The year 1889 was one of completion for HPB. On May 10, Annie Besant joined the Theosophical Society. July saw the publication of The Key to Theosophy, a "clear Exposition, in the form of Question and Answer, of the Ethics, Science and Philosophy for the study of which the Theosophical Society has been founded." During a rest vacation in Fontainebleau that same month, HPB wrote the major part of the devotional, mystical work The Voice of the Silence, based on excerpts from an Eastern scripture, The Book of the Golden Precepts, which she had learned by heart during her training in the East. Later that month and early the next one, HPB was on the island of Jersey, where she called for G. R. S. Mead, who was serving as her secretary, to come to read critically the final part of The Voice, which was then published in September.
In August, Annie Besant put her property at 19 Avenue Road, in the St. John’s Wood area of London, into trust as a headquarters for the British Section of the Theosophical Society. At the end of the year, HPB appointed Henry Olcott as her agent for the ES in Asia.22a. Herbert Burrows, Spring 1889, London
Beset with problems of life and mind that our materialism could not solve, dwelling intellectually on what are now to us the inhospitable shores of agnosticism, Annie Besant and I ever craved more light. We had read The Occult World, and in bygone years we had heard—who had not?—of the strange woman whose life seemed to be a contradiction of our most cherished theories, but as yet the philosophy of the book was to us but assertion, the life of the woman a career which we had no means of examining. Skeptical, critical, trained by long years of public controversy to demand the most rigid scientific proof of things which were outside our experience, Theosophy was to us an unknown, and, as it then seemed, an impossible land. And yet it fascinated, for it promised much, and with talking, with reading, the fascination grew. With the fascination also grew the desire to know, and so, on an ever-to-be remembered evening, with a letter of introduction from Mr. W. T. Stead, then editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, as our passport, we found ourselves face to face, in the drawing room of 17 Lansdowne Road, with the woman whom we afterwards learned to know and to love as the most wonderful woman of her time.
I was not foolish enough to look for miracles. I did not expect to see Madame Blavatsky float, nor did I crave for materialized teacups, but I did want to hear about Theosophy, and I did not hear much. She whom we were there to see was a stout, unwieldy lady, playing Russian "patience," and keeping up a stream of conversation on nearly every subject except the one which was just then nearest our minds. No attempt at proselytizing, no attempt to "fix" us (we were not hypnotised!), but all the while the wonderful eyes were flashing light, and, in spite of the bodily infirmity, which was even then painfully apparent, there was a reserve of power which gave the impression that we were seeing, not the real woman, but only the surface character of someone who had endured much and who knew much.
I tried to keep an open, impartial mind, and I believe I succeeded. I was genuinely anxious to learn, but I was critical and on the watch for the slightest attempt at hoodwinking. When I afterwards discovered something of HPB’s extraordinary insight, I was not surprised to find that she had gauged accurately and unerringly my mental attitude on this my first visit, and it is an attitude which she never really discouraged. If those who talk so foolishly about her magnetizing people could but know how she continually impressed upon us the absolute duty of proving all things and holding fast only to that which is good!
To go once was to go again, and so it came that after a few visits I began to see light. I caught glimpses of a lofty morality, of a self-sacrificing zeal, of a coherent philosophy of life, of a clear and definite science of man and his relation to a spiritual universe. These it was which attracted me—not phenomena, for I saw none. For the first time in my mental history I had found a teacher who could pick up the loose threads of my thought and satisfactorily weave them together; and the unerring skill, the vast knowledge, the loving patience of the teacher grew on me hour by hour. Quickly I learned that the so-called charlatan and trickster was a noble soul, whose every day was spent in unselfish work, whose whole life was pure and simple as a child’s, who counted never the cost of pain or toil if these could advance the great cause to which her every energy was consecrated. Open as the day to a certain point, she was the incarnation of kindness—silent as the grave if need be, she was sternness personified at the least sign of faithlessness to the work which was her life. Grateful, so grateful for every affectionate attention, careless, so careless of all that concerned herself, she bound us to her, not simply as wise teacher, but as loving friend. Once I was broken down through long bodily and mental strain and the wheels of my life ran so heavily that they nearly stopped. Through it all her solicitude was untiring, and one special proof of it that she gave, too personal to mention here, would have been thought of, perhaps, but by one in a million.
Perfect—no; faults—yes; the one thing she would hate most of all would be the indiscriminate praise of her personality. But when I have said that she was sometimes impetuous as a whirlwind, a very cyclone when she was really roused, I have told nearly all. And I have often thought it was more than possible that some of these outbursts were assumed for a special object. Lately they had almost vanished. Her enemies sometimes said she was rough and rude. We who knew her knew that a more unconventional woman, in the very realest sense of the word, never lived. Her absolute indifference to all outward forms was a true indifference based upon her inner spiritual knowledge of the verities of the universe. Sitting by her when strangers came, as they did come from every corner of the earth, I have often watched with the keenest amusement their wonder at seeing a woman who always said what she thought. Given a prince and she would probably shock him; given a poor man and he would have her last shilling and her kindliest word.22b. Annie Besant, July 1889, Fontainebleau, France [Collated from Besant 1893, 321–3, and Besant 1912, 32–3]
I was called away to Paris to attend, with Herbert Burrows, the great Labor Congress held there from July 15th to July 20th, and spent a day or two at Fontainebleau with H. P. Blavatsky, who had gone abroad for a few weeks’ rest. There I found her translating the wonderful fragments from "The Book of the Golden Precepts," now so widely known under the name of The Voice of the Silence. She wrote it swiftly, without any material copy before her. I sat in the room while she was writing it. I know that she did not write it referring to any books, but she wrote it down steadily, hour after hour, exactly as though she were writing either from memory or from reading it where no book was and in the evening made me read it aloud to see if the "English was decent." Herbert Burrows was there, and Mrs. Candler, a staunch American Theosophist, and we sat round HPB while I read. The translation was in perfect and beautiful English, flowing and musical; only a word or two could we find to alter, and she looked at us like a startled child, wondering at our praises—praise that any one with the literary sense would endorse if they read that exquisite prose poem.
A little earlier in the same day I had asked her as to the agencies at work in producing the taps so constantly heard at Spiritualistic seances. "You don’t use spirits to produce taps," she said; "see here." She put her hand over my head, not touching it, and I heard and felt slight taps on the bone of my skull, each sending a little electric thrill down the spine. She then carefully explained how such taps were producible at any point desired by the operator and how interplay of the current to which they were due might be caused otherwise than by conscious human volition. It was in this fashion that she would illustrate her verbal teachings, proving by experiment the statements made as to the existence of subtle forces controllable by the trained mind. The phenomena all belonged to the scientific side of her teaching, and she never committed the folly of claiming authority for her philosophic doctrines on the ground that she was a wonder worker. And constantly she would remind us that there was no such thing as "miracle," that all the phenomena she had produced were worked by virtue of a knowledge of nature deeper than that of average people and by the force of a well-trained mind and will; some of them were what she would describe as "psychological tricks," the creation of images by force of imagination, and in pressing them on others as a "collective hallucination"; others, such as the moving of solid articles, either by an astral hand projected to draw them towards her, or by using an elemental; others by reading in the astral light, and so on.22c. G. R. S. Mead, August 1889 – 1891, London [In Memory 1891, 31–5]
It was not until the beginning of August 1889 that I came to work permanently with HPB. She was away [from London] in Jersey [an island off the south coast of England]. A pressing telegram came from HPB, and I started for Jersey. What a warm greeting there was in the porch of that honeysuckle-covered house, and what a fuss to have everything comfortable for the new comer!
It has often been a surprise to me that the chief of the accusations and slanders brought against HPB have been those of fraud and concealment. According to my experience, she was ever overtrustful of others and quite prodigal in her frankness. As an instance, no sooner had I arrived than she gave me the run of all her papers and set me to work on a pile of correspondence that would otherwise have remained unanswered till doomsday; for if she detested anything, it was answering letters. I then was initiated into the mysteries of Lucifer and soon had my hands full with transmission of directions, alterations, and counterdirections to Bertram Keightley, who was then subeditor, for in those days HPB would not let one word go into Lucifer until she had seen and reseen it, and she added to and cut up the proofs until the last moment.
One day, shortly after my arrival, HPB came into my room unexpectedly with a manuscript and handed it to me, saying, "Read that, old man, and tell me what you think of it." It was the MS of the third part of the Voice of the Silence, and while I read she sat and smoked her cigarettes, tapping her foot on the floor, as was often her habit. I read on, forgetting her presence in the beauty and sublimity of the theme until she broke in upon my silence with, "Well?" I told her it was the grandest thing in all our Theosophical literature and tried, contrary to my habit, to convey in words some of the enthusiasm that I felt. But even then HPB was not content with her work and expressed the greatest apprehension that she had failed to do justice to the original in her translation and could hardly be persuaded that she had done well. This was one of her chief characteristics. Never was she confident of her own literary work and cheerfully listened to all criticisms, even from persons who should have remained silent. Strangely enough, she was always most timorous of her best articles and works and most confident of her polemical writings.
When we returned to Lansdowne Road, both Dr. Archibald Keightley and Bertram Keightley left for abroad, the former on a voyage round the world, the latter to lecture in the United States. And so their duties came mostly to me, and I gradually began to see a great deal of her alone at her work owing to the necessity of the case.
Let me see if I can give some idea of how the work was done.
To begin with there was Lucifer, of which she was then sole editor. In the first place HPB never read a MS, she required to see it in proof and then mostly "averaged" its contents. What she was particular about was the length of the copy, and she used to laboriously count the number of words in each paper, and would never be persuaded of the accuracy of my count when I in my turn "averaged" the length. If I suggested that mine was the most expeditious method, she would proceed to tell me some home truths about Oxford and Cambridge education, and I often thought she used to continue her primitive methods of arithmetical computation on purpose to cure me of my impatience and my confidence in my own superiority. Another great thing was the arranging of the different articles. In those days she would never entrust this to any other hand, and the measuring of everything was a painful operation.
Getting Lucifer through the press was invariably a rush, for she generally wrote her leader [editorial] the last thing and, having been used to it, considered the printers, if anybody, were to blame if it did not appear in time.
The first hour in the morning after breakfast will ever remain with me a pleasant recollection. Everything was so unconventional. I used to sit on the arm of her great armchair and obediently smoke the cigarette she offered, while she opened the letters, told me what she wanted done, and signed diplomas and certificates, the latter under great pressure, however, for she detested such mechanical work.
Though HPB left much of her correspondence to me, still it was not without a distinct supervision, for she would suddenly call for a reply that had not yet gone out or for the copy of an old letter, without any warning, and if there were any mistakes, the lecture I received was not reassuring to my discomfiture. One thing she was always impressing upon me, and this was to develop a sense of the "fitness of things," and she was merciless if this law of harmony were broken, leaving no loophole of escape, and listening to no excuse, with her overpowering reason and knowledge, which in spite of its apparently disconnected expression, always went home; although, indeed, the minute afterward, she was again the affectionate friend and elder brother, shall I even say, comrade, as she alone knew how to be.22d. B. Old, November 1889, London [Old 1941, 107–9]
My first recollection of HPB is in connection with my brother Walter ("Sepharial," astrological nom de plume). He was very much interested in Theosophy. Walter resigned his banking position and went to London to become a helper at the Theosophical headquarters. My mother was extremely anxious about his connection with the Theosophical Society, and naturally thought he had made a great mistake on leaving a very profitable bank employment for a nonpaid secretarial position. So I was sent to see what they were doing with him.
I have a description of [HPB’s] personal appearance as she struck me on first meeting her at Lansdowne Road, [November] 1889. This is taken from a personal diary which I used to write up:
After arriving in London we went to Lansdowne Road, and my brother introduced Mme. H. P. Blavatsky. Imagine an elderly woman, stout and phlegmatic, in an unconventional armchair, draped in a loose black gown which hid her immense proportions. A large head almost leonine and masculine in its bold outlines. Imagine two gray eyes soft as a gazelle’s, very prominent, and having a faraway vision. Further peculiarity in the personality of HPB were her hands, fingers long and tapering, soft and agile; turned outward at the ends, the nails were thin and beautifully shaped.
I told my mother when I got home from my first visit that Walter was all right. If he got nothing in the nature of a salary, he certainly was getting wisdom and happiness. He had full scope for the study of astrology in an excellent atmosphere and environment.
She was quite a character and a very remarkable one at that; she certainly had powers beyond the ordinary which she used on special occasions. Of one such occasion, I happened to be a silent witness, and on this occasion my brother Walter was the subject. He had been thinking about some astrological problem and came into the sitting room looking serious and harassed. HPB and I were having a chat; she evidently sensed something from my brother, so in a masterful way directed him to sit down on the sofa and rest himself. Then she turned to me and softly said, "Don’t be alarmed, I am going to show him what he wants to know." She only touched his thumb with the ring she had upon her finger, and he instantly fell asleep as in a trance, just as one sees a sensitive go into a trance during a performance of hypnotism. In a very short time, he was awakened and she said to him, "Do you understand what you saw?" He said, "Yes, and it is the answer to my astrological problem in Hebrew letters of fire." "Yes," she said, "that is right. But at present you must not go over by yourself." Then she again turned to me and said that she had been away from her body three times during my brother’s trance or sleep.
- Besant, Annie. 1893. Annie Besant: An Autobiography. London: Fisher Unwin. Selection 22b.
- ———. 1912. The Masters. Adyar, Madras, India: Theosophical Publishing House, reprint 1977. Selection 22b.
- In Memory of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. By Some of Her Pupils. London: Theosophical Publishing Society. 1891. Selections 22c.
- Old, B. 1941. "Memories of H.P.B.Over 50 Years Ago." The Theosophist 63, part 1 (November): 107–10. Selection 22d.