The course Annie Besant’s extraordinary life would take, Anne Taylor suggests, was determined on the day her father died, in London, in 1852. Her mother moved the family to genteel Harrow, where boys from the famous school lodged in the house. Here, a desire for the male world of learning they could enter rubbed off on Annie. At the age of eight, her education was entrusted to a stranger, Ellen Marryat, a brilliant woman of independent means attracted by Annie’s potential.
Taylor rightly stresses the importance of Marryat in shaping Annie’s life. She developed in Annie considerable powers of observation, but also, through “finishing” touches such as foreign travel, kept alive in her a streak of idealistic romanticism, inherited from her Irish mother. Visiting Catholic countries also brought home to her the power of images and symbols, an interest fostered, when she returned at the age of fifteen to her mother’s house, by reading in the Fathers of the Church in Harrow School Library—learning meant for scholarly clerics.
Annie brushed aside the doubts it bred. Unquestioningly, she accepted the attentions of a “serious” young clergyman, Frank Besant, whom her mother encouraged. They were married on December 21, 1867. Annie was twenty, soft-eyed, shapely, brilliant, and ignorant; she had powers and ambitions that she could not admit even to herself. “She could not be the Bride of Heaven, and therefore became the bride of Mr. Frank Besant,” wrote her journalist friend W. T. Stead years later. “He was hardly an adequate substitute.” A son, Digby, was born a year later.
Soon Frank began to show Annie exactly what a clergyman husband expected in a dutiful wife. It was with a sinking heart that she realized that even the thirty shillings she earned for a flimsy short story belonged to him, as her “owner.” She felt “degraded by an intolerable sense of bondage.” Resistance to his efforts, as she put it, to break her in merged with an eruption of doubt in God when illness nearly killed their daughter Mabel.
Annie appealed for spiritual help to one of the most scandalous figures of the Victorian church—the Reverend Charles Voysey, who had lost his position and founded a “Theistic Church” in London. Through him she met Thomas Scott, pub- lisher of a series of liberal theological pamphlets. She returned to Sibsey ready to challenge authority. A whim seized her one day to enter the pulpit and preach a sermon to the empty church: This was what it was like to enjoy her husband’s power. Next came writing: Her pamphlet On the Deity of Jesus of Nazareth was published by Scott in 1873, with the inscription “By the wife of a beneficed clergyman.” Frank was outraged. According to Annie, he threatened to shoot her. She left, taking Mabel with her. In its time, this was an act that took the recklessness of a fanatic; without faith, home, husband, or reputation, she was nothing, an abject pariah. But she had truth on her side, as she saw it.
Struggling in London, Annie was devastated by another blow: Her mother died suddenly in 1874. She turned to work. Under the great dome of the British Museum Reading Room, she could stay warm, earn money, and forget hunger in busying herself on the series of pamphlets Scott commissioned from her. He was shocked by her next scheme—to become a public lecturer. But Annie was set on it: The platform was not just unwomanly—it was lucrative. Every aspiring orator, she was told, must hear the notorious atheist and republican Charles Bradlaugh speak at the Hall of Science. The experience was decisive. Within months, she was his lieutenant, rapidly elevated to vice presidency of the National Secular Society (NSS), writing for Bradlaugh’s National Reformer, a convinced atheist, and a speaker of power herself, making her debut on February 25, 1875. Seeing the faces beneath her from the platform, she perceived herself as “ruler of the crowd, master of myself.”
Very quickly Annie embroiled the “chief” in a scandal of national proportions. A dry and outdated pamphlet on birth control, The Fruits of Philosophy, had suddenly attracted prosecution for obscenity in Bristol. Against the wishes of her NSS colleagues, she persuaded Bradlaugh to undertake its republication, to test the law, and to assert the right of the poor to contraceptive information. Like Bradlaugh, she undertook to speak in her own defense in court—an unwarrantable self-display on the part of a woman. The case was won, on a technicality. Annie had become the first woman in history ever publicly to advocate birth control, claiming the right to knowledge that society forbade women, and in so doing had branded herself forever. The immediate result was a lawsuit with her husband and its inevitable result, her loss of her children: She was unfit to be a mother, ruled the judge, because “One cannot expect modest women to associate with her.”
In 1880, Annie achieved another goal, becoming one of the first women to take a degree through London University, winning first-class honors in botany and animal physiology. In the same year, Bradlaugh commenced the greatest struggle of his career. Elected to Parliament from Northampton (at the fourth attempt), he was refused his seat because he could not swear a religious oath of allegiance. It was to take six years and three more elections to give it to him, years that would also lose him Annie’s support.
Bradlaugh had opened the columns of the National...
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