Art Magic

Art Magic

Emma Hardinge Britten, Edited and annotated by Marc Demarest
Forest Grove, Ore.: Typhon Press, 2011. Paper, lvi + 476 pages, $19.99

Emma Hardinge Britten (1823–99) may well qualify as one of the most influential people that no one has ever heard of. Though well known in the last half of the nineteenth century as a defender of spiritualism, a medium and “inspired” speaker, publisher, and writer, as well as one of the founding members of the Theosophical Society, she has largely fallen off the map for most contemporary students of esoteric spirituality.

Scholar Joscelyn Godwin, in The Theosophical Enlightenment (1994), helped pluck her from obscurity, as did researchers associated with the Theosophical History journal ( and the spiritualist digital history journal Psypioneer ( All of these are worth checking out.

But the foremost defender of Britten’s importance to the panoply of nineteenth-century esoteric practices (mesmerism, spiritualism, magnetic healing, and Theosophy, among others) has been Marc Demarest. In 2009, Demarest founded an online blog, “Chasing Down Emma,” which provided a blow-by-blow account of his research for a projected biography of her (

Writers are usually reticent about sharing works in progress, but Demarest took an entirely different tack. By sharing each question about her life as well as each discovery as they arose, he hoped to generate interest in his subject and perhaps pull other researchers into investigating the Emma Hardinge Britten conundrum. Searching the newly available scans of many nineteenth- century spiritualist books and periodicals on Google Books and other digital archives, Demarest and cohorts found details of Britten’s life that had almost certainly never been assembled together before.

Now, some three years later, we can judge Demarest’s efforts a success, with the publication of his edited and annotated edition of Britten’s most influential book, Art Magic. (Demarest’s biography of her is still in the works, while a similarly annotated edition of her follow-up book, Ghost Land, is scheduled for publication in 2012.)

Emma Hardinge Britten was already a well-known spiritualist when she took part in the meetings in New York in 1875 that directly led to the founding of the Theosophical Society. Though the TS’s initial purpose was in flux and hardly cast in stone, its founding unleashed a surge of curiosity about alternative spiritual traditions and practices.

Art Magic was Britten’s initial contribution to this surge. First published in 1876, the book saw print over a year before H. P. Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled, and could be viewed as Britten’s effort to lead the pack in providing grist for the esoteric mill. It presumed to provide insights into the esoteric reality behind cruder but more commonly accepted religious belief systems. Like Isis Unveiled, Art Magic drew upon numerous sources that were not always acknowledged. Demarest’s annotations identify many of these and provide a detectivelike experience for the dedicated reader.

But this is also where the mysteries begin to multiply and where Britten’s role in this work comes into question. Art Magic (whose name is an English version of the Latin ars magica) was published as being written by an unnamed European aristocrat wellversed in occult matters, with Britten credited as editor and translator. Ghost Land is attributed to the same mysterious author, with Britten again as editor and translator. But accumulating evidence suggests that she may well have been the actual author of both books.

Eventually Britten’s interest in the occult took a U-turn back into the more secure environs of the much larger spiritualist movement. Overlapping her interest in both worlds were side excursions into magnetic (galvanic) healing, mesmerism, and related nostrums of the era.

By present standards, Art Magic is a tough slog. Mix a Victorian prose style with antiquated surmisings about ancient religions and some not always dependable descriptions of magical and occult practices, and you do not have a compelling page-turner. Despite this, Art Magic was quite influential in occult and esoteric circles, with several later popular books lifting ideas and content from it.

One needn’t try to read Art Magic from cover to cover in order to understand its value. Demarest’s introduction and annotations—the latter helpfully provided as footnotes at the bottom of the pages to which they refer—draw the reader into a world of speculation— on what Britten may have been trying to do, on what was really known at the time, and on what we might reasonably believe today.

Whether you acquire this book or not, keep the name of Emma Hardinge Britten in mind, as our understanding of her pioneering contribution to an appreciation of esoteric matters continues to grow and evolve.

Jay Kinney

Jay Kinney was publisher and editor in chief of Gnosis magazine during its fifteen-year span. His recent book, The Masonic Myth (Harper Collins), has been translated into five languages.