The Theosophical Society in America

Esoteric World Chapter 23




Chapter 23



England, 1890–1891

On July 3, 1890, Besant’s house at 19 Avenue Road, St. John’s Wood, was inaugurated as a new center of Theosophical work, serving as the European headquarters of the Theosophical Society and as HPB’s residence. That house became also the meeting place of HPB’s Inner Group, twelve of her students who were eager for more intense training than was feasible in a larger, more general gathering. HPB, being concerned for the continuance of the esoteric side of her work after her death, probably regarded the Inner Group as a training ground for a successor.

In February 1891, the British Section headquarters were moved to 19 Avenue Road. In March or April a second edition of The Key to Theosophy was published, including a glossary by HPB. In April, Annie Besant brought the last letter from HPB to the American convention, meeting that year in Boston. That same month an epidemic of influenza broke out in London, and most of the staff at Avenue Road contracted the disease, several critically so. HPB had a very high fever and difficulty breathing. On May 8, at 2:25 pm, she passed away peacefully in the company of several of her students. Olcott, who was on a lecture tour in Australia, had several premonitions of her death on that and the following day, before the news reached him by cable. HPB’s body was cremated on May 11 at the Woking Crematorium in Surrey.

With the background of her writings and teachings, her life and character, her mission and inner powers, H. P. Blavatsky was the greatest esotericist in the history of Western civilization, and a link with the lore and adepts of the East.

23a. Henry S. Olcott, July 1890, London [Olcott 1931, 4:254–6]

It was in [July] 1890 that HPB and her staff settled in the "Headquarters," 19 Avenue Road, St. John’s Wood, London, and it was here that in the following year she died. It was a large house, standing in its own grounds, which formed a pleasant garden, with bits of lawn, shrubbery, and a few tall trees. Mounting the front steps, one entered a vestibule and short hall, from each side of which doors opened into rooms. The front one on the left was HPB’s working room, and her small bedchamber adjoined it. From this inner room a short passage led into a rather spacious chamber, which was built for and occupied by the Esoteric Section. To the right of the hall on entering was an artistically furnished dining room, which was also used for the reception of visitors. Back of this was a small room, then used as a general workroom. A door cut through the north wall of the dining room gave access to the new hall of the Blavatsky Lodge; while one cut in the south wall of HPB’s room led into the office of the General Secretary of the European Section [of the Theosophical Society]. The upper stories of the house were sleeping apartments. The meeting hall of the Blavatsky Lodge was of corrugated iron, the walls and ceiling sheathed with unpainted wood. Mr. R. Machell, the artist, had covered the two sloping halves of the ceiling with the symbolic representations of six great religions and of the zodiacal signs. At the south end was a low platform for the presiding officer and the lecturer of the evening. The hall had a seating capacity of about 200. On the opening night [July 3, 1890] the room was crammed, and many were unable to gain admission. The speakers were Mrs. Besant, Mr. Sinnett, a Mrs. Woolff (of America), and Mr. [Bertram] Keightley. HPB was present but said nothing, on account of the critical state of her health.

HPB’s workroom was crammed with furniture, and on the walls hung a large number of photographs of her personal friends and of members of the Esoteric Section. Her large writing desk faced a window through which she could see the front grassplot and trees, while the view of the street was shut out by a high brick wall. Avenue Road was a veritable beehive of workers, with no place for drones, HPB herself setting the example of tireless literary drudgery, while her strong auric influence enwrapped and stimulated all about her.

23b. Alice L. Cleather, July 1890 – May 1891, London [Cleather 1923, 21–4]

[In July, 1890] HPB and the Lansdowne Road household [moved] into Mrs. Besant’s house in Avenue Road. A lecture hall had been added to [the] house (a large detached one, standing in a garden) for the meetings of the Blavatsky Lodge, both public and private. It was also used for the meetings of the ES [Esoteric Section]. This hall was at the side of the house furthest from HPB’s quarters, and she did not appear as frequently, nor was she as accessible as was the case at Lansdowne Road. Failing health had much to say to this, but before she became almost entirely confined to her own rooms she would sometimes be present at the Lodge meetings. On such occasions her presence was both an inspiration and a "terror." Once, when Mrs. Besant was in the chair, and a rather lengthy and stupid paper was being read, the whole room could hear HPB’s stage whisper of agonized appeal: "Oh stop her, Annie—stop her!"

To the ES meetings HPB rarely, if ever, came (in person, at least); and, on the formation of the Inner Group of the ES [in August 1890], she was seen even less often outside her own rooms, save in her bath chair, in the garden at the back of the house.

The twelve members of the Inner Group were six men and six women: Countess [Constance] Wachtmeister, Mrs. [Isabel] Cooper-Oakley, Miss Emily Kislingbury, Miss Laura Cooper, Mrs. [Annie] Besant, [Mrs. Alice Cleather herself], Dr. Archibald Keightley, Mr. Herbert Coryn, Mr. Claude Wright, [Mr. G. R. S.] Mead, Mr. [E. T.] Sturdy, [and] Mr. Walter Old.

The Inner Group was formed, and held its weekly meetings at 19 Avenue Road, in a room which had been specially built for it, leading out of HPB’s bedroom; into it no one but herself and her twelve pupils ever entered. We had each our own place and our own chair; and HPB sat with her six men pupils on her right, and the six women on her left-hand side, in semi-circular formation, during our instructions.*

*HPB’s instructions to the Inner Group are now available under the title The Inner Group Teachings of H. P. Blavatsky to Her Personal Pupils (1890-91): A Reconstruction of the Teachings, by H. J. Spierenburg (San Diego, CA: Point Loma Publications, 1985). —D.H.C.

23c. Esther Windust, July 1890 – May 1891, London [Windust 1950, 1–2; reprint in Canadian Theosophist, May 15, 1951, 33–4]

The first time that I saw [HPB] has made an ineffaceable impression on me. An acquaintance invited me to go with her to a meeting of members and associates to Avenue Road, London. It was a regular evening meeting. "One should see this woman," she said, "as there is told so much about her, good and bad, but most people look on her as a fraud."

So I went—without much enthusiasm—to see an interesting woman, and with a strong resolution to look well out of my eyes!

The hall was not full, and we sat more or less in the middle and could well see the podium, on which stood two easy chairs and at the side a stand for the speaker. Soon two ladies appeared, Mrs. Besant, who shortly before had become president of the Blavatsky Lodge, and another lady, not tall, but stout. "Look, that must be Mme. Blavatsky," whispered my cicerone. I could only say "Sh!" and pulled a little away.

I had seen many people in many lands, stars in their own firmament, art, theatre, politics, literature, etc.—but this—never! This small, simple woman with a shawl on her shoulders, who filled the big chair, looked smaller than she was because of her stout body. But at that moment I only saw her face with those clear, blue eyes, and the hands on the lap. I studied art at that time, and never in my life had I seen such perfect hands. But this was not even of so much importance. What overwhelmed me was the force and the impersonal love that surrounded her and radiated from her and which gave me the impression of moving, flimsy light in which faces and forms appeared and disappeared, and even scenes that came up and then disappeared again. Later, much later, I believe, I recognized many of those faces. I knew nothing then of auras, and sat looking, fascinated. I knew then that I sat in the presence of someone greater, enormously greater, than ever I had dreamt.

Scenes out of Egypt appeared and disappeared, and also from other Southern or Eastern countries, which I had never seen. I remember that I thought of her as a living Sphinx, in contact, conscious intimate contact, with the occult Mysteries of the olden time. The light remained, though the mysterious images of persons dissolving changed. I had never seen such a thing, and the impression was formidable. I heard little of the lecture. Walter Old gave a lecture about the Sun, and after the lecture one could put questions, and when the audience did not do it, the speaker himself put questions to HPB.

Later I attended many lectures, but that one remains for me a landmark. I joined the Theosophical Society and became a member of the Blavatsky Lodge, but my life was changed; it could not be the same. I had a look into another world. Had I not been so impossibly shy, I would have written to HPB and visited her to put questions. But I did not dare, and when I had to go to the continent some months later, I was very glad to get an invitation to come to Avenue Road that gave me the opportunity to take leave of her before my departure to France. But once in the room, I took a chair near the door. When HPB came in I was very glad, but could only sit and look, overwhelmed at the remembrance of what I had seen that first evening, and now by the feeling of the enormous majesty of that small figure, the Messenger sent out by the Great White Lodge to bring help to the suffering humanity of the West.

I believe that I would have remained sitting in that chair till the end of the evening, without saying a word to any one, if Countess Wachtmeister had not come to me and, with a soft urge, taken me with her to talk to HPB.

When at last I took leave, very much under the impression of her charm, she looked at me with kind eyes and said, after the good wishes for the journey, "Come to see us as soon as you get back!" I was delighted, and at the same time on the point of tears, for I knew at once that I would never see her again in that body.

23d. Countess Constance Wachtmeister, March–April 1891, London [Wachtmeister 1929, 124–5]

Things are going pretty well here [at 19 Avenue Road]. The Thursday evenings are continued, though HPB is seldom present; in fact, we rarely see her now. She shuts herself up for days together. She is having a room built out into the garden, leading from her own room; and then, I expect, she will shut herself away altogether. As she grows weaker, she finds it trying to have so many people buzzing around her.

HPB is certainly growing more and more feeble, and she feels that to be able to do any work at all she must be quite alone, so as to enable her to concentrate her energies. Her present sitting room is a passage room to the ES, and she cannot have that quiet and solitude that are necessary; and so the inner room, now being built, will be closed to all outsiders, relations included. She says that her body is now so broken and shattered that it is only by being much alone that she can keep it together; and I expect the day will come when she will shut herself up altogether, and only occasionally see those in the house. As it is, we never go near her except in the evening.

23e. G. R. S. Mead, April 1891, London [In Memory 1891, 34]

One of the greatest proofs to me of HPB’s extraordinary gifts and ability, if proof were needed in the face of the manifest sincerity of her lifework, was the way in which she wrote her articles and books. I knew every book she had in her small library, and yet day after day she would produce quantities of MS abounding in quotations, which were seldom inaccurate. I remember almost the last day she sat at her desk, going into her room to query two Greek words in a quotation, and telling her they were inaccurate. Now though HPB could in her early years speak modern Greek and had been taught ancient Greek by her grandmother, she had long forgotten it for all purposes of accuracy, and the correction of the words I objected to required precise scholarship. "Where did you get it from, HPB?" I asked. "I’m sure I don’t know, my dear," was her somewhat discouraging rejoinder, "I saw it!" adding that she was certain that she was right, for now she remembered when she wrote the particular passage referred to. However, I persuaded her that there was some mistake, and finally she said, "Well, of course you are a great Greek pundit, I know, but you’re not going to sit upon me always. I’ll try if I can see it again, and now get out," meaning that she wanted to go on with her work, or at any rate had had enough of me. About two minutes afterwards, she called me in again and presented me with a scrap of paper on which she had written the two words quite correctly, saying, "Well, I suppose you’ll be a greater pundit than ever after this!"

23f. Laura M. Cooper, April 21 – May 8, 1891, London [In Memory 1891, 3–7]

It was on Tuesday, the 21st of April, that I went to stay at Headquarters for the few days, which, owing to the unexpected events that followed, turned into a visit of some weeks. HPB seemed in her usual state of health, and on Thursday, the 23rd, attended the Lodge and remained chatting with the friends who surrounded her for some time after the proceedings of the evening were over; she then adjourned to her room where, according to their habit, members who live at Headquarters [at 19 Avenue Road] followed to sit with her while she took her coffee before retiring for the night. Saturday, she was very bright. My sister, Mrs. [Isabel] Cooper-Oakley, and I, with one or two others, remained talking with her until eleven o’clock, when she retired with a cheery "Good night all," apparently in her usual health. The next morning, however, HPB’s maid came early to my room to tell me she had passed a very restless night and had been seized with shivering attacks. The doctor was immediately sent for, and the day passed with HPB alternately in a heavy sleep, or in a state of restlessness. Late in the afternoon Dr. Mennell came, pronounced the illness to be influenza; the fever was very high, her temperature being 105. From that memorable Sunday night, April 26th, began the succession of misfortunes, the illness of one member of the household after another, which culminated in the passing away of our beloved HPB. Towards the end of Thursday the 30th, HPB began to suffer very much from her throat, and as the hours went by she had increasing difficulty in swallowing; her cough became very troublesome and her breathing very labored. On Friday morning she was no better, and when Dr. Mennell arrived he found a quinsy had formed in the right side of the throat; hot poultices were applied and some relief was gained. The morning of Sunday, May 3rd, found HPB very ill indeed, for the pain of swallowing made it very difficult for her to take the necessary amount of nourishment, and her weakness increased in consequence. How bravely she struggled against her illness only those who were with her can realize. On Wednesday, the 6th of May, she partially dressed and walked into the sitting room, remained there for her luncheon, resting for some time on the sofa; in the evening Dr. Mennell found her going on fairly well, all fever had entirely left her, but the great weakness and the difficulty in breathing caused him considerable anxiety. That Wednesday night was the turning point in her illness. On Thursday [May 7th] HPB rallied and about three in the afternoon dressed, and with very little assistance walked into the sitting room; when there she asked for her large armchair to be brought her. The chair was turned facing into the room and when HPB was sitting in it she had her card table with the cards drawn in front of her, and she tried to "make a patience"; notwithstanding all these brave efforts, it was quite apparent that she was suffering intensely. Dr. Mennell came shortly after 5 o’clock and was much surprised to find her sitting up, and he congratulated her and praised her courage; she said, "I do my best, Doctor"; her voice was hardly above a whisper and the effort to speak was exhausting, as her breath was very short. She handed Dr. Mennell a cigarette she had managed with difficulty to prepare for him; it was the last she ever made. The night that followed, her last with us, was a very suffering one; owing to the increased difficulty in breathing, HPB could not rest in any position; every remedy was tried without avail, and finally she was obliged to remain seated in her chair propped with pillows. About 4 am HPB seemed easier. [But] about 11:30 [am on May 8th] I was aroused by Mr. Wright, who told me to come at once as HPB had changed for the worse, and the nurse did not think she could live many hours; directly I entered her room I realized the critical condition she was in. She was sitting in her chair and I knelt in front of her and asked her to try and take the stimulant; though too weak to hold the glass herself she allowed me to hold it to her lips, and she managed to swallow the contents; but after that we could only give a little nourishment in a spoon. The nurse said HPB might linger some hours, but suddenly there was a further change, and when I tried to moisten her lips I saw the dear eyes were already becoming dim, though she retained full consciousness to the last. In life HPB had a habit of moving one foot when she was thinking intently, and she continued that movement almost to the moment she ceased to breathe. When all hope was over, the nurse left the room, leaving C. F. Wright, W. R. Old, and myself with our beloved HPB; the two former knelt in front, each holding one of her hands, and I at her side with one arm round her supported her head; thus we remained motionless for many minutes, and so quietly did HPB pass away that we hardly knew the second she ceased to breathe; a great sense of peace filled the room, and we knelt quietly there.

23g. Henry S. Olcott, May 9–10, 1891, Sydney, Australia [Olcott 1931, 4:300]

My first intimation of HPB’s death was received by me "telepathically" from herself, and this was followed by a second similar message. The third I got from one of the reporters present at my closing lecture in Sydney, who told me, as I was about leaving the platform, that a press message had come from London announcing her decease. In my diary entry for 9th May, 1891, I say: "Had an uneasy foreboding of HPB’s death." In that of the following day it is written: "This morning I feel that HPB is dead." The last entry for that day says "Cablegram, HPB dead." Only those who saw us together, and knew of the close mystical tie between us, can understand the sense of bereavement that came over me upon receipt of the direful news.

23h. Julia Keightley, May 1891, Pennsylvania [Wachtmeister 1893, 127]

A few days after Madame Blavatsky died, HPB awoke me at night. I raised myself, feeling no surprise, but only the sweet accustomed pleasure. She held my eyes with her leonine gaze. Then she grew thinner, taller, her shape became masculine; slowly then her features changed, until a man of height and rugged powers stood before me, the last vestige of her features melting into his, until the leonine gaze, the progressed radiance of her glance alone remained. The man lifted his head and said, "Bear witness!" He then walked from the room, laying his hand on the portrait of HPB as he passed. Since then, he has come to me several times, with instructions, in broad daylight while I was busily working, and once he stepped out from a large portrait of HPB.

23i. New York Tribune on "Madame Blavatsky", May 1891, New York City [New York Tribune, May 10, 1891]

Few women in our time have been more persistently misrepresented, slandered, and defamed than Madame Blavatsky, but though malice and ignorance did their worst upon her, there are abundant indications that her lifework will vindicate itself, that it will endure, and that it will operate for good. She was the founder of the Theosophical Society, an organization now fully and firmly established, which has branches in many countries, East and West. For nearly twenty years she had devoted herself to the dissemination of doctrines the fundamental principles of which are of the loftiest ethical character.

Madame Blavatsky held that the regeneration of mankind must be based upon the development of altruism. In this she was at one with the greatest thinkers, not alone of the present day, but of all time.

In another direction, she did important work. No one in the present generation, it may be said, has done more towards reopening the long sealed treasures of Eastern thought, wisdom, and philosophy. No one certainly has done so much towards elucidating that profound wisdom-religion wrought out by the ever cogitating Orient, and bringing into the light those ancient literary works whose scope and depth have so astonished the Western world. Her own knowledge of Oriental philosophy and esotericism was comprehensive. No candid mind can doubt this after reading her two principal works. The tone and tendency of all her writings were healthful, bracing, and stimulating. The lesson which was constantly impressed by her was assuredly that which the world most needs, and has always needed, namely the necessity of subduing self and of working for others.

The work of Madame Blavatsky has already borne fruit, and is destined, apparently, to produce still more marked and salutary effects in the future. Thus Madame Blavatsky has made her mark upon the time, and thus, too, her works will follow her. Some day, if not at once, the loftiness and purity of her aims, the wisdom and scope of her teachings, will be recognized more fully, and her memory will be accorded the honor to which it is justly entitled.


References

  • Cleather, Alice Leighton. 1923. H. P. Blavatsky As I Knew Her. Calcutta: Thacker, Spink. Selection 23b.
  • In Memory of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. By Some of Her Pupils. London: Theosophical Publishing Society. 1891. Selections 23e, 23f.
  • New York Tribune, May 10, 1891. Selection 23i.
  • Olcott, Henry S. 1931. Old Diary Leaves: The Only Authentic History of the Theosophical Society. Vol. 4 (1887–1892). Adyar, Madras, India: Theosophical Publishing House. Selections 23a, 23g.
  • Wachtmeister, Constance and others. 1893. Reminiscences of H. P. Blavatsky and the Secret Doctrine. London, Theosophical Publishing Society; 2d ed. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1976. Selection 23h.
  • Wachtmeister, Constance. 1929. "Extracts from Countess Wachtmeister’s Letters as to H.P.B.’s Last Days." Theosophist 50, part 2 (May): 124–6. Selection 23d.
  • Windust, Esther. 1950. "Personal Reminiscences of H.P.B." Eirenicon (Hyde, Cheshire, England), No. 97 (Winter Solstice): 1–2. Reprint in Canadian Theosophist 32 (May 15, 1951): 33–5. Selection 23c.
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