway, Bradlaugh and other free-thought leaders counselled against the project, not least because it was likely to endanger Annie’s claim to the custody of her children. Lord Amberley, Bertrand Russell’s father, had found his public career ruined because of an indiscreet allusion to the subject. Henry Fawcett, the political economist and Liberal cabinet minister, refused to testify for fear that he would have to reveal Mill’s private attitude to the question and Mrs Fawcett objected that it would only subject women even further to men’s desires. The trial took place in a blaze of publicity. When Annie eloquently defended the right of working-class people to sexual knowledge, a taboo was broken. For the first time a woman had publicly advocated birth control. At the end, the defendants were lucky to escape prison on a technicality. Annie’s friends had been right to fear its effects on her status: Frank’s clerical allies took their revenge in the courts and were effectively able to deny her access to her children.
In the 1880s, Besant became successively identified with a bewildering variety of causes. She continued as a secularist lecturer and as co-editor of the National Reformer, but in addition campaigned for the revived Malthusian League. At the same time, under the influence of Edward Aveling, she became excited by a romantically-tinged version of Darwinism and was among the first women to embark on a science degree at University College London. She lived round the corner from Bradlaugh, and his daughters became fellow students. But Bradlaugh became more and more preoccupied with his struggle to take his seat in Parliament without swearing the oath – it look him six years – and gradually their paths diverged. The rift was confirmed in the mid-1880s when Annie converted to socialism, though they didn’t quarrel till 1887, when she vainly attempted to associate Bradlaugh with physical-force tactics in a battle for free speech which accompanied the agitations of the unemployed in Trafalgar Square.
Her main companion of these years was, first, Shaw, to whom she gave much-needed financial support in return for his contributions to her new journal. Our Corner, and then Stead, with whom she concocted a crazy scheme, inspired half by the Fenians, half by Cromwell, to establish ‘Ironside Circles’ which, in the name of the moral salvation of the people, would monitor the activities of authority in every locality. In 1888, her activity became yet more hectic. With Shaw’s encouragement, she had joined the Fabians. Now she also became a member of the Marxist Social Democratic Federation and engaged in a campaign to organise unskilled workers. With Herbert Burrows, she helped to organise the famous strike of the match-girls at the Bryant and May factory, the first in a sequence of struggles which culminated in the great dock strike and the new unionism of 1889. Later in the year, standing as a candidate for the SDF, she won a celebrated election for the London School Board and was instrumental in promoting the abolition of fees for board schools. At the same time, she was Fabian Essays in Socialism’s most famous contributor and an active participant in the Fabian attempt to set up branches in the North. Simultaneously, and most spectacularly, however, she announced her conversion to the Theosophy of Madame Blavatsky.
It would be a relief to record that, with her acceptance of Theosophy, the hyperactivity of Annie’s public life gave way to the relative calm and obscurity of an esoteric cult. But Theosophy was anything but obscure. Its existence had been the object of fascinated attention, attended by recurrent scandal, ever since its foundation in the United States in 1875. Nor was Annie destined to play a modest role in it. Within two years of her joining, she had taken Madame Blavatsky into residence in her London house and was chosen by the dying seer as her successor in leading Theosophy’s ‘Esoteric Section’. In 1907, after the death of Theosophy’s co-founder, Henry Olcott, she became head of the world movement and remained in control of it until her death in 1933.
The switch from socialism to Theosophy was not as drastic as some historians have imagined. As a successor to, or replacement for, orthodox Christianity, the concerns of 19th-century socialism were cosmic rather than merely economic. In the 1850s a substantial number of socialists had followed Robert Owen into spiritualism and his son, Robert Dale Owen, became a leader of the spiritualist movement in America. Interest in ghosts and communication with the dead was also a preoccupation of the early Fabians. So much so that meetings of the Fabian executive in Pease’s rooms in Dean’s Yard, Westminster were often immediately followed by sessions of the Society of Psychical Research, of which the majority were also members. Nor was the fascination with table-turning and the possibility of another world confined to the heterodox fringes of the metropolitan culture. As Logie Barrow has shown, Mid-Victorian secularism incorporated a flourishing provincial spiritualist movement, whose plebeian adherents were cheered to discover that ‘summer-land’, the non-Christian after-life, was already organised along socialist lines. In this context, the official aims of Theosophy – universal brotherhood, the study of comparative religions and the investigation of the mystic powers of life and matter – were not particularly exotic.
What was exotic was the association between Theosophy and the mysteries of the East. Charles Bradlaugh described Theosophy as ‘a kind of spiritualism in Eastern phraseology’. After a sharp attack on their credentials in the United States, the leaders of Theosophy, Madame Blavatsky and Henry Olcott, set off for India in 1879. They were an odd pair. Olcott was a former farmer and colonel in the Civil War, with connections in intelligence circles. His main quality was said to have been that of preserving boyish enthusiasms into old age. So strange was Blavatsky’s dress, voice and behaviour that some were inclined to suspend judgment when she hinted that she was as old as time. Olcott was not alone in believing that she was really a man: ‘a very old man’, ‘a most learned and wonderful man’, ‘a Hindu man’. More prosaically, the Indian administration wondered whether she was really a Russian spy. The Theosophists’ main contact in India was with the Arya Somaj movement, whose creed was national regeneration based on a return to the ancient Veda religion. The main theme of Olcott’s speeches was praise of Indian religion before it became subordinated to alien values, while Blavatsky blamed Christianity for the Indian Mutiny. From the start, Theosophy represented a threat to the Raj.
Besant was attracted to Theosophy by Madame Blavatsky’s second book, The Secret Doctrine, whose main theme was reincarnation. It was on this basis that she reversed her position on birth-control in 1890. Since family limitation was likely to be practised by the most gifted, the upward progress of humanity through the process of rebirth would be checked. However outlandish this argument might seem, it chimed perfectly with the incipient anxieties of Darwinians, Fabians and Eugenicists about the declining birthrate. Once again, Theosophy did not look so strange when seen as one colourful variant in the post-Christian cocktail.
More wilful was Besant’s management of the ‘esoteric’ inner circle after Blavatsky’s death. Blavatsky had taken up residence in England partly to escape allegations of charlatanry which had surfaced in India in 1884 in connection with the provenance of ‘letters’ from the mysterious ‘Masters’. The accusation that such letters were forgeries arose again ten years later, this time in a dispute between the English and American sections and was gleefully elaborated in the press and on the stage. Thereafter, Besant relied on less vulnerable channels of communication. She depended increasingly on the Reverend Charles Lead-beater to ‘bring through’ information from the astral plane. Leadbeater, like her an ex-Puseyite, possessed a singular ability to describe the immaterial in the fashionable scientific language of the day. But he was forced to resign from the Society in 1906, when a deciphered note revealed that he was encouraging the young boys in his charge to practise masturbation as a means of increasing their spiritual power. Besant reluctantly agreed that his behaviour could not be justified, but reinstated him soon after she became head of the movement. This caused yet another secession, when it became clear why his presence was deemed so essential. His particular task, according to Taylor, was to undertake the secret training of the 14-year-old Krishnamurti, in 1911 revealed to startled followers as the future Avatar or World Teacher.
In Besant’s hands, Theosophy was neither quietistic, nor other-worldly. Instead, the old link between British injustice in Ireland and India – which had formed a standard part of the secularist platform – was given a new cultural twist. Just as Yeats associated Theosophy with the romantic nationalism of Celtic revival, so Besant read the messages of the ancient Mahatmas as a call for the revival of a wise Hindu theocracy, including its ancient caste system, freed from British tutelage. Until 1907, her political ambitions were kept in check by Olcott, who detested caste and inclined towards Buddhism. His centre at Adyar was rivalled by Besant’s foundation of the Central Hindu College at Benares, a characteristic blend of Hindu monastery and British public school, in which India’s future holy élite were to be trained.
Besant’s re-entry into Indian politics after 1907 coincided with a period of growing nationalist tension, which she was determined to promote and extend. In her view, Home Rule in Ireland should be followed by Home Rule in India. In 1913, she joined the Congress Party and in 1917 briefly became its president. Her growing extremism during the war seriously disturbed the British authorities, who briefly interned her after her newspaper, New India, had praised the Dublin Easter Rising. But 1917 marked both the peak and the end of her real influence on Indian nationalism. Her vision of Hindu theocracy was out of step with the secular democratic programme of Gandhi and Nehru and although she attempted to build a rival movement in the Twenties, her political following dwindled away. Finally in 1929, after Krishnamurti renounced the messianic role for which Besant and Leadbeater had so lovingly prepared him, even her extraordinary self-assurance was crushed.
The drama of Annie Besant was that of a life lived on the frontier between two worlds. On the one side was the security and decorum of the world of family, church, state and Empire, the world in which she had been brought up; on the other, a world outside and beyond, a post-Christian and post-imperial world whose shape would only become clear through struggle, trial and experiment. Looked at from the present, what seems striking are the visible and invisible threads which bound these two worlds together. All her life Besant continued to call upon her connections in the established world – from her legal patrons at the beginning to a string of viceroys and eccentric aristocrats at the end. Intellectually, her version of Theosophy remained closer to the high-minded. High-Church reformism of her youth than to the Eastern religion in whose name she claimed to speak. In common with many of her intellectual contemporaries, the sentiments which drove her forward were only spasmodically democratic and egalitarian: more often, they were theocratic and hierarchical. Anne Taylor’s biography allows us to see that one consistent thread in her life was the pursuit of justice and the willingness to defy and often to disarm any authority which presumed to stand against it. In this way, Besant helped to make the passage from the Victorian Empire a less bloody process than it otherwise might have been.