The Theosophical Society in America

Esoteric World Chapter 21

Chapter 21

England, 1888–1889

HPB’s years in London were both remarkably productive in publications and notably influential in the response she evoked from those who met her. One of the most important of those responses was that of Annie Besant. William T. Stead, the social activist editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, who had received a review copy of The Secret Doctrine, enlisted Annie Besant to write that review (selection 20a). The result was Besant’s admission as a Fellow of the Theosophical Society (selection 21e)—a revolutionary reversal of direction in her own life—followed by her rapid rise to prominence in the Society.

21a. Fred J. Dick, December 1888, London [Tingley 1921, 35–6]

Prior to meeting Madame H. P. Blavatsky in London in 1888 I had been admitted, along with others in Dublin, to membership in the Theosophical Society by William Q. Judge, then on a visit to Ireland. At that time I had already become familiar with the details of many infamous attacks which had been fulminated against the honor and integrity of HPB.

The pettiness and feebleness of all these stood out in clear-cut contrast with the spiritual nobility of her writings in Isis Unveiled and the magazines edited by her, and such accusations but served to strengthen one’s enthusiasm for the great principles which underlie the idea of man’s essential solidarity—to the philosophic rationale of which, demonstrated by her work and her references to the lore and knowledge of countless Teachers throughout the long ages, she had devoted her life energies and her very heart’s blood.

Such attacks brought her unremitting suffering, as affecting the Cause she labored for; yet, for us beginners in the Science of Life, they showed well the inherent weaknesses of our complex nature, and enabled us better to realize the enormous import to the race of the message Theosophy holds out—a message delivered by H. P. Blavatsky in no uncertain terms, and in fact with a vigor, an eloquence, and an amplitude of historical and philosophic detail unrivaled in known history. While iconoclastically tearing to tatters most of the generally accepted beliefs and dogmas, scientific or otherwise, she stands revealed in her writings as a Master-builder possessed of a complete constructive philosophy of practical life and equally of cosmogenesis and anthropogenesis.

Her main purpose was to permeate the world with the ideas and teaching of the ancient Wisdom-Religion primal source of all the world religions. It certainly was not to promulgate spiritualism, marvel seeking, or psychism of any kind. Let her writings attest.

She brought to both east and west the truths so long obscured regarding the great laws of karma, reincarnation, and the dual nature of man, together with a spiritual philosophy so exalted as to furnish the keynote for many successive lives of endeavor.

21b. Bertram Keightley, 1888, London [Keightley 1931, 25–7]

After a time, one learnt to realize that all [HPB’s] storming, "cussing," and general raising Cain over the smallest trifles was just a "put-up job" and also an outlet and safety valve for the over-pressure of nervous energy which flowed in such an intense stream through her whole nature.

I well remember one incident that cut deep and taught me a lesson I never forgot. The work for some time had been heavy and anxious; in addition I had just then many personal worries and difficulties, so that my nerves got badly frayed. One day HPB sent upstairs for me before breakfast, and when I came to her, she just let loose and abused, scolded, and scarified me, hitting just every one of my weakest and tenderest spots, scarifying every weakness and fault, and "telling me off" till at last she "got my goat," and suddenly I felt a surge of real red-hot anger rise within me. I may remark that the whole matter, about which HPB was scolding and carrying on so angrily and almost viciously, was a matter with which I had nothing whatever to do, and of which even, I knew absolutely nothing. But I could not get in a word of denial or explanation, even edgeways. Well, I felt my temper go and my eyes flash. On the moment, HPB, who seemed almost raving with fury, stopped dead-silent and absolutely quiet. There was not even a quiver or vibration of anger from HPB in the air. She just looked me up and down and remarked coldly, "And you want to be an occultist." Then I saw and knew, and went off deeply ashamed, having learnt no small lesson.

21c. Edmund Russell, 1888, London [Russell 1919, 129–34]

I knew [HPB] well in the last few years of her life and was often at her house in Lansdowne Road.

The whole world clamored for her likeness. I persuaded her to go with me to a photographer. What a day! Wind and rain and scurries of autumn leaves. She had no out-of-door clothes. Everything was given away as soon as brought to her.

I never could have accomplished it without the aid of Countess Wachtmeister. Appointment made, the cab was kept waiting for hours. Unaccustomed to go out, she would not move. "You want my death. I cannot step on the wet stones." Shawls, scarfs, fur were piled on. A sort of Russian turban tied over her head with a veil. Rugs spread from door to carriage. These were lifted and blown about by the storm so the Countess with the help of the coachman had to hold them down while I raised the umbrella over her head and helped her in. Afterwards the Countess told me that, when she first came to London, wife of an Ambassador from Sweden, two powdered footmen in livery followed wherever she went. "If my poor husband could know the day had come when I held carpets for another woman to tread upon, he would turn in his grave." This only smiling—she would have lain herself down for Madame to walk over.

Van der Weyde was a friend of mine. There disembarkation even more terrible! They don’t unroll red carpets in Regent Street for nothing. "Come along, Your Majesty!" I said to keep up the illusion.

Once up the stairs, she flatly refused to [have her photograph] be taken. She was not an actress. What had I brought her to such a place for? Finally she was held, as I knew she would be, by the story of Van der Weyde’s own experiments in the adaptation of electricity to photography.

"I will sit for you—only one—be quick—take me just as I am."

I bent over her and whispered, "Now let all the devil in you shine out of those eyes."

"Why, child, there is no devil in me."

She laughed, so the sitting was spoiled, but then all went well, and we got the famous likeness. She was pleased with it. I was not. She is there, but not all of her. I would have wished something at her writing table—taken by chance—in the long folds of her seamless garment—vibrations of light all around. She really enjoyed the adventure I think, for she told of being "bossed" and "carried as a bundle" for a long time, especially of the "Come along, your Majesty."

21d. Violet Tweedale, 1888–1889, London [Tweedale 1919, 51, 56–61]

I shall never forget that first interview with a much maligned woman [Madame Blavatsky], whom I rapidly came to know intimately and love dearly. She was seated in a great armchair, with a table by her side on which lay tobacco and cigarette paper. Whilst she spoke, her exquisite taper fingers automatically rolled cigarettes. She was dressed in a loose black robe, and on her crinkly gray hair, she wore a black shawl. Her face was pure Kalmuck, and a network of fine wrinkles covered it. Her eyes, large and pale green, dominated the countenance—wonderful eyes in their arresting, dreamy mysticism.

I have often heard Blavatsky called a charlatan, and I am bound to say that her impish behavior often gave grounds for this description. She was foolishly intolerant of the many smart West End ladies who arrived in flocks, demanding to see spooks, masters, elementals, anything, in fact, in the way of phenomena.

Madame Blavatsky was a born conjuror. Her wonderful fingers were made for jugglers’ tricks, and I have seen her often use them for that purpose. I well remember my amazement upon the first occasion on which she exhibited her occult powers, spurious and genuine.

I was sitting alone with her one afternoon, when the cards of Jessica, Lady Sykes, the late Duchess of Montrose and the Honorable Mrs. S——— (still living) were brought in to her. She said she would receive the ladies at once, and they were ushered in. They explained that they had heard of her new religion and her marvelous occult powers. They hoped she would afford them a little exhibition of what she could do.

Madame Blavatsky had not moved out of her chair. She was suavity itself, and whilst conversing, she rolled cigarettes for her visitors and invited them to smoke. She concluded that they were not particularly interested in the old faith which the young West called new; what they really were keen about was phenomena.

That was so, responded the ladies, and the burly Duchess inquired if Madame ever gave racing tips or lucky numbers for Monte Carlo?

Madame disclaimed having any such knowledge, but she was willing to afford them a few moments’ amusement. Would one of the ladies suggest something she would like done?

Lady Sykes produced a pack of cards from her pocket and held them out to Madame Blavatsky, who shook her head.

"First remove the marked cards," she said.

Lady Sykes laughed and replied, "Which are they?"

Madame Blavatsky told her, without a second’s hesitation. This charmed the ladies. It seemed a good beginning.

"Make that basket of tobacco jump about," suggested one of them.

The next moment the basket had vanished. I don’t know where it went, I only know it disappeared by trickery, that the ladies looked for it everywhere, even under Madame Blavatsky’s ample skirts, and that suddenly it reappeared upon its usual table. A little more jugglery followed and some psychometry, which was excellent, then the ladies departed, apparently well satisfied with the entertainment.

When I was once more alone with Madame Blavatsky, she turned to me with a wry smile and said, "Would you have me throw pearls before swine?"

I asked her if all she had done was pure trickery.

"Not all, but most of it," she unblushingly replied. "But now I will give you something lovely and real."

For a moment or two she was silent, covering her eyes with her hand, then a sound caught my ear. I can only describe what I heard as fairy music, exquisitely dainty and original. It seemed to proceed from somewhere just between the floor and the ceiling, and it moved about to different corners of the room. There was a crystal innocence in the music, which suggested the dance of joyous children at play.

"Now I will give you the music of life," said Madame Blavatsky.

For a moment or two there fell a trance-like silence. The twilight was creeping into the room and seemed to bring with it a tingling expectancy. Then it seemed to me that something entered from without and brought with it utterly new conditions, something incredible, unimagined, and beyond the bounds of reason.

Someone was singing, a distant melody was creeping nearer, yet I was aware it had never been distant, it was only becoming louder.

I suddenly felt afraid of myself. The air about me was ringing with vibrations of weird, unearthly music, seemingly as much around me as it was above and behind me. It had no whereabouts, it was unlocatable. As I listened my whole body quivered with wild elation and the sensation of the unforeseen.

There was rhythm in the music, yet it was unlike anything I had ever heard before. It sounded like a pastorale, and it held a call to which my whole being wildly responded.

Who was the player, and what was his instrument? He might have been a flautist, and he played with a catching lilt, a luxurious abandon that was an incarnation of Nature. It caught me suddenly away to green Sicilian hills, where the pipes of unseen players echo down the mountain sides, as the pipes of Pan once echoed through the rugged gorges and purple vales of Hellas and Thrace.

Alluring though the music was, and replete with the hot fever of life, it carried with it a thrill of dread. Its sweetness was cloying, its tenderness was sensuous. A balmy scent crept through the room, of wild thyme, of herbs, of asphodel and the muscadine of the wine press. It enwrapt me like an odorous vapor.

The sounds began to take shape and gradually mold themselves into words. I knew I was being courted with subtlety and urged to fly out of my house of life.

My soul seemed to strain at the leash. Should I let go? Like a powerful opiate the allurement enfolded me, yet from out its thrall a small insistent voice whispered, "Caution! Where will you be led: Supposing you yield your will, would it ever be yours again?"

Now my brain was seized with a sense of panic and weakness. The music suddenly seemed replete with gay sinfulness and insolent conquest. It spoke the secrets which the nature myth so often murmurs to those who live amid great silences, of those dread mysteries of the spirit which yet invest it with such glory and wonderment.

With a violent reaction of fear, I rose suddenly, and as I did so, the whole scene was swept from out the range of my senses. I was back once more in Blavatsky’s room with the creeping twilight and the far off hoarse roar of London stealing in at the open window. I glanced at Madame Blavatsky. She had sunk down in her chair, and she lay huddled up in deep trance. She had floated out with the music into a sea of earthly oblivion. Between her fingers she held a small Russian cross.

I knew that she had thrust me back to the world which still claimed me, and I went quietly out of the house into the streets of London.

On another occasion when I was alone with Madame Blavatsky, she suddenly broke off our conversation by lapsing into another language, which I supposed to be Hindustani. She appeared to be addressing some one else, and on looking over my shoulder I saw we were no longer alone. A man stood in the middle of the room. I was sure he had not entered by the door, window, or chimney, and as I looked at him in some astonishment, he salaamed to Madame Blavatsky and replied to her in the same language in which she had addressed him.

I rose at once to leave her, and as I bade her good-by she whispered to me, "Do not mention this." The man did not seem aware of my presence; he took no notice of me as I left the room. He was dark in color and very sad looking, and his dress was a long, black cloak and a soft black hat, which he did not remove, pulled well over his eyes. I found out that evening that none of the general staff were aware of his arrival, and I saw him no more.

21e. Annie Besant, Spring 1889, London [Besant 1893, 308–13]

Since 1886 there had been slowly growing up a conviction that my philosophy was not sufficient, that life and mind were other than, more than, I had dreamed. Psychology was advancing with rapid strides; hypnotic experiments were revealing unlooked-for complexities in human consciousness. I studied the obscurer sides of consciousness, dreams, hallucinations. The phenomena of clairvoyance, clairaudience, thought-reading were found to be real. I finally convinced myself that there was some hidden thing, some hidden power, and resolved to seek until I found, and by the early spring of 1889 I had grown desperately determined to find at all hazards what I sought. At last, sitting alone in deep thought as I had become accustomed to do after the sun had set, filled with an intense but nearly hopeless longing to solve the riddle of life and mind, I heard a Voice that was later to become to me the holiest sound on earth, bidding me take courage for the light was near. A fortnight passed, and then Mr. [W. T.] Stead gave into my hands two large volumes. "Can you review these? My young men all fight shy of them, but you are quite mad enough on these subjects to make something of them." I took the books; they were the two volumes of The Secret Doctrine, written by H. P. Blavatsky.

Home I carried my burden, and sat me down to read. As I turned over page after page, the interest became absorbing; but how familiar it seemed; how my mind leapt forward to presage the conclusions, how natural it was, how coherent, how subtle, and yet how intelligible. I was dazzled, blinded by the light in which disjointed facts were seen as parts of a mighty whole, and all my puzzles, riddles, problems, seemed to disappear.

I wrote the review, and asked Mr. Stead for an introduction to the writer, and then sent a note asking to be allowed to call. I received the most cordial of notes, bidding me come, and in the soft spring evening, Herbert Burrows and I—for his aspirations were as mine on this matter—walked from Notting Hill Station, wondering what we should meet, to the door of 17 Lansdowne Road. A pause, a swift passing through hall and outer room, through folding doors thrown back, a figure in a large chair before a table, a voice, vibrant, compelling. "My dear Mrs. Besant, I have so long wished to see you," and I was standing with my hand in her firm grip, and looking for the first time in this life straight into the eyes of HPB. I was conscious of a sudden leaping forth of my heart—was it recognition?—and then, I am ashamed to say, a fierce rebellion, a fierce withdrawal, as of some wild animal when it feels a mastering hand. I sat down, after some introductions that conveyed no ideas to me, and listened. She talked of travels, of various countries, easy brilliant talk, her eyes veiled, her exquisitely molded fingers rolling cigarettes incessantly. Nothing special to record, no word of occultism, nothing mysterious, a woman of the world chatting with her evening visitors. We rose to go, and for a moment the veil lifted, and two brilliant, piercing eyes met mine, and with a yearning throb in the voice: "Oh, my dear Mrs. Besant, if you would only come among us!" I felt a well-nigh uncontrollable desire to bend down and kiss her, under the compulsion of that yearning voice, those compelling eyes, but with a flash of the old unbending pride and an inward jeer at my own folly, I said a commonplace polite good-bye, and turned away with some inanely courteous and evasive remarks. "Child," she said to me long afterwards, "your pride is terrible; you are as proud as Lucifer himself."

Once again I went, and asked about the Theosophical Society, wishful to join, but fighting against it. For I saw, distinct and clear—with painful distinctness, indeed—what that joining would mean. I had largely conquered public prejudice against me by my work on the London School Board. Was I to plunge into a new vortex of strife, and make myself a mark for ridicule—worse than hatred—and fight again the weary fight for an unpopular truth? Must I turn against materialism, and face the shame of publicly confessing that I had been wrong, misled by intellect to ignore the Soul?—what would be the look in Charles Bradlaugh’s eyes when I told him that I had become a Theosophist? The struggle was sharp and keen. And so it came to pass that I went again to Lansdowne Road to ask about the Theosophical Society. H. P. Blavatsky looked at me piercingly for a moment. "Have you read the report about me of the Society for Psychical Research?" "No, I never heard of it, so far as I know." "Go and read it, and if, after reading it, you come back—well." And nothing more would she say on the subject, but branched off to her experiences in many lands.

I borrowed a copy of the report, read and reread it. Quickly I saw how slender was the foundation on which the imposing structure was built: the continual assumptions on which conclusions were based, the incredible character of the allegations, and—most damning fact of all—the foul source from which the evidence was derived. Everything turned on the veracity of the Coulombs, and they were self-stamped as partners in the alleged frauds. Could I put such against the frank, fearless nature that I had caught a glimpse of, against the proud fiery truthfulness that shone at me from the clear, blue eyes, honest and fearless as those of a noble child? Was the writer of The Secret Doctrine this miserable impostor, this accomplice of tricksters, this foul and loathsome deceiver, this conjuror with trapdoors and sliding panels? I laughed aloud at the absurdity and flung the report aside with the righteous scorn of an honest nature that knew its own kin when it met them, and shrank from the foulness and baseness of a lie. The next day saw me at the Theosophical Publishing Company’s office at 7 Duke Street, Adelphi, where Countess Wachtmeister—one of the lealest of HPB’s friends—was at work, and I signed an application to be admitted as fellow of the Theosophical Society.

On receiving my diploma, I betook myself to Lansdowne Road, where I found HPB alone. I went over to her, bent down, and kissed her, but said no word. "You have joined the Society?" "Yes," "You have read the report?" "Yes." "Well?" I knelt down before her and clasped her hands in mine, looking straight into her eyes. "My answer is, will you accept me as your pupil, and give me the honor of proclaiming you my teacher in the face of the world?" Her stern, set face softened, the unwonted gleam of tears sprang to her eyes; then, with a dignity more regal, she placed her hand upon my head. "You are a noble woman. May Master bless you."

  • Besant, Annie. 1893. Annie Besant: An Autobiography. London: Fisher Unwin. Selection 21e.
  • Keightley, Archibald. 1931. Reminiscences of H.P.B. Adyar, Madras, India: Theosophical Publishing House. Selection 21b.
  • Russell, Edmund. 1919. "Isis Unveiled." Theosophical Outlook (San Francisco, CA), April 26. Selection 21c.
  • 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 21a.
  • Tweedale, Violet. 1919. Ghosts I Have Seen and Other Psychic Experiences. New York: Frederick A. Stokes. Selection 21d.
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