Annie Besant (1847–1933): Struggles and Quest

Annie Besant (1847–1933): Struggles and Quest

Muriel Pécastaing-Boissière
Translated by the author, with Keara Engelhard
London: Theosophical Publishing House, 2017. xii + 325 pp., paper, £10.

Muriel Pécastaing-Boissière’s book, the product of “five years of research and reflection,” is an impressive and detailed biography of one of the modern era’s most fascinating and influential women. Theosophists are familiar with the role that Annie Besant played in the Theosophical Society, but they may not be aware of her struggle for women’s rights, her battle against social inequalities, or her fight for Indian independence from British rule. This new biography, translated from the French, describes her struggles and battles in such a way as to leave no doubt that Besant was one remarkable and courageous woman.

The story of how this book came to be written is worth noting. Dr. Muriel Pécastaing-Boissière is a senior lecturer in Victorian studies at the Sorbonne, and her research on Victorian women introduced her to Besant, a prominent figure of that era. The impetus to write a new biography came about when the author realized the two main Besant biographies, by Arthur Nethercot and Anne Taylor, had serious deficiencies. Neither author, she says, was able to perceive the continuity between the dramatic but seemingly disparate phases of Besant’s life; instead they saw only a fragmented and fractured life that (to them) bordered on incoherence. Both books also suffered from gender-based biases as well as prejudices regarding Theosophy. In writing this new biography, Dr. Pécastaing-Boissière explains, “I hoped to demonstrate the underlying continuities in her long life of struggles.” This reviewer believes the author has accomplished that objective in a convincing and admirable fashion.

Today the word Victorian has a largely pejorative connotation, primarily because of the repressed sexual attitudes of the day. It is an unfortunate stereotype, because the Victorian Age produced men and women of great stature and character: Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Florence Nightingale, John Stuart Mill, Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, Alexander Graham Bell, and—Annie Besant. As author Joseph Epstein states in Essays in Biography, “The cavalcade of Victorian genius is greater than that of any other period in any other nation in the history of the world.” While perhaps not a genius, Annie Besant was clearly a woman of indomitable courage and great stature. She certainly can stand shoulder to shoulder with the luminaries mentioned above.

Sometimes it seems difficult to relate to such towering figures, but Pécastaing-Boissière does a marvelous job of introducing us to facets of Besant’s life that we may not have known about: that as a young woman, she could play all the Beethoven sonatas and Bach fugues on the piano; that despite her strong intellect she was self-taught, because of the lack of educational opportunities for women in her day; that when traveling as a lecturer for the TS, she used her spare time to study Sanskrit and the sacred Hindu texts. Other facts: Her first tour in 1875, for Britain’s National Secular Society, had her doing twelve lectures per week in places where “she regularly encountered hostile crowds” and “barely escaped a lynching in Hoyland, Yorkshire.” In 1911 she was invited to lecture at the Sorbonne on the martyr Giordano Bruno to an audience of 4000, while angry Catholic students protested loudly on the streets outside. She learned to drive a car at the age of sixty-two, and in 1927, at nearly eighty years of age, she traveled Europe, giving fifty-six lectures in three weeks. Before reading this book, I thought I knew a lot about Annie Besant, but I have to admit that I didn’t know any of this.

If you are a feminist and want to be inspired, you need to read this book; if the lives of great social reformers motivate you, you should read this book; and if you think, as I did, that you already know everything about Annie Besant, buy this book, and your admiration and respect for this great Theosophist will grow by leaps and bounds.

David Bruce

David Bruce is national secretary of the Theosophical Society in America.