Confounding or Amazing? The Multiple Deconversions of Annie Besant

Originally printed in the March - April 2002 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: MacKay, Carol Hanbery. "Confounding or Amazing? The Multiple Deconversions of Annie Besant." Quest  90.2 (MARCH - APRIL 2002):50-56.

By Carol Hanbery MacKay

Theosophical Society - Carol Hanbery MacKay is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin, where she teaches courses on Victorian fiction, Women's Studies, and autobiography. Educated at Stanford University and UCLA, she is the author of Soliloquy in Nineteenth-Century Fiction (1987) and editor of The Two Thackerays (1988) and Dramatic Dickens (1989). She is preparing a critical edition of Annie Besant's Autobiographical Sketches (1885) for Broadview Press. This article is an excerpt from her recently published book, Creative Negativity: Four Victorian Exemplars of the Female Quest (Stanford University Press, 2001). The book advances an original theory of creative negativity to help explain the rhetorical and artistic strategies of four Victorian women who were "velvet revolutionaries" in their own time: poet-photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815 -1879), novelist-essayist Anne Thackeray Ritchie (1837 -1919), actress-playwright-novelist Elizabeth Robins (1862 -1952), and activist-spiritual leader Annie Wood Besant.ANNIE WOOD BESANT (1847 -1933) engaged tumultuously with problems of personal belief throughout her earlylife. As a young woman, she was a problematic figure in Victorian England, openly questioning and then breaking from the Anglican Church to become an atheist, a freethinker, a neo-Malthusian, and then a Fabian Socialist—all the while exasperating the general public with her writings and legal and political battles. Her inner peace came only in 1889, when she embraced the worldwide social and mystical movement known as Theosophy.

After the death of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky in 1891, Besant headed the Theosophical movement in her typically controversial style for more than forty years, writing prolifically on the subject. She was the elected President of the Theosophical Society from 1907 until her death. She also participated actively in the stormy politics of India, where she influenced as much as she provoked Mohandas K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, while that land of ancient tradition struggled to free itself from British colonialism.

Some of the apparent paradoxes in Besant's life story and her complex intellectual journey can be understood by a theory of "deconversion"—the loss of confidence in one system of belief that impels the individual to adopt a new one. Because they understand the spiritual quest resulting from deconversion better than most Westerners, Indian biographers have played an important role in redressing our often imbalanced perspective on Besant's life, even if some of them have engaged in open hagiography. Too many of her Western biographers have failed to understand the process of deconversion, so they unfortunately deride her apparent lack of commitment. For example, Arthur C. Nethercot's two-volume biography (1960 and 1963), in treating Besant's life in nine stages, implies a satiric analogy to a cat's nine lives. Anne Taylor's 1992 biography is a disappointment largely because of its lack of empathy for its subject. A more balanced account is Geoffrey West's earlier (1929) text, The Life of Annie Besant. West proffers an interlude chapter on conversion, opening with the words, "With regard to Mrs. Besant's conversion to Theosophy nothing needs more to be stressed than that it was, absolutely, a logical conclusion to all that had gone before. It might almost have been prophesied, had anyone possessed intimate knowledge and subtle perception" (143).

Reading the literature about Besant leads to the conclusion that she has not been well served by most of her Western biographers, who appear not to have read her autobiographical texts carefully. Unbiased accounts are in articles like Mark Bevir's "Annie Besant's Quest for Truth: Christianity, Secularism and New Age Thought" in The Journal of Ecclesiastical History (1999), which studies her life stages "in the context of the Victorian crisis of faith and the social concerns it helped raise" (62). Ultimately, however, she may be best understood by spiritual feminism.

Studies like Catherine Wessinger's Annie Besant and Progressive Messianism, 1847-1933 point the way to understanding Besant; and the title of her dissertation, "Millenarianism in the Thought of Annie Besant" (University of Iowa, 1985), more overtly asserts Besant's progressive model in contrast to catastrophic millennialism. Of Wessinger's articles, two are especially apropos: "Democracy vs. Hierarchy: The Evolution of Authority in the Theosophical Society," and "Annie Besant and Issues in Contemporary Feminist Spirituality." Diana Burfield's "Theosophy and Feminism: Some Explorations in Nineteenth Century Biography" and Joy Dixon's "Sexology and the Occult: Sexuality and Subjectivity in Theosophy's New Age" are other feminist studies of Besant.

To read Besant's texts closely is to run the risk of being radicalized, maybe even converted to a succession of her belief systems, culminating with her grand vision for the future of the human race. The line of resistance to her siren song seems to have taken the form of personal attack and disparagement, chiefly through the charge or innuendo that she was easily swayed by others and always "needed a man in her life." These assaults uncannily resemble the jeering she had experienced on the platform and the derision of the mainstream press during her life, so it is perhaps not surprising that Besant anticipated them in her own writings. She answered such criticisms in advance for those who were willing to listen—who could discern her sincerity, consistency, and integrity.

The self-questioning that consumed her prior to joining the Theosophical Society sums up her position succinctly, for it shows her unclouded recognition of the losses entailed by her choice:

For I saw, distinct and clear—with painful distinctness, indeed—what that joining would mean. . . . Was I to plunge into a new vortex of strife, and make myself a mark for ridicule—worse than hatred—and fight for an unpopular truth? . . . Must I leave the army that had battled for me so bravely, the friends who through all brutality of social ostracism had held me dear and true? And [Charles Bradlaugh], the strongest and truest friend of all, whose confidence I had shaken by my Socialism—must he suffer the pang of seeing his co-worker, his co-fighter, of whom he had been so proud, to whom he had been so generous, go over to the opposing hosts, and leave the ranks of Materialism? [Autobiography 342 -3]

Bradlaugh, president of the National Secular Society, had been her co-worker and co-leader of the free-thought movement since their first meeting at the Hall of Science in 1874. He did not, however, share the interest in socialism that Besant later developed. The growing division in their views played out in the pages of her journal Our Corner. Besant published her exchange of views on Socialism with Bradlaugh on a monthly basis in 1887, starting in April and ending in June. He began with "Socialism: Its Fallacies and Dangers"; she responded with "Its Truths and Its Hopes." He then tried a "Rejoinder," to which she provided in the same issue "A Final Reply"—thereby getting the last word.

The passage from Besant's Autobiography cited above does not mark Besant as she is often depicted by her biographers: the antagonist who loves a good fight and always needs another cause—with its male leadership—to champion. It instead exposes a tired, compassionate "soldier," one who took the next necessary step in her evolution even if it meant hurting those she loved, such as Charles Bradlaugh, because she could not deny a greater truth.

All along, in both her Autobiographical Sketches (1885) and An Autobiography (1893), Besant had been noting and underscoring, with increasing self-insight and audience awareness, the underlying logic of her social and spiritual evolution. Yet she still realized that she needed to address directly the criticisms that continued to be leveled at her, criticisms that would haunt her life story as rendered by biographers in the many decades to come. It was in this knowing spirit that she openly asserted, "I have been told that I plunged headlong into Theosophy and let my enthusiasm carry me away. I think the charge is true, in so far as the decision was swiftly taken; but it had been long led up to, and realised the dreams of childhood on the higher planes of intellectual womanhood" (Autobiography 345).

What more could she say on this point? To say more would have been to incur the critique of her detractors that she was being repetitious and even defensive, yet history has borne out her prescience in recognizing the necessity of risking overstatement to the resistant reader. To the reader or listener willing to trace her steps, Besant was more than generous in her explanations and explications, as witnessed in her two full-length autobiographical accounts, two lectures that she delivered and then subsequently reprinted entitled "Why I Became a Theosophist," and the entire body of her writings on Theosophy, which followed during the remaining four decades of her fully-lived lifetime.

In the context of her spiritual evolution by deconversion, it is fascinating to note the tension between Besant and George Bernard Shaw, a tension that transcended Besant's death and continued to resurface in Shaw's repeated jibes at her seriousness of purpose and her ultimate success. Nine years his senior, Besant was in fact responsible for the young Shaw finding a periodical audience and financial security. In her journal Our Corner, she serialized two of his unpublished novels, The Irrational Knot (about the marriage tie) and Love among the Artists, as well as signing him on as a regular contributor to the column entitled "Art Corner."

Appearing in Our Corner over a twenty-three month period in 1885 and 1886, The Irrational Knot was not published in book form until 1905, when Shaw referred to it as "The Second Novel of His Nonage." Alluding to Henrik Ibsen's play on the subject, the preface of the book says, "It may be regarded as an early attempt on the part of the Life Force to write a Doll's House in English by the instrumentality of a very immature writer aged twenty-four." Shaw's "immature" work on marriage can be compared with Besant's 1879 pamphlet on the subject, Marriage: Its Past, Present and Future.

Shaw's note to the reader of Love among the Artists, as serialized in fourteen monthly installments in 1887-1888 and published in book form in 1900, offers a back-handed acknowledgement of Besant: "If you find yourself displeased with my story, remember that it is not I, but the generous and appreciative editor of this magazine, who puts it forward as worth reading" (Our Corner 10:265). An account of the stormy relationship between Besant and Shaw, albeit slanted in Shaw's favor, is given by Michael Holroyd in Bernard Shaw: The Search for Love; and a more even-handed one, by Sally Peters in Bernard Shaw: The Ascent of the Superman.

The early friendship between Besant and Shaw deepened, although he remained jealous of the influence of the "other men" in her life—co-workers and collaborators like freethinker and radical Bradlaugh, editorial assistant John Mackinnon Robertson (later a Member of Parliament of considerable stature), scientist Edward Aveling, editor and co-seeker William Thomas Stead, and reformer-turned-Theosophist Herbert Burrows. But collaboration was not really a concept that Shaw could fathom. He was too much of an individualist and an egotist to work in equal partnership with anyone, least of all a strong woman, in actuality a superwoman who could outperform his superman. Even in a movement that espoused cooperation, namely the Fabianism to which Shaw nominated Besant in membership, he remained competitive, and when Besant moved beyond the more moderate Fabians to embrace what Socialism fully entailed, he expressed exasperation and a sense of betrayal.

After Besant's deconversion to Theosophy, Shaw found an outlet for his contradictory feelings about her in his portrayal of the character Raina Petkoff in his play Arms and the Man (1894). Besant's idealism gets transformed into a mixture of Romanticism and realistic self-knowledge in this heroine, whose "noble attitude" and "thrilling voice" provoke both mockery and admiration from the practical but equally Romantic Swiss mercenary, Captain Bluntschli, a role that very much reflects Shaw's own position.

Shaw's shorthand notes to Arms and the Man summed up the play: "The comedy begins in the conflict between [Raina's] romantic ideas of heroic soldiering and the reality before her in the person of this extremely matter-of-fact Swiss homme de metier." In his undated instructions to the producer of a film version of the play, he wrote, "Raina must be pretty enough to be readily forgiven her affectations and little lies; and she must have some comic talent." This last comment is especially intriguing given his views on Besant's lack of humor.

Shaw's confirmation that "Mrs. Besant" was the model for Raina came in the postscript of a letter (21 April 1898, Collected Letters 2:341) sent to fellow drama critic William Archer. It is interesting to note that Shaw wrote the part of Raina for the actress Florence Farr, with whom he had one of his many theatrical dalliances; Farr subsequently became involved with W. B. Yeats, who continued to be influenced by Theosophy long after his official break with it in 1889. Incidentally, Shaw has also acknowledged that the character of Mrs. Clandon, "a leader of the sex emancipation movement" in You Never Can Tell (1898), another "pleasant play," is modeled on Besant. Torn between seeing Besant as a genuine reformer and a quixotic dreamer, he fought to resist her charisma even as he was compelled to appreciate it.

We can gain some insight into his understanding of this melodrama of male-female relations (and perhaps Shaw's personal feelings about Besant) by reading his correspondence with the actress Lillah McCarthy, who played the part of Raina in the play's 1907 revival. Ranting about McCarthy's failure on opening night to carry "dramatic indignation to the point of totally forgetting your clothes"—because she still did not "sweep with a sufficiently majestic unconsciousness of them"—Shaw launched into an even more vitriolic attack a month later, when he declaimed that "Raina has gone to bits" because she was no longer on her "high horse." "What Raina wants," he went on to explain, "is the extremity of style—style—Comedie Francaise, Queen of Spain style. Do you hear, worthless wretch that you are?—STYLE." This letter ends with the exasperated exclamation "Demon—demon—demon!" (Collected Letters 2:755 –7). Hands-on about the productions of his plays, Shaw nonetheless seemed even more carried away here than usual, as if he indeed had a living model he was trying to approximate, someone with whom he had a longstanding love-hate relationship.

In 1947, four decades after the 1907 revival of Arms and the Man—fourteen years after Annie Besant's death, only four before his own, and the centenary year of her birth—the perennially pugnacious George Bernard Shaw felt constrained to challenge an article in the Freethinker and to assert his own active role in Besant's deconversion to Theosophy. Entitled "Annie Besant and the 'Secret Doctrine,'" Shaw's response tried to rewrite the history of Besant's reviewing of H. P. Blavatsky's major work, The Secret Doctrine, at the request of the editor William T. Stead. Ignoring (or perhaps unaware of) the accounts published by all three participants, he insisted on attacking Stead as "a complete Philistine" and casting himself in the rescuing role that Besant had earlier played for him.

Yet Shaw's assessment was privately countered and Stead's sensitivity confirmed in a letter Stead wrote to Blavatsky (December 8, 1888), in which he also acknowledged that "you have a genius quite transcendent, and an extraordinary aptitude for both literature and propagandism, which the rest of your fellow-creatures may well envy." Meanwhile, Besant went on to report in An Autobiography (308 -10) that she reviewed the Blavatsky text for the Pall Mall Gazette (April 25, 1889) explicitly at Stead's behest, requesting from him as well "an introduction to the writer" so that she might send a note "asking to be allowed to call." Some first-hand accounts by Stead and Besant of their relationship with Blavatsky and Besant's review of The Secret Doctrine are reprinted in Daniel Caldwell's anthology The Esoteric World of Madame Blavatsky (365 -70).

According to his rewritten scenario, however, Shaw declared that it was he who turned the review assignment over to Besant out of concern for her "serious want of money" and the fact that it was "a huge tome which I contemplated with dismay." Given Shaw's gratitude to William Archer for doing the same for him by planting him on the reviewer roster of the Pall Mall Gazette, it is not hard to see in this account a false memory induced by his desire to repay a long-held debt to Besant for boosting his career in journalism. It was not the first time Shaw had misremembered his earlier history.

Continuing with his revisionist history about Besant's conversion to Theosophy, Shaw went on to report that he had been "utterly confounded" by reading Besant's 1889 article in the Star, entitled "How I Became a Theosophist." "I had done a trick I never intended," he confessed, though not without some pride in his apparent influence despite his face-to-face accusation that "she was quite mad." He was, however, disturbed by her jocular response, all the more so because he found it uncharacteristic: "She said she supposed that since she had, as a Theosophist, become a vegetarian, her mind may have been affected." (Shaw was himself notoriously vegetarian.) Then, after declaring that this occasion marked "the end of our collaboration" and that their "separation was entirely of her doing," Shaw launched into the oft quoted tirade that has fueled the negative rhetoric of many of Besant's detractors:

Like all great public speakers she was a born actress. She was successively a Puseyite Evangelical, an Atheist Bible-smasher, a Darwinian Secularist, a Fabian Socialist, a Strike Leader, and finally a Theosophist, exactly as Mrs. Siddons was a Lady Macbeth, Lady Randolph, Beatrice, Rosalind, and Volumnia. She "saw herself" as a priestess above all: That was how Theosophy held her to the end. There was a different leading man every time: Bradlaugh, Robertson, Aveling, Shaw, and Herbert Burrows. That did not matter. Whoever does not understand this as I, a playwright, do, will never understand the career of Annie Besant. ["Annie Besant and the 'Secret Doctrine'" 450]

In spite of himself, Shaw here paid tribute to Besant's great powers of oratory, but his "actress" label missed the point that she had been repeatedly making about the nature of her deconversion process. Not giving credence to her own accounts (again, possibly because he had never read them), he provided his own rationale in the language of the theater, his false analogy suggesting that she took on a jumbled assortment of roles, not the successive ones that she so carefully researched and agonized over.

As for Shaw's intimations regarding her "leading men," Besant apparently had a precise rebuttal in mind over half a century prior to his attempt to impugn her character:

I may add that such shafts are specially pointless against myself. A woman who thought her way out of Christianity and Whiggism into Freethought and Radicalism absolutely alone; who gave up every old friend, male and female, rather than resign the beliefs she had struggled to in solitude; who, again in embracing active Socialism, has run counter of the views of her nearest "male friends"; such a woman may very likely go wrong, but I think she may venture, without conceit, to at least claim independence of judgment. [Autobiography 316]

The integrity and independence that Shaw denied to Besant are manifest in her lifetime struggles and her own writing. That so many of her contemporaries, as well as most biographers, should fail to see these qualities speaks more about their own efforts to resist the strength of her argument and the potency of her rhetoric than anything else.

On a more constructive note, it is worthwhile to observe how Besant's spiritual journey resembles one of popular culture's most widely loved female quests, namely L. Frank Baum's story The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900). Apart from the actual connections between Baum and Theosophy, plot elements of the story—Dorothy's multiple challenges in the land of Oz, the interplay between reality and illusion, and her spirited desire to return home—all find parallels in the experiences of Besant's complex life story. Moreover, at least one literary critic reads Baum's tale as a Theosophical allegory. Specifically citing Besant's and Blavatsky's metaphorical description of the quest to find Truth, John Algeo makes the connection fairly explicit: "There is a Road, steep and thorny, beset with perils of every kind, but yet a Road, and it leads to the very heart of the universe." Algeo goes on to summarize, "Dorothy's quest is for salvation, liberation, enlightenment, freedom from birth and death" (295), adding, "If there is a 'moral' to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, this is it: we must rely on ourselves, for we alone have the power to save ourselves" (297). Besant's real strength lay in precisely that ability to combine self-reliance with a relentless pursuit of the truth synonymous with ultimate liberation.

Controversial in life and death, Besant continues to vex would-be biographers with her rich complexities. The best accounts—because fairest and closest to the experience of their subject—reproduce at length her own words. At the same time, they also support the position that no account can be definitive, that we as would-be readers of such a complex life story need to track it down from multiple sources, putting together a narrative of our own making even as we recognize that it will need to be reformulated again and again.

In trying to tell the story of the multiple deconversions of Annie Wood Besant, I have followed a winding trail of resources. Bibliographies of Besant's writings can be found in various biographies about her, notably those of Aiyar, Bennett, Besterman, Cousins, Dinnage, Kumar, Nethercot, Prakasa, Taylor, and West. There have even been Internet exchanges providing information to readers who have not had ready access to her history or writings. One such posting at http://www.indiana. edu/~libref/victoria (21 April 1997) from Teresa Malafaia at the University of Lisbon reported that she had recently supervised an M.A. thesis on the Besant autobiographies. Excerpts from An Autobiography appear in at least one anthology, namely Janet Horowitz Murray's Strong-Minded Women and Other Lost Voices from Nineteenth-Century England; they are reproduced under the following headings: "Decision to Marry" (1866), "Her Daughter's Illness" (1871), "Her First Lecture" (1873), and "The 'White Slavery' of London Match Workers" (1888). Ruth Brandon's recent study, The New Woman and the Old Men: Love, Sex and the Woman Question, provides an example of yet another body of research to be taken into account.

In addition, works contemporary with Besant to be considered for their influence, reflection of the cultural ambience, or attempt to write character from Besant's example include especially Edith Lees Ellis's Attainment (1909), whose heroine Rachel is clearly modeled on Besant and her journey. Rachel moves from philanthropy to Theosophy, wherein the sun and the moon blend the light of their mysteries to create a union "beyond motion and beyond speech" (316). Another is the children's book The Story of the Amulet (1906), written by Besant's good friend Edith Nesbit. In this text, the Queen of Babylon travels forward in time to Edwardian England, only to wreck havoc at the British Museum when she tries to reclaim her possessions on display. As she sweeps down the Museum steps, a passing journalist inquires, "Theosophy, I suppose. Is she Mrs. Besant?" Given a "reckless" affirmation, the journalist rushes off to Fleet Street to publish his article, "Impertinent Miracle at the British Museum" (128).

Much has been written about Besant because she had such a broadly based public career, but by the same token there have been more veils thrown over her activities and the assessments of them. Serving so many different agendas, Annie Wood Besant has appeared in multiple guises, which have in turn obscured her all-too-singular multiplicity. Without engaging in hagiography ourselves, I think we can join with my colleague Desley Deacon, who speaks with quiet amazement of lives so lived: "You just gaze in wonder."



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Carol Hanbery MacKay is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin, where she teaches courses on Victorian fiction, Women's Studies, and autobiography. Educated at Stanford University and UCLA, she is the author of Soliloquy in Nineteenth-Century Fiction (1987) and editor of The Two Thackerays (1988) and Dramatic Dickens (1989). She is preparing a critical edition of Annie Besant's Autobiographical Sketches (1885) for Broadview Press. This article is an excerpt from her recently published book, Creative Negativity: Four Victorian Exemplars of the Female Quest (Stanford University Press, 2001). The book advances an original theory of creative negativity to help explain the rhetorical and artistic strategies of four Victorian women who were "velvet revolutionaries" in their own time: poet-photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815 -1879), novelist-essayist Anne Thackeray Ritchie (1837 -1919), actress-playwright-novelist Elizabeth Robins (1862 -1952), and activist-spiritual leader Annie Wood Besant.

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