The Theosophical Society in America

Esoteric World Chapter 19

Chapter 19

England, 1887–1888

When HPB arrived in London on May 1, 1887, she first settled in Mabel Collins’s house, called “Maycot,” where she stayed for a little more than four months. It almost immediately became a center of activity. The Blavatsky Lodge was organized within a few weeks of her arrival and held meetings in which HPB was the central figure. Her time was occupied with writing, meetings, conversation, and her solitaire card games (often referred to by the British term “patience”). She also started a new magazine, Lucifer, so named partly to tease the conventional associations people had with that term.

In early September 1887, HPB moved to a house at 17 Lansdowne Road in the Holland Park area of London and continued with her many activities there. Shortly thereafter the first issue of Lucifer was published—a magazine intended to “bright to light the hidden things of darkness.” About the same time the Theosophical Publishing Company was founded in London.

19a. Archibald Keightley, May 1887–1889, London [Keightley 1910, 113–9]

It was no very long time before Mme. Blavatsky’s presence began to be felt. People began to gather round her, and Maycot became the scene of the pilgrimage of a good many people. It was a remarkable experience to see those who came. Some had private interviews: others were received in company with us who lived in the house. And the method of treatment! At times argumentative, at others sarcastic, very rarely appealing for credence or justice, always the same driving energy which spared neither herself nor any other who might in any way further her Master’s work.

The nominal day began for Mme. Blavatsky before 7 a.m. When it really began I do not know. The body had to have its sleep, for it could not be driven too hard. But I had reason to believe that many hours of the night were spent in writing, though this never interfered with her usual hour to get to her desk. She was invisible till she called for her midday meal. I say midday, but it was a very movable meal and might be called for at any hour between twelve and four, a proceeding which naturally disconcerted a cook. Woe betide any disturber of those hours of work, for the more quiet she was, the more seriously was she engaged.

Finally at 6:30, came for Mme. Blavatsky the evening meal, which was taken in company with the rest of us. The table cleared, came tobacco and talk, especially the former, though there was plenty of the latter. I wish I had the memory and the power to relate those talks. All things under the sun and some others, too, were discussed. Here was a mind stored with information gathered in very extensive travels, an experience of life and experience of things of an “unseen nature,” and with it all an acuteness of perception which brought out the real and true.

Of one thing Mme. Blavatsky was intolerant—cant and sham—and of hypocrisy. For these she had no mercy; but for genuine effort, however mistaken, she would spare no trouble to give advice and readjustment. She was genuine in all her dealings, but I learned then and later that she at times had to remain silent in order that others might gain experience and knowledge, even if in gaining it they at times deceived themselves. I never knew her to state what was not true; but I knew she had sometimes to keep silence, because those who interrogated her had no right to the information. And in those cases, I afterwards learned that she was accused of deliberate untruth.

The evenings passed in such talks, and all the while she arranged her “patiences.” Among other things which I learned was the fact that while Solitaire occupied the brain, HPB was engaged in very different work, and that Mme. Blavatsky could play Solitaire, take part in a conversation going on around her among us others, attend to what we used to call “upstairs,” and also see what was going on in her own room and other places in the house and out of it, at one and the same time.

It was at one of these tobacco parliaments that Mme. Blavatsky stated her difficulty in getting her views expressed in the Theosophist. This was the magazine which she had started with Colonel Olcott in India. It was under his charge and he edited it in India and not unnaturally he conducted it on his own lines. But with the commencement of Mme. Blavatsky’s work in England, a more immediate expression of her views became a matter of importance. So a new magazine was proposed and decided on and steps were taken to secure its publication. Oh, but there were discussions as to its title! “Truth,” “Torch,” and a variety of others were offered as suggestions and rejected. Then came the “Light-bringer” and finally “Lucifer,” as an abbreviation. But this was most vehemently opposed by some as being too diabolical and too much opposed to les convenances [the proprieties]. Perish the word! This secured its instant acceptance.

The Blavatsky Lodge was originally started as a body of people who were prepared to follow HPB implicitly and a pledge embodying this was drawn up. We all took it and the meetings began. Every Thursday evening they were held in Mme. Blavatsky’s room, which was thrown into one with the dining room. Members flocked in, so that the rooms were too small, the interest being in the questions which were propounded for Mme. Blavatsky to answer. Some of the results were printed in Transactions of the Blavatsky Lodge.

The procedure under such circumstances is worth recalling. You would, as I did, present your thesis or remarks. It would be received vehemently, be opposed with a variety of eloquence—an eloquence calculated to upset your balance, and the impression given that you were a most evilly designing person, aiming to upset some of Mme. Blavatsky’s most cherished plans of work. But with your sincerity of purpose becoming plain, there would come a change in Mme. Blavatsky. Her manner would change, even the expression of her face. “Sound and fury” evaporated, she became very quiet, and even her face seemed to become larger, more massive and solid. Every point you raised was considered, and into her eyes—those wonderful eyes—came the look we learned to recognize. That look was one to be earned as a reward, for it meant that the heart had been searched and that guile was not found, also that HPB was in charge.

It must be remembered that during all this time of stress and effort Mme. Blavatsky was still a sick woman, always suffering pain and often hardly able to walk. But her inflexible will and devotion got her from her bed to her writing table and enabled her to persist in the carrying through the press of The Secret Doctrine, to edit Lucifer, to write her Russian articles and those for Lucifer, the Theosophist, the Path, to receive her visitors both in private and in public, and in addition to deal with an enormous private correspondence.

It was at this time I got a form of erysipelas with high fever, and had to stay in bed. It so happened that Mme. Blavatsky’s physician was calling and he looked in on me. What was said I do not know, but as I lay in a kind of stupor I found that Mme. Blavatsky had made a progress up two flights of fairly steep stairs (she who never went up a step if it could be helped, on account of the pain so caused) and had arrived to judge for herself of her doctor’s report of me. She sat and looked at me, and then she talked while she held a glass of water between her hands, and this water I afterwards drank; then she went downstairs again, bidding me to follow.

Down I went and was made to lie on the couch in her room and covered up. I lay there half asleep while she worked away at her writing, sitting at her table in her big chair, with her back towards me. How long I was there I do not know, but suddenly just past my head went a flash of deep crimson lightning. I started, not unnaturally, and was saluted through the back of the chair with “Lie down, what for do you take any notice?” I did so and went to sleep and, after I had been sent upstairs to bed, I again went to sleep and next morning was quite well, if a little shaky. This was the only time I saw the crimson light, though I have seen, and others saw, the pale blue light attached to some objects in the room and then flitting about. One of us rashly touched it one day when Mme. Blavatsky was in the next room. He got an electric shock and was also electrified by sounds of wrath from Mme. Blavatsky, greeting him by name and asking what on earth he meant by meddling with what he had no business to touch and by making an impertinently curious intrusion into matters with which he had no concern. I am sure he has not forgotten either the shock or rap to his knuckles or the rap to his curiosity. I know he remembered the shock to his arm for a long time.

The meetings of the Blavatsky Lodge were out of the ordinary. The discussions were informal and all sat round and asked questions of Mme. Blavatsky. All sorts and conditions of men and women were present, and one part of our delight was for Mme. Blavatsky to reply by the Socratic method—ask another question and seek information on her own account. It was a very effective method and frequently confounded the setter of the conundrum. If it was a genuine search for information which dictated the question, she would spare no pains to give all information in her power. But if the matter was put forward to annoy her or puzzle, the business resulted badly for the questioner. The meetings took up a lot of time, but Mme. Blavatsky enjoyed the contest of wits. All nations would be represented in those rooms on Thursday nights, and one could never tell who would be present. Sometimes there would be unseen visitors, seen by some but not by others of us. Results were curious.

Mme. Blavatsky felt the cold very much and her room was therefore kept very warm, so much so that at the meetings it was unpleasantly hot very often. One night before the meeting time, I came downstairs to find the room like an ice-house, though fire and lights were fully on. I called HPB’s attention to this, but was greeted with a laugh and “Oh, I have had a friend of mine here to see me and he forgot to remove his atmosphere.” Another time I remember that the rooms gradually filled until there was no vacant seat. On the sofa sat a distinguished Hindu, in full panoply of turban and dress. The discussion proceeded and apparently our distinguished guest was much interested, for he seemed to follow intelligently the remarks of each speaker. The President of the Lodge arrived that night very late, and coming in looked around for a seat. He walked up to the sofa and sat down—right in the middle of the distinguished Hindu, who promptly, and with some surprise, fizzled and vanished!

During this winter, affairs had been moving in America and there had been a gradually increasing interest in things Theosophical. I was called to Mme. Blavatsky’s room and asked, “Arch, when can you start for America?” I was off in three days. The voyage was an odd experience for me, as I had never been on an ocean trip before or to such a distance. On board in my cabin, my attention was attracted to a number of little taps and cracks. These might naturally be due to the ship. But my attention was enforced to a series of little flashes of light, especially at night. The point to me was that these flashes and also these taps and cracks invariably associated themselves in my mind with the idea of HPB, and by this time I had begun to learn that most of these “happenings” meant something. Afterwards by letter and later when I returned, I found she could tell me accurately what I had been doing during my journey to and from and throughout my stay in America. I was told that these taps and cracks and flashes were the coming and going of elemental forms of force which took a snapshot of me and my proceedings.

19b. Walter R. Old, Summer 1887, London [In Memory 1891, 38–9]

During the year 1887 I was in daily correspondence with members of the Theosophical Society, and every day the fact of my not having seen [Madame Blavatsky], the chief mover in the occult renaissance of the 19th century, was growing more and more a source of annoyance to me. [Then] a letter from a London friend informed me that he had arranged for a few friends to meet at his house to discuss some of the problems in which we were mutually interested and that if I would go up to town that evening, he would take me round to see “HPB” on the morrow.

I went with the sole idea and purpose of seeing “HPB.” That evening it seemed that time stood still for the special purpose of laughing at my impatience. At last, however, the morning dawned and grew into a fine summer day, and towards noon I found myself with my friend at the house, whence, he informed me, all the life of the Theosophical Society came. Entered, we were shown into the drawing room, at least I presumed that was its appellation, though I have never seen, nor ever expect to see, another room like it. No, I was mistaken, for a few seconds later, in response to a familiar greeting from my friend, HPB rose from her desk, where she had been hidden from view by an unusually large armchair, and came forward to receive us.

The largest and brightest blue eyes I have ever seen opened widely upon me as she took my hand and gave me welcome. All the confusion I had secretly predicted for myself fled from me on her first words. I felt at home and at ease with HPB at once. “No, I will not be called ‘Madame,’ not by my best friend, there was nothing said of that when I was christened, and if you please I will be simply HPB. Have a seat there; you smoke of course; I’ll make you a cigarette. E———, you flapdoodle (this to my friend), if you can find my tobacco box on the place there, I’ll mistake you for a gentleman.” Then amid some laughter, as playful and buoyant as that of a child, she explained to me that E——— and she were “old friends” and that she was very fond of him, but that he often “took advantage of her old age and innocence,” and amid some repartee the tobacco was produced, and HPB made cigarettes for each of us. Then we settled down to more serious talk, HPB asking me about my studies in Theosophy and western occultism, and telling me of the success of the Theosophical movement, and how the people said this and that, and how the papers said much more, and that all were wrong because they did not understand, and had forgotten their history books, and could not see where the movement was going to. And then she asked me to tell her about myself, and gave me some practical advice, and soon afterwards I had taken leave of the most interesting person that I had ever seen.

I was most pleasurably impressed with all that I had heard and seen during my brief visit to the home of the Theosophists, and the impression I most vividly recollect of HPB herself, was of her surpassing kindliness of manner, her fearless candor, her remarkable vivacity, and above all the enthusiasm with which she spoke of the work which lay before the Theosophical Society. When, many months later, it was suggested that I should go to live at the London headquarters, then in Lansdowne Road, I was only too glad to do so.

9c. Alice L. Cleather, 1887, London [Cleather 1923, 2–4]

My husband and I, with our two children, were living at Eastbourne when HPB came over to England from Ostend in 1887. I had met Mr. Bertram Keightley shortly after I joined the Theosophical Society, and from him received help and encouragement that was invaluable—as from an older to a younger member. He knew my keen desire to meet HPB, and kindly undertook to arrange it, if possible, while they were at Maycot, Norwood (a London suburb). But he warned me that it might be a difficult matter as “our old Lady” was apt to be—well, a little uncertain and capricious at times. I did not care the proverbial two pins what she was in those respects, if only she would see me. I had a profound conviction that I was approaching a crisis in my inner life, and that everything depended upon getting into touch with her. See her, therefore, I must and would.

We were not well-off at this time, and a journey from Eastbourne to London and back was not easy to compass. I had a small sum at “the bottom of a stocking,” put by against a rainy day. This I now determined to use for my little pilgrimage. Indeed, I felt like a pilgrim, to an unknown goal; and I set out for London with no small excitement, and very definite high hopes. A friend had lent me a room for a couple of days, so I was spared that expense. Maycot was a small villa occupied at that time by Mrs. Kenningale Cook (a well-known novelist) better known to Theosophists by her maiden name, Mabel Collins, as the scribe of Light on the Path.

I well remember Mr. Keightley telling me on our way out to Norwood that, in their frequent “arguments,” she and HPB could be “heard halfway down the road”—when the windows were open! We walked from Western Norwood station and, sure enough, when we got within about a hundred yards of Maycot, I heard loud and apparently angry voices floating—or rather ricochetting—towards us down the road. I was rather aghast, and Mr. Keightley’s murmured remark that he was afraid “the old Lady” was in “one of her tempers” was not reassuring, particularly as he added that she would probably refuse to see me! She did: Nothing would induce her to, I could hear her saying so when Mr. Keightley went in (leaving me outside on the doorstep), and rating him soundly for bringing a total stranger to call at such an inopportune moment. In vain he reminded her that she herself had made the appointment, and that I had come up from the country on purpose to keep it. No, she was adamant, also angry (at least I thought so then). So I had to return sadly to London, and thence to Eastbourne, my “savings” gone, and my “high hopes” dashed to the ground. Truly I was greatly upset, as I imagined I must be “unworthy.” All the same, I by no means abandoned my determination to see HPB in the end—worthy or unworthy.

Later in the same year, 1887, I at last attained my heart’s desire, and once more Mr. Keightley was the deus ex machina. He obtained an invitation for me to 17 Lansdowne Road, and himself took me there late one afternoon. HPB had moved into the West End of London from Maycot, and we had left Eastbourne for Harrow, a northwestern suburb, so journeys were no longer a difficulty. When we were ushered into the well-known double drawing room on the ground floor, my attention immediately became riveted on the figure of a stout, middle-aged woman seated with her back to the wall before a card table, apparently engaged in playing patience. She had the most arresting head and face I had ever seen, and when she lifted her eyes to mine, on Mr. Keightley presenting me, I experienced a distinct shock as her extraordinarily penetrating blue eyes literally “bored a hole” through my brain. She looked steadfastly at me for a few seconds (most uncomfortable ones for me) then, turning to Mr. Keightley, remarked indignantly, “You never told me she was like this!”—absolutely ignoring his assertion that he had repeatedly done so. Exactly what “like this” indicated, I never subsequently discovered.

19d. Reginald W. Machell, Fall 1887 – 1888, London [Tingley 1921, 34–5]

It was in [1887] that I made the acquaintance of Madame Blavatsky in London and visited her at the house in Lansdowne Road, where she was then living. In 1888 I joined the Theosophical Society and attended the meetings of the Blavatsky Lodge, which met at the house of the foundress of the Society on Lansdowne Road, at that time. Madame Blavatsky was present on all the occasions of my weekly visits and took part in all the proceedings, answering questions as to the teachings of Theosophy and incidentally speaking on a great range of topics more or less connected with the main subject of study, Theosophy.

The thing that had compelled my attention to this subject was my intense conviction of the absolute sincerity of the foundress of the Society and of her power to expound the true teachings of Theosophy, as well as of her fitness to be a guide to one who aspired to lead a higher life. My conviction was based on my own personal observation and judgment of character, and not at all on anybody’s evidence or opinions. So, when I heard stories of a kind that did not agree with my own observations and conclusions, I was not influenced by them, but found support for my faith in Madame Blavatsky as a spiritual teacher in the internal evidence supplied by her works.

The more I studied her works, the stronger grew my faith in the reality of Madame Blavatsky’s mission and in her ability to transmit to the world the teachings entrusted to her for that purpose. It seemed to me that her devotion to the cause of Theosophy was absolute, and was wholly disinterested.

I saw that she suffered acutely from the slanders that were circulated about her former life, but I felt that no amount of calumny could turn her from the task which she had undertaken and which she was carrying out under conditions of ill health that seemed to make work of any kind impossible.

It was obvious that her self-sacrificing devotion to the cause of Theosophy could bring to herself no other reward than denunciation and vilification, on the one hand, and on the other the very doubtful support of those who were anxious to get from her some of the vast store of knowledge that was evidently at her command. While a few earnest followers honestly endeavored to lead the life and to follow the teacher, the majority of those who called themselves her followers were in reality seeking knowledge for their own gratification, rather than for the service of humanity. Some of these resented what they contemptuously called the “parrot cry of Brotherhood,” which the “old lady” was constantly insisting upon as the foundation of Theosophy, and which they considered “MERE ethics.”

In spite of the constant failure of her professed followers to understand her, and the unscrupulous misrepresentations of avowed enemies, she never lost faith in the cause nor wavered in her absolute devotion to the task she had undertaken. Suffering martyrdom both mentally and physically, she worked indefatigably, and her writing showed no trace of her physical condition, which was such as to make her life a wonder in itself and her literary achievement a marvel.

What need to refute attacks upon her character, when there remain such monuments to her nobility of soul and intellect as The Secret Doctrine, The Voice of the Silence, Isis Unveiled, and The Key to Theosophy?

  • Cleather, Alice Leighton. 1923. H. P. Blavatsky As I Knew Her. Calcutta: Thacker, Spink. Selection 19c.
  • In Memory of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. By Some of Her Pupils. London: Theosophical Publishing Society. 1891. Selection 19b.
  • Keightley, Archibald. 1910. “Reminiscences of H. P. Blavatsky.” Theosophical Quarterly (New York) 8 (October): 109–22. Selection 19a.
  • Tingley, Katherine. 1921. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky: Foundress of the Original Theosophical Society in New York, 1875. Point Loma, California: The Woman's International Theosophical League. Selection 19d.

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