The Theosophical Society in America

Esoteric World Chapter 18

Chapter 18

England, 1887–1888

After her arrival in England, Theosophical activities immediately began to move rapidly. The Blavatsky Lodge was formed and started publicizing Theosophical ideas.

As H. P. Blavatsky had virtually lost control of The Theosophist, she founded in September 1887 Lucifer, a monthly magazine designed, as stated on its title-page, "to bring to light the hidden things of darkness." Also in the same month, HPB moved to 17 Lansdowne Road, Holland Park, London.

HPB continued steadily to write her great work, which was finally completed and published in two large volumes in October-December, 1888. Her indefatigable helpers in the transcription and editing of the manuscript were Bertram Keightley and Archibald Keightley, whose financial backing was also of immense assistance.

The Secret Doctrine was the crowning achievement of H. P. Blavatsky’s literary career. Volume 1 is concerned mainly with the evolution of the universe. The skeleton of this volume is formed by seven stanzas, translated from the Book of Dzyan, with commentary and explanations by HPB. Also in this volume is an extended elucidation of the fundamental symbols contained in the great religions and mythologies of the world. Volume 2 contains a further series of stanzas from the Book of Dzyan, which describe the evolution of humanity.

Of the following two extracts, the first is by Bertram Keightley, who with his nephew, Dr. Archibald Keightley was instrumental in bringing HPB to London. They worked closely with her in preparing The Secret Doctrine for publication; this extract throws light upon the way in which the manuscript was prepared. The second extract is by Charles Johnston, who was not part of HPB’s intimate circle at the time of the visit recounted in this extract, when he was barely twenty years old. A year and a half later, however, he married HPB’s niece, and they eventually settled in the United States, where he became, among other activities, an editor for the Encyclopedia Britannica.

18a. Bertram Keightley, May 1887–Oct. 1888, London [Wachtmeister 1893, 90–5]

A day or two after our arrival at Maycot, HPB placed the whole of the so-far completed MS [of The Secret Doctrine] in the hands of Dr. [Archibald] Keightley and myself, instructing us to read, punctuate, correct the English, alter, and generally treat it as if it were our own—which we naturally did not do, having far too high an opinion of her knowledge to take any liberties with so important a work.

But we both read the whole mass of MS—a pile over three feet high—most carefully through, correcting the English and punctuation where absolutely indispensable, and then, after prolonged consultation, faced the author in her den—in my case with sore trembling, I remember—with the solemn opinion that the whole of the matter must be rearranged on some definite plan, since as it stood the book was another Isis Unveiled only far worse, so far as absence of plan and consecutiveness were concerned.

After some talk, HPB told us to go to Tophet and do what we liked. She had had more than enough of the blessed thing, had given it over to us, washed her hands of it entirely, and we might get out of it as best we could.

We retired and consulted. Finally, we laid before her a plan suggested by the character of the matter itself, viz., to make the work consist of four volumes. Further, instead of making the first volume to consist, as she had intended, of the history of some great Occultists, we advised her to follow the natural order of exposition, and begin with the Evolution of Cosmos, to pass from that to the Evolution of Man, then to deal with the historical part in a third volume treating of the lives of some great Occultists; and finally, to speak of Practical Occultism in a fourth volume, should she ever be able to write it.

This plan we laid before HPB, and it was duly sanctioned by her.

The next step was to read the MS through again and make a general rearrangement of the matter pertaining to the subjects coming under the heading of Cosmogony and Anthropology, which were to form the first two volumes of the work. When this had been completed, and HPB duly consulted, and her approval of what had been done obtained, the whole of the MS so arranged was typewritten out by professional hands, then reread, corrected, [and] compared with the original MS.

It then appeared that the whole of the Commentary on the Stanzas [of Dzyan] did not amount to more than some twenty pages of the present work. So we seriously interviewed her, and suggested that she should write a proper commentary, as in her opening words she had promised her readers to do. Her reply was characteristic, "What on earth am I to say? What do you want to know? Why it’s all as plain as the nose on your face!!!" We could not see it; she didn’t—or made out she didn’t—so we retired to reflect.

The solution was this: Each sloka [verse] of the stanzas was written (or cut out from the typewritten copy) and pasted at the head of a sheet of paper, and then on a loose sheet pinned thereto were written all the questions we could find time to devise upon that sloka. HPB struck out large numbers of them, made us write fuller explanations, or our own ideas—such as they were—of what her readers expected her to say, wrote more herself, incorporated the little she had already written on that particular sloka, and so the work was done.

But when we came to sending the MS to the printers, the result was found to be such that the most experienced compositor would tear his hair in blank dismay. Therefore, Dr. Keightley and myself set to work with a typewriter [typist], and alternately dictating and writing, made a clean copy of the first parts of volumes I and II.

Then work was continued till parts II and III of each volume were in a fairly advanced condition, and we could think of sending the work to press.

Of the further history of The Secret Doctrine there is not much more to say—though there were months of hard work before us. HPB read and corrected two sets of galley proofs, then a page proof...correcting, adding, and altering up to the very last moment.

Of phenomena in connection with The Secret Doctrine...quotations with full references, from books which were never in the house—quotations verified after hours of search, sometimes, at the British Museum for a rare book—of such, I saw and verified not a few.

In verifying them I found occasionally the curious fact that the numerical references were reversed, e.g., p. 321 for p. 123, illustrating the reversal of objects when seen in the astral light.

Of the value of the work, posterity must judge finally. Personally, I can only place on record my profound conviction that when studied thoroughly but not treated as a revelation, when understood and assimilated but not made a text for dogma, HPB’s Secret Doctrine will be found of incalculable value, and will furnish suggestions, clues, and threads of guidance, for the study of Nature and Man, such as no other existing work can supply.

18b. Charles Johnston, Spring 1887, London [Johnston 1900]

I first met dear old "HPB," as she made all her friends call her, in the spring of 1887. Some of her disciples had taken a pretty house in Norwood, where the huge glass nave and twin towers of the Crystal Palace glint about a labyrinth of streets and terraces. London was at its grimy best. The squares and gardens were scented with grape clusters of lilac, and yellow rain of laburnums under soft green leaves. The eternal smoke pall was thinned to a gray veil shining in the afternoon sun, with the great Westminster Towers and a thousand spires and chimneys piercing through. Every house had its smoke wreath, trailing away to the east.

HPB was just finishing her day’s work, so I passed a half hour upstairs with her volunteer secretary, a disciple who served her with boundless devotion. I had known him two years before. So we talked of old times, and of HPB’s great book, The Secret Doctrine, and he read me resonant stanzas [of Dzyan] about Universal Cosmic Night, when Time was not; about the Luminous Sons of Manvantaric Dawn; and the Armies of the Voice; about the Water Men Terrible and Bad, and the Black Magicians of Lost Atlantis; about the Sons of Will and Yoga and the Ring Pass-Not; about the Great Day Be-with-Us, when all shall be perfected into one, reuniting "thyself and others, myself and thee."

So the half hour passed, and I went downstairs to see the Old Lady. She was in her writing room, just rising from her desk, and clad in one of those dark blue dressing gowns she loved. My first impression was of her rippled hair as she turned, then her marvelously potent eyes, as she welcomed me: "My dear fellow! I am so glad to see you! Come in and talk! You are just in time to have some tea!" And a hearty handshake.

Then a piercing call for "Louise," and her Swiss maid appeared, to receive a voluble torrent of directions in French, and HPB settled herself snugly into an armchair, comfortably near her tobacco box, and began to make me a cigarette. The cuffs of a Jaeger suit showed round her wrists, only setting off the perfect shape and delicacy of her hands, as her deft fingers, deeply stained with nicotine, rolled the white rice paper around Turkish tobacco.

HPB with a quizzically humorous smile [asked]: "Of course you have read the SPR Report?—The Spookical Research Society—and know that I am a Russian spy, and the champion impostor of the age?"

"Yes, I read the Report. But I knew its contents already. I was at the meeting when it was first read, two years ago."

"Well," said HPB, again smiling with infinite humor, "and what impression did the frisky lambkin from Australia [Richard Hodgson] make upon your susceptible heart?"

"A very deep one. I decided that he must be a very good young man, who always came home to tea; and that the Lord had given him a very good conceit of himself. If he got an opinion into his head, he would plow away blandly, and contrary facts would be quite invisible. And all that Mr. Sinnett says in the Occult World seems to me absolutely unshaken by the whole Report."

"I am glad you think so, my dear," she answered in her courtly way, "for now I can offer you some tea with a good conscience." Louise had laid a white cloth on the corner table, brought in a tray, and lit a lamp. The secretary soon joined us, receiving a tart little sermon on being unpunctual, which he was not. Then we came back to the Psychical Researchers.

"They will never do much," said HPB "They go too much on material lines, and they are far too timid. They were afraid of raising a storm if they said our phenomena were true. Fancy what it would have meant! Why it would practically have committed Modern Science to our Mahatmas and all I have taught about the inhabitants of the occult world and their tremendous powers. They shrank at the thought of it, and so they made a scapegoat of this poor orphan and exile." And her eyes were full of humorous pity for herself.

"It must have been something like that," I answered, "for there is simply no backbone in the Report itself. It is the weakest thing of the kind I have ever read. There is not a shred of real evidence in it from beginning to end."

"Do you really think so? That’s right!" cried HPB; and then she turned on her secretary, and poured in a broadside of censure, telling him he was greedy, idle, untidy, unmethodical, and generally worthless. When he ventured an uneasy defense, she flared up and declared that he "was born a flapdoodle, lived a flapdoodle, and would die a flapdoodle." He lost his grip, and not unnaturally made a yellow streak of egg across her white tablecloth.

"There!" cried HPB, glaring at him with withering scorn, and then turning to me for sympathy in her afflictions. That was her way, to rate her disciples in the presence of perfect strangers. It speaks volumes for her, that they loved her still.

"There is one thing about the SPR Report I want you to explain. What about the writing in the occult letters [of the Masters]?"

"Well, what about it?" asked HPB, immediately interested.

"They say that you wrote them yourself, and that they bear evident marks of your handwriting and style. What do you say to that?"

"Let me explain it this way," she answered, after a long gaze at the end of her cigarette. "Have you ever made experiments in thought-transference? If you have, you must have noticed that the person who received the mental picture very often colors it, or often changes it slightly, with his own thought, and this where perfectly genuine transference of thought takes place. Well, it is something like that with the precipitated letters. One of our Masters, who perhaps does not know English, and of course has no English handwriting, wishes to precipitate a letter in answer to a question sent mentally to him. Let us say he is in Tibet, while I am in Madras or London. He has the answering thought in his mind, but not in English words. He has first to impress that thought on my brain, or on the brain of someone else who knows English, and then to take the word forms that rise up in that other brain to answer the thought. Then he must form a clear mind picture of the words in writing, also drawing on my brain, or the brain of whoever it is, for the shapes. Then either through me or some chela with whom he is magnetically connected, he has to precipitate these word shapes on paper, first sending the shapes into the chela’s mind, and then driving them into the paper, using the magnetic force of the chela to do the printing, and collecting the material, black or blue or red, as the case may be, from the astral light. As all things dissolve into the astral light, the will of the magician can draw them forth again. So he can draw forth colors of pigments to mark the figures in the letter, using the magnetic force of the chela to stamp them in, and guiding the whole by his own much greater magnetic force, a current of powerful will.

"That sounds quite reasonable," I answered. "Won't you show me how it is done?"

"You would have to be clairvoyant," she answered, in a perfectly direct and matter-of-fact way, "in order to see and guide the currents. But this is the point: Suppose the letter [is] precipitated through me; it would naturally show some traces of my expressions, and even of my writing; but all the same, it would be a perfectly genuine occult phenomenon, and a real message from that Mahatma. Besides, when all is said and done, they exaggerate the likeness of the writings. And the experts are not infallible. We have had experts who were just as positive that I could not possibly have written those letters, and just as good experts, too. But the Report says nothing about them. And then there are letters, in just the same handwriting, precipitated when I was thousands of miles away. Dr. Hartmann received more than one at Adyar, Madras, when I was in London; I could hardly have written them. But you have seen some of the occult letters? What do you say?"

"Yes," I replied; "Mr. Sinnett showed me about a ream of them: the whole series that the Occult World and Esoteric Buddhism are based on. Some of them are in red, either ink or pencil, but far more are in blue. I thought it was pencil at first, and I tried to smudge it with my thumb; but it would not smudge."

"Of course not!" she smiled; ‘the color is driven into the surface of the paper. But what about the writings?"

"I am coming to that. There were two: the blue writing, and the red; they were totally different from each other, and both were quite unlike yours. I have spent a good deal of time studying the relation of handwriting to character, and the two characters were quite clearly marked. The blue was evidently a man of very gentle and even character, but of tremendously strong will; logical, easygoing, and taking endless pains to make his meaning clear. It was altogether the handwriting of a cultivated and very sympathetic man."

"Which I am not," said HPB, with a smile; "that is Mahatma Koot Hoomi; he is a Kashmiri Brahman by birth, you know, and has traveled a good deal in Europe. He is the author of the Occult World letters, and gave Mr. Sinnett most of the material of Esoteric Buddhism. But you have read all about it."

"Yes, I remember he says you shriek across space with a voice like Sarasvati’s peacock. Hardly the sort of thing you would say of yourself."

"Of course not," she said; "I know I am a nightingale. But what about the other writing?"

"The red? Oh that is wholly different. It is fierce, impetuous, dominant, strong; it comes in volcanic outbursts, while the other is like Niagara Falls. One is fire, and the other is the ocean. They are wholly different, and both quite unlike yours. But the second has more resemblance to yours than the first."

"This is my Master," she said, "whom we call Mahatma Morya. I have his picture here."

And she showed me a small panel in oils. If ever I saw genuine awe and reverence in a human face, it was in hers, when she spoke of her Master. He was a Rajput by birth, she said, one of the old warrior race of the Indian desert, the finest and handsomest nation in the world. Her Master was a giant, six feet eight, and splendidly built, a superb type of manly beauty. Even in the picture, there is a marvelous power and fascination; the force, the fierceness even, of the face; the dark, glowing eyes, which stare you out of countenance; the clear-cut features of bronze, the raven hair and beard—all spoke of manhood strength. I asked her something about his age. She answered:

"My dear, I cannot tell you exactly, for I do not know. But this I will tell you. I met him first when I was twenty—in 1851. He was in the very prime of manhood then. I am an old woman now, but he has not aged a day. He is still in the prime of manhood. That is all I can say. You may draw you own conclusions."

Then she told me something about other Masters and adepts she had known. She had known adepts of many races, from Northern and Southern India, Tibet, Persia, China, Egypt; of various European nations, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, English; of certain races in South America, where she said there was a Lodge of adepts.

"And now, my dear, it is getting late, and I am getting sleepy. So I must bid you goodnight!" And the Old Lady dismissed me with that grand air of hers which never left her, because it was a part of herself. She was the most perfect aristocrat I have ever known.

There was something in her personality, her bearing, the light and power of her eyes, which spoke of a wider and deeper life. That was the greatest thing about her, and it was always there; this sense of a bigger world, of deeper power, of unseen might; to those in harmony with her potent genius, this came as a revelation and incentive to follow the path she pointed out. To those who could not see with her eyes, who could not raise themselves in some measure to her vision, this quality came as a challenge, an irritant, a discordant and subversive force, leading them at last to an attitude of fierce hostility and denunciation.

When the last word is said, she was greater than any of her works, more full of living power than even her marvelous writings.

  • Johnson, Charles. 1900. "Helena Petrovna Blavatsky." Theosophical Forum (New York) 5–6 (Apr.–Jul.). Reprint in Blavatsky, Collected Writings 8:392–409. Selection 18b.
  • Wachtmeister, Countess Constance, and others. Reminiscences of H. P. Blavatsky and the Secret Doctrine. London, Theosophical Publishing Society, 1893; 2d ed. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1976. Selection 18a.
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