The Theosophical Society in America

Esoteric World Chapter 20

Chapter 20

England, 1888

October 1888 was a significant month in Madame Blavatsky’s life and the history of the Theosophical Society. First, HPB then assumed the complete editorship of Lucifer, which she had earlier been sharing with Mabel Collins. On October 9, Colonel Olcott, who was visiting England at the time, chartered the Esoteric Section (or School) for the deeper study of the esoteric philosophy by dedicated students, with HPB as its head. HPB eventually wrote three "ES Instructions" for its members. The British Section of the Theosophical Society was also organized and chartered by Colonel Olcott at that time, with the Blavatsky Lodge as its premier group. On October 20, the first volume of The Secret Doctrine was published in a printing of 500 copies, which had all been sold even before publication. The second volume of the book appeared later in the year. At the end of the year, William Quan Judge was in Ireland and in England, where he helped HPB with drafting the rules of the Esoteric Section.

20a. William T. Stead, 1888, London [Collated from Stead 1909, 1:130–1; and Stead 1891, 548–50]

It was in the year [1887] that Madame Blavatsky took up her abode in London. Madame [Olga] Novikov was charmed by her powerful intellect, which commanded her homage altogether apart from her pretension to have explored with steady foot the bewildering mazes of the occult world. She was, besides, a great Russian patriot.

Madame Novikov wrote to me one day: "I made Madame Blavatsky translate the enclosed letter for you, as I thought it so very interesting. Don’t you think so? By the bye, she is dying to see you; so, unless you commit a murder, shall you not go there with me some afternoon?"

I did not respond to the appeal. My interest in occult studies, which had been stimulated by a curious prediction made at the first seance I ever attended, in 1881, had languished under the stress of mundane preoccupations. Madame Novikov repeated her invitation more insistently than before. Even then I do not think I should have consented to go had Madame Blavatsky not been a Russian. However, to make a long story short, I went. I was delighted with, and at the same time somewhat repelled by, Madame. Power was there, rude and massive, but she had the manners of a man, and a very unconventional man, rather than those of a lady. But we got on very well together, and Madame Blavatsky gave me her portrait, certifying that I might call myself what I pleased, but that she knew I was a good theosophist.

The pleasant relations thus established with Madame Blavatsky had unexpected results. When the Secret Doctrine came in for review to the Pall Mall office I shrank dismayed from the task of mastering its contents. I took it down to Mrs. [Annie] Besant, who had been for some time past attending seances and interesting herself in the other world, and asked her if she would review it. She grappled with the task, was fascinated by its contents, and when she finished her review she asked me if I could introduce her to the author. I did so with pleasure.

There are those who imagine that because they can crack a joke about a teacup, they have disposed of Theosophy. Madame Blavatsky, they say, "was an impostor, a vulgar fraud. She was exposed by the Coulombs, shown up by the Psychical Research Society." They say all that, no doubt, but when all that is said and more besides, the problem of the personality of the woman remains full of interest, and even of wonder, to those who look below the surface of things.

Madame Blavatsky was a great woman. She was huge in body; and in her character, alike in its strength and weakness, there was something of the Rabelaisian gigantesque. But if she had all the nodosity of the oak, she was not without its strength; and if she had the contortions of the Sibyl, she possessed somewhat of her inspiration.

Of Madame Blavatsky the wonder-worker I knew nothing; I did not go to her seeking signs, and most assuredly no sign was given. She neither doubled a teacup in my presence nor did she even cause the familiar raps to be heard. All these manifestations seemed as the mere trivialities, the shavings, as it were, thrown off from the beam of cedar wood which she was fashioning as one of the pillars in the Temple of Truth. I do not remember ever referring to them in our conversation, and it is slightly incomprehensible to me how any one can gravely contend that they constitute her claim to respect.

What Madame Blavatsky did was an immeasurably greater thing than the doubling of teacups. She made it possible for some of the most cultivated and skeptical men and women of this generation to believe—believe ardently, to an extent that made them proof against ridicule and disdainful of persecution—that not only does the invisible world that encompasses us contain Intelligences vastly superior to our own in knowledge of the Truth, but that it is possible for man to enter into communion with these hidden and silent ones, and to be taught of them the Divine mysteries of Time and of Eternity. Madame Blavatsky, a Russian, suspected of being a spy, converted leading Anglo-Indians to a passionate belief in her Theosophy mission.

Madame Blavatsky taught not merely that the Mahatmas existed, but that they were able and willing to enter into direct communication with men. Madame Blavatsky proclaimed herself as the directly commissioned messenger of the celestial hierarchy, charged by them to reveal the Path by which any one who was worthy and willing might enter into direct communion with these sublime Intelligences. I was but an outsider in the court of the Gentiles, a curious observer, and never a disciple. I cannot speak of these inner mysteries to which only the initiates are admitted.

But I can say of my own knowledge that she was undoubtedly a very gifted and original woman to converse with, a fiery, impulsive, passionate creature, full of failings, and personally the very reverse of beautiful. There she was, a wonderful and powerful personality, the like of which I have never met either in Russia or in England. She was unique, but she was intensely human.

20b. Bertram Keightley, May–June, 1888, London [Keightley 1931, 21–3]

HPB always wrote the editorial [for Lucifer] herself, and also many other articles under more than one nom de plume, and she had a fancy for very often heading it with some quotation, and it used to be one of my troubles that she very seldom gave any reference for these, so that I had much work, and even visits to the British Museum Reading Room, in order to verify and check them, even when I did manage, with much entreaty, and after being most heartily "cussed," to extract some reference from her.

One day she handed me as usual the copy of her contribution, a story for the next issue, headed with a couple of four-line stanzas. I went and plagued her for a reference and would not be satisfied without one. She took the MS and when I came back for it, I found she had just written the name "Alfred Tennyson" under the verses. Seeing this, I was at a loss, for I knew my Tennyson pretty well and was certain that I had never read these lines in any poem of his, nor were they at all in his style. I hunted up my Tennyson, could not find them, consulted every one I could get at—also in vain. Then back I went to HPB and told her all this and said that I was sure these lines could not be Tennyson’s, and I dared not print them with his name attached, unless I could give an exact reference. HPB just damned me and told me to get out and go to Hell. It happened that the Lucifer copy must go to the printers that same day. So I just told her that I should strike out Tennyson’s name when I went, unless she gave me a reference before I started. Just on starting I went to her again, and she handed me a scrap of paper on which were written the words: The Gem—1831. "Well, HPB," I said, "this is worse than ever, for I am dead certain that Tennyson has never written any poem called "The Gem." All HPB said was just, "Get out and be off."

So I went to the British Museum Reading Room and consulted the folk there; but they could give me no help, and they one and all agreed that the verses could not be, and were not, Tennyson’s. As a last resort, I asked to see Mr. Richard Garnett, the famous Head of the Reading Room in those days, and was taken to him. I explained to him the situation and he also agreed in feeling sure the verses were not Tennyson’s. But after thinking quite a while, he asked me if I had consulted the Catalogue of Periodical Publications. I said no, and asked where that came in. "Well," said Mr. Garnett, "I have a dim recollection that there was once a brief-lived magazine called the Gem. It might be worth your looking it up." I did so, and in the volume for the year given in HPB’s note, I found a poem of a few stanzas signed "Alfred Tennyson" and containing the two stanzas quoted by HPB verbatim as she had written them down. And anyone can now read them in the second volume of Lucifer*: but I have never found them even in the supposedly most complete and perfect edition of Tennyson’s works.

The poem, "No More," by A. Tennyson, Esq., written was he was 17 years old is as follows:

Oh sad No More! Oh sweet No More!

Oh strange No More!

By a mossed brookbank on a stone

I smelt a wildweed-flower alone;

There was a ringing in my ears,

And both my eyes gushed out with tears.

Surely all pleasant things had gone before,

Lowburied fathomdeep beneath with thee, No More!

*See HPB’s Collected Writings 9:321–2 for a facsimile reproduction of the relevant pages from the Gem, 1831, containing Tennyson’s poem. —D.H.C.

20c. William Kingsland, June 2, 1888, London [Kingsland 1928, collated from 18–9, 24, 258, 259, 261]

I had the good fortune to meet [Madame Blavatsky] for the first time on the 2nd June, 1888, when she was living at No. 17, Lansdowne Road, Notting Hill, and had gathered round her a considerable number of devoted workers. This visit was not, however, my first introduction to Theosophy, for I had for some two months previously been attending Mr. A. P. Sinnett’s weekly gatherings at his own house; I had read his Occult World and Esoteric Buddhism, and the early numbers of The Theosophist published in India. This literature opened out for me a new world of thought and endeavor. Theosophy struck a chord to which my inmost nature immediately responded. Here was disclosed not merely the possibility of a positive knowledge where science and philosophy and religion were only making guesses, but the whole cosmology and anthropology of this "Ancient Wisdom" appeared to me to be the only rational explanation of what we actually do know scientifically and historically of the world we live in, of our own nature as human beings, and of the literary records which have come down to us from a remote past. Underneath all this appeal to my rational faculty was an indefinable feeling—which so very many others have also experienced—that I was not now contacting this knowledge for the first time, that I was only recovering in my outer consciousness what was already familiar to my inner self. It was, therefore, with mind already eager for further enlightenment that I sought to know the remarkable woman who was the great pioneer of this modern movement for the revival of the old occult teachings and traditions. It was, in fact, the teachings and not the woman that attracted me. I desired to go to the fountain source; but I held very much in reserve any opinion I might be inclined to form as to the personality of a woman at that time accused of being a fraud and a charlatan.

There was certainly in my case no emotional approach, and I held very largely in reserve any judgment I might feel inclined to pass as to her temperamental and most marked personal characteristics. I never asked her to perform, nor did I ever see her perform, any occult phenomena. These phenomena, upon which so many placed their whole reliance and which probably made for her more enemies than friends, always appeared to me to be of secondary importance to the teachings, though I might say that they appeared to me not merely to have been overwhelmingly vouched for, but also not inherently impossible in themselves. Psychical research has made great progress since that time, and it is hardly too much to say that their inherent possibility is now scientifically demonstrated.

The most that can be said for the remarkable powers which H. P. Blavatsky undoubtedly possessed from her childhood up, and which she undoubtedly did exhibit on many occasions, is that they demonstrate the fact that these powers can be possessed and intelligently used, not in any "mediumistic" manner, but by the proper use of the trained will. But there is nothing new in this; it is an age-long knowledge in the East under the name of Yoga.

I did not see how any of the phenomena she was reputed to have performed could be any evidence of the truth of the teachings, though they might possibly have gone to prove the existence of the Masters, as also the fact that every individual possesses unknown and undeveloped psychic faculties and powers. I did consider, however, in spite of the SPR report, that her phenomenal powers had been fully testified by a very large number of credible witnesses. I naturally held in reserve a great many conclusions when I first made her acquaintance; but I have never seen any reason to go back on my first favorable impressions; and I have since then made the philosophy which I learnt from her the basis of all my own literary work.

The H. P. Blavatsky whom I knew personally was certainly not the "accomplished impostor" presented to us in the SPR report. If such a personality as is presented ever existed, she must have utterly vanished by the time I came to know the author of The Secret Doctrine.

Nevertheless, the [SPR] report [is] even now sometimes quoted as having definitely proved that the psychic phenomena associated with Mme. Blavatsky were entirely fraudulent and also that the Masters or Mahatmas from whom she claimed to have received her teachings were her own invention, and do not, in fact, exist. The report does not prove by any evidence that would be accepted in a court of law either the one or other of these assumptions.

It is apparently thought by detractors that, if they only throw sufficient mud at the woman who gave the [Theosophical] teachings to the world, they are thereby amply discrediting the teachings themselves. [As regards] the great work which Mme. Blavatsky accomplished in the literature which she gave to the world in Isis Unveiled, The Secret Doctrine, The Key to Theosophy, and The Voice of the Silence—it is by that literature and its gradual acceptance as being a fresh inflow of spiritual teaching at a time when the world was drifting into materialism, and not by the SPR report, that H. P. Blavatsky will be judged by posterity. The teachings and literary work which she gave to the world will most assuredly as time goes on place her name amongst those of the world’s great light-bringers.

20d. Alice L. Cleather, October–November 1888, London [Cleather 1923, 15–6]

In Lucifer for October 1888, a notice had appeared to the effect that an "Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society" was to be formed under HPB, and that those who wished to join and abide by its rules should send in their names. Mrs. Chowne and I, also Colonel Chowne, if I remember rightly, at once responded; but for some time we heard nothing. Then, one day, Mrs. Chowne came down to Harrow to see me—I was ill at the time—bringing the ES Pledge from HPB for me to write out and sign. She said that HPB had told her that, on our sending in our signed Pledges, each one would be "tested" (i.e., "examined for fitness") on inner planes, by the Master. Mrs. Chowne’s exact words were, "taken out and tested." Our past lives would be called up, and upon what was there seen and known of our real selves, would depend whether or not we were accepted as candidates. She told me later that, when she handed our signed Pledges to HPB, she had looked very seriously—almost solemnly—at her, and said, "It is a great trust that you have given me."

So we waited; days, even weeks, passed, and nothing occurred. I had almost forgotten what Mrs. Chowne had warned me might happen, until, one Tuesday night, (it was full Moon, I remember) I had the most wonderful experience, save one, that had ever happened to me. I knew I was myself, lying half awake, half asleep, in my own room at home. Yet I was also in an Egyptian temple of extraordinary grandeur, and going through things quite unspeakable and most solemn. This experience began soon after 10 pm, and almost exactly as a neighboring church clock struck midnight, I lost consciousness in an overpowering and almost terrible blaze of light, which seemed completely to envelope me. The next morning I recorded all I could remember in my diary, and on Thursday went up to Lansdowne Road as usual for the Lodge meeting. I was a little early, but HPB at work in the inner room must have known who had arrived, for she called me in and, turning round, said most seriously: "Master told me last night that you are accepted." Nothing more; but I at once realized vividly that my experience the previous Tuesday night had indeed been my "testing." Thereupon I related the whole thing to HPB, who only nodded several times, but made no remark whatever about it.

Mrs. Chowne told me afterwards that she and her husband had had similar experiences, adding that only a few of the first applicants were so "tested"; that it did not, in fact, apply generally.

20e. William Q. Judge, December 1888, London [Judge 1889]

Mme. Blavatsky is living with the Countess Wachtmeister in Holland Park, London, and is devoting herself to the most arduous labors in the cause of Theosophy. She scarcely ever leaves the house, and from 6:30 o’clock in the morning until evening is constantly engaged in writing articles for her magazine, Lucifer or other Theosophic publications, replying to correspondence, and preparing the matter for further forthcoming volumes of her gigantic work, The Secret Doctrine. In the evening she has many visitors of all sorts—inquirers, critics, skeptics, curiosity seekers, friends—and all are welcomed with such charming grace, friendliness, and simplicity that everyone is made to feel at home with her. By 10 o’clock generally all but intimate friends have retired, but they remain an hour or two later.

Notwithstanding that Mme. Blavatsky is beyond the vigor of middle age and for nearly three years past has been living in defiance of the leading London physicians, who gave her up long ago as hopelessly incurable of a deadly kidney disease that was liable to kill her at any moment, she never seems weary, but is the animated leader of conversation, speaking with equal ease in English, French, Italian, and Russian, or dropping into Sanskrit and Hindustani as occasion requires. Whether working or talking, she seems to be constantly rolling, lighting, and smoking cigarettes of Turkish tobacco. As for her personal appearance, she hardly seems changed at all from what she was when in [America] several years ago, except that she has grown somewhat stouter perhaps. The characteristics that are apparent in her countenance are, in equal blending, energy and great kindness.

Mme. Blavatsky now very seldom gives any manifestation of her occult powers, except to intimate friends; but I had, while over there, several evidences that she can do things quite inexplicable by any laws of "exact" science. Two years ago I lost, here in New York, a paper that was of considerable interest to me. I do not think anybody but myself knew that I had it, and I certainly mentioned to no one that I had lost it. One evening, a little over a fortnight ago, while I was sitting in Mme. Blavatsky’s parlor with Mr. B. Keightley and several other persons, I happened to think of that paper. The Madame got up, went into the next room, and returning almost immediately, handed to me a sheet of paper. I opened it and found it an exact duplicate of the paper that I had lost two years before. It was actually a facsimile copy, as I recognized at once. I thanked her, and she said, "Well, I saw it in your head that you wanted it."

The silvery bell sounds in the astral current that were heard over her head by so many persons when she was here in New York still continue to follow her, and it is beyond question to those familiar with her life and work that she is in constant receipt of the most potent aid from the adepts, particularly her teacher, the Mahatma Morya, whose portrait hangs in her study and shows a dark and beautiful Indian face, full of sweetness, wisdom, and majesty. Of course it does not seem possible that he in Tibet instantaneously responds, either by a mental impression or a "precipitated" note to a mental interrogatory put by her in London, but it happens to be the fact that he does so all the same.

Her most intimate friends in London are the Countess Wachtmeister, the Keightleys, Mabel Collins, and Dr. Ashton Ellis. Mr. A. P. Sinnett drops in occasionally.

20f. London Star, December 1888, London [London Star 1888]

It was as one from the outer darkness that I visited her [Madame Blavatsky] a day or so ago. I had a delightfully humorous little note in my pocket, inviting me to tea and warning me that I should find the writer "as easy to interview as a sacred crocodile of old Nile." The envelope of this note bore a mystic symbol and the unimpeachable motto that there is no religion higher than truth.

I was led into a little snug room on the ground floor of a substantial house, where two lamps and a gas stove glowed like a triple star. I smelt Turkish tobacco strongly, and behind the red disk of a cigarette I saw the broad and impressive countenance of Madame Blavatsky. Short and redundant, and swathed rather than fitted in black silk, she is a very remarkable figure. The dark almost swarthy face looks a little heavy at first (my immediate impression was of a feminine reincarnation of Cagliostro), with its wide nostrils, large soft eyes, and full and weighty lips. But by and by it shows itself a mobile and expressive face, very sympathetic and very intellectual. And whilst on this gross subject of personal description (a liberty for which the interviewer should always apologize sincerely to the interviewed) let me note the delicate plumpness of the hands.

A circular box of carved wood at her elbow furnishes Madame Blavatsky with the tobacco for the cigarettes which she smokes incessantly, from six in the morning, when she commences work, until she puts out her lamp for the night. Besides the tobacco box, there is only one other notable object in her sanctum, the portrait of the Mahatma Morya (a descendant, she says, of the old dynasty of the Moryas), whom she calls her Master, a dark and beautiful Indian face, full of sweetness and wisdom. This seer Madame Blavatsky has seen, she says, at various times in the flesh: in England once, in India on many occasions, and some years ago she went to seek him in the fastnesses of Tibet, a romantic pilgrimage by no means free from peril, during which she penetrated some of the Buddhist monasteries or Lamaseries and had converse with the recluses there. But Madame Blavatsky’s disciples have many stories to tell of the extraordinary way in which her Mahatma communicates with her. Letters that never paid postage, nor passed through St. Martin’s-le-Grand, are seen to flutter down into her lap. Literary quotations that she is sometimes bothered to find are put into her hand written out upon strips of paper. The manuscript that she leaves on her desk overnight is often found by her in the morning with passages corrected, expunged, or rewritten, marginal notes inserted, and so on, in the handwriting of the Mahatma Morya.

Sufficiently surprising too are the powers with which her Theosophical associates credit Madame herself. Those who live with her in Lansdowne Road see wonders daily and have left off being surprised. Once accept the theory that the psychic faculties latent within us are capable, under certain conditions, of being developed to any extent, and magical doings of all sorts become easy of credence, and belief in what is called the astral is, I believe, a cardinal article of belief with the Theosophists. But these phenomena are not witnessed by everybody, and perhaps I need scarcely add that Madame Blavatsky (though freely offering me the contents of her tobacco box) declined to work a miracle for me. Doubtless her refusal was wise, for if I had seen one of these uncanny signs with my own eyes, which of you would have believed my report of it?

We talked of many things.

"What is Theosophy, Madame?" I asked. "Do you call it a religion?"

"Most distinctly not," she replied, "there are too many religions in the world already. I don’t propose to add to the number."

"What, may I ask, is the Theosophical attitude towards these too numerous religions?"

Madame Blavatsky thereupon entered upon a long and interesting explanation on this subject, from which I gathered that Theosophy looks upon all religions as good in one sense, and all religions as bad in another sense. There are truths underlying all, and there are falsities overlying all. Most faiths are good at the core, all are more or less wrong in their external manifestations; and all the trappings of religions, all their shows and ceremonies, are entirely repudiated by the Theosophists. The conditions under which aspirants become members of the Theosophical Society are few and simple. Merely to join the Society, it is sufficient to profess oneself in sympathy with its objects, of which there are three in chief—the promotion of a universal brotherhood amongst men, the study of religions, and the development of the psychic faculties latent in man. The last-named object is for the attainment of advanced members, who have gained admittance to the esoteric section of the society.

Madame herself, in her vigorous intellectual way, is quite as dogmatic as the most dogmatic professor of what (under Theosophical favor) are called the exact sciences; and, indeed, dogmatism, both in affirmation and denial, seems the badge of all the Theosophical tribe.

It was seven o’clock before Madame Blavatsky had exhausted my interest, or I, as I hoped, her patience; and at seven the members of the household assembled for dinner.

The household consists of six or seven persons, including a young doctor of medicine, a student of law and a Frenchman, an American (the friend of Edison), and a Swedish Countess. These are all particular disciples, who receive constant instructions from the lips of the priestess and who may be regarded as well on the way towards the attainment of the elongating principle. The flourishing prospects of Madame’s new work, The Secret Doctrine, the first edition of which is already disposed of, though the volumes are scarcely out of the printer’s hands, were discussed during the meal. Madame’s years—she is bordering on the sixties—and her occasional difficulties with the language—she is a Russian by birth—do not prevent her from being the most energetic and entertaining talker at her table.

It was the evening on which the Blavatsky Lodge holds its weekly meeting, and by half past eight the sanctum, whither we adjourned after dinner, was filled with a little gathering of both sexes. The subject for discussion was dreams. The circular tobacco box having been replenished by Madame’s little maid, and the president in evening dress having taken his place by Madame’s side, the secretary of the lodge began to ask questions from a paper.

  • Cleather, Alice Leighton. 1923. H. P. Blavatsky As I Knew Her. Calcutta: Thacker, Spink. Selection 20d.
  • Judge, William Q. 1889. "Blavatsky Still Lives and Theosophy Is in a Flourishing Condition." New York Times, January 6, p. 10. Reprint in Echoes of the Orient: The Writings of William Quan Judge. Comp. Dara Eklund. 3 vols. San Diego, California: Point Loma Publications, 1975, 1980, 1987. 3:138–43. Selection 20e.
  • Keightley, Archibald. 1931. Reminiscences of H.P.B. Adyar, Madras, India: Theosophical Publishing House. Selection 20b.
  • Kingsland, William. 1928. The Real H. P. Blavatsky: A Study in Theosophy, and a Memoir of a Great Soul. London: John M. Watkins. Selection 20c.
  • London Star. 1888. December 18, p. 5. Selection 20f.
  • Stead, William T. 1891. The Review of Reviews (London), June, pp. 548-550. Selection 20a.
  • Stead, William T., ed. 1909. The M. P. for Russia: Reminiscences and Correspondence of Madame Olga Novikoff. London: Andrew Melrose. Selection 20a.
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