The Flight of a Clergyman’s Wife

Gareth Stedman Jones

  • Annie Besant: A Biography by Anne Taylor
    Oxford, 383 pp, £25.00, April 1992, ISBN 0 19 211796 3

‘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.

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