Annie Besant

(History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: After her early work promoting radical reform in England, Besant became leader of the Theosophical Society and was active in the nationalist movement in India.

Early Life

Annie Wood Besant was born on October 1, 1847, in London, England, the second of three children of William and Emily Morris Wood. Despite her English birth, Besant had a strong sense of Irish heritage, because her mother was Irish and her father half Irish. William Wood, although trained as a physician, engaged in commerce in London. He died when Besant was five, a loss the trauma of which was compounded by the death several months later of her baby brother.

When Besant was eight, her impoverished widowed mother moved the family to Harrow so that her ten-year-old son Henry could more cheaply attend that prestigious public school. Shortly after the move, Miss Ellen Marryat, youngest sister of the novelist Frederick Marryat, offered to take Annie into her home in Devon to educate her. Although heartsick to be separated from her adored mother for the eight years she spent with Miss Marryat, Besant received excellent training, especially in literary skills, which enabled her to produce throughout her life a prodigious volume of writings for her many causes. During these adolescent years, she was intensely religious. Reading stories of early Christian martyrs, she longed to follow in their steps. She fasted regularly, tortured herself with self-flagellation, and engaged in other extremist behavior, a pattern which became characteristic of her personality. A person of deep if changing beliefs, she would always commit herself enthusiastically and wholeheartedly to her convictions, with the ever-present, self-proclaimed wish for martyrdom.

At age sixteen, Besant returned to her mother’s home. She was a beautiful young woman, of small stature, with brown hair and eyes. She had, however, no romantic fantasies, for her emotional life was absorbed by her passionate love for Jesus Christ and for her mother. She nevertheless married, in 1867, the Reverend Frank Besant, younger brother of the essayist Walter Besant, because she believed that she could best serve God as a clergyman’s wife.

The marriage was a disaster. Annie, who married with no knowledge of sex, was shocked by her wedding night. Self-willed and rebellious, she also resented submitting to her domineering husband’s authority. Her unhappiness was only somewhat alleviated by her success in selling several stories to the Family Herald and by the births of her son Digby, in 1869, and daughter Mabel, in 1870. She also found satisfaction in parish work when Frank Besant became vicar at Sibsey, a village in Lincolnshire. The marriage ended when Annie lost her religious faith after the grave illness of her children, whose sufferings made her doubt her belief in a loving and merciful God. The Besants were legally separated in 1873. She moved to London to make her way on her own with her daughter, while her son remained in the custody of the Reverend Mr. Besant.

Life’s Work

Annie Besant’s public career went through many distinct stages. After her loss of Christian faith and separation from her husband, she came under the influence of England’s leading freethinker, Charles Bradlaugh. In 1874, she joined the National Secular Society and soon became one of its vice presidents. She edited with Bradlaugh the freethinking National Reformer, and, from 1883 to 1889, she also edited the magazine Our Corner. In these journals, she wrote in support of atheism, women’s rights, Irish Home Rule, land-tenure reform, and against British imperialism. Besant propagated her beliefs not only in written form but also as a public speaker, an activity not considered respectable for women at that time. Her rich, vibrant voice made her a great success, and she took intense pleasure in the power she had over her audiences. Ever eager to absorb new knowledge, the energetic Besant also found time to enroll in courses in science at London University.

Besant’s most controversial work with Bradlaugh was their republication in 1877 of Charles Knowlton’s 1832 treatise on birth control, Fruits of Philosophy. They were arrested, and, in a sensational trial, they were convicted of publishing obscene literature, although their conviction was dismissed on appeal on a technicality. The defiant Besant then published her own birth-control pamphlet, Law of Population: Its Consequence and Its Bearing upon Human Conduct and Morals (1881). She was the first English woman to advocate publicly the use of birth-control methods. Even though she was not prosecuted for her pamphlet, the controversy did cause her to lose custody of her daughter.

Besant’s humanitarian concerns led her in 1885 to become a Socialist. Joining the moderate Fabian Society, she contributed an article to the influential 1889 Fabian Essays in Socialism, edited by her close friend George Bernard Shaw. She later also joined the revolutionary Marxist Social Democratic Federation. Ever concerned with theatrical display, she began to dress in proletarian garb and always wore a piece of red clothing to show her Socialist affiliation. This...

(The entire section is 2159 words.)