Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2246
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 Reformer and the platform of the Hall of Science to debate with the new socialist groups that had sprung into being in the wake of widespread disappointment with the Liberal government that had swept into office in 1880. In socialism’s collectivist creed, which thus gained considerable publicity, Annie saw her ideal of brotherhood come to light, and in socialism’s emphasis on social action a new arena for her talents. After much heart-searching—for socialists were bitterly hostile to Bradlaugh—she joined the Fabian Society, a high-minded group formed in 1883.
By 1885, she was at the forefront of the movement, a member of the executive, giving space in her own journal Our Corner to Fabian news, and sneered at by some of her new colleagues for her enthusiasm (“Joan of Arc of the Proletariat,” one called her). Perhaps her greatest hour as a social reformer came with her heroic leadership of the Match Girls’ Strike, in 1888, which won decent working conditions and a living wage for women whose employers literally had allowed them to rot away in close rooms full of dangerous phosphorus fumes.
Shortly afterward, Annie left the Fabians to join the more radical Social Democratic Federation. Partly at their urging, she stood for the new London School Board and won a landslide victory in the December, 1888, elections. She was the board’s first woman member. “Ten years ago under a cruel law,” she wrote, “Christian bigotry robbed me of my little child,” but “now the care of the 763,680 children of London is placed in my hands.” In the three years she served, she did sterling service in the cause of free and nonreligious education for the poor.
There was a lack in her life—of certainty, of personal ease, and of reconciliation between her sacrificial and apostolic spirit and her analytical mind. A new movement, half religious, half occult, and with deep roots in India, now claimed the ability to meet that lack, to establish the brotherhood of humanity, and—through secret knowledge of the secret laws of nature—to bridge the gulf between revelation and science into which so many Victorians had plunged despairing: Theosophy. Its charismatic Russian founder, Madame Blavatsky, had marked down well-known Annie Besant’s as a mind destined to lead the movement and to lend it some of the credibility its beliefs defied: automatic writing, astral “Masters” (“Mahatmas”), “karma,” and reincarnation. As Taylor explains, step by step, Annie first mocked, then read deeply in Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine (1888), weighed the “proofs,” felt the spell of Blavatsky’s personality, and emerged to announce her conversion. In Theosophy she recognized “the means of realizing the dreams of childhood on the higher plane of intellectual womanhood.”
It may be, too, that in Theosophy’s ideal of celibacy she found a kind of peace. Taylor carefully unravels the tangled web of Annie’s blighted love life, from the time of her marriage—when the facts of life and gender were first revealed to her with shocking abruptness. She argues convincingly that Annie’s intensely close relationship with Bradlaugh remained platonic (despite outward appearances, and whatever more she may have wanted), and that her liaisons with figures such as playwright George Bernard Shaw were modeled on a chivalric ideal. The one man to whom she was erotically attracted was W. T. Stead, campaigning editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, and he rejected her advances.
In 1889, Annie undertook a hectic lecturing tour in Ireland, speaking on three separate subjects: Theosophy, socialism, and secularism. A year later, Bradlaugh was dead, and she broke her ties with the socialists. In 1893, she set sail at last for India. She was met with drums and flowers, and she walked in procession behind two white bulls. The prophetess of many messages had found her home.
Established in the holy city of Benares, she rapidly proved to be a powerful force in the reawakening of Hindu pride, advocating Indian self-rule within the Empire. Her real objective was millennial and visionary: to bring about a Theocratic state under the firm and wise rule of which all people would live as brothers and sisters. She learned Sanskrit, established the Central Hindu College, and set up newspapers and a publishing operation. In 1909, the death of her coleader released her from his ban on political involvement. She was elected president of the Theosophical Society. Her position, her increasingly dogmatic belief, and the support of Indian associates now allowed her openly to pursue power. The same year, she adopted the boy Krishnamurti, encountered by chance on a beach, in whom she recognized Theosophy’s new World Teacher.
She was received—and closely watched—by the viceroy of India; maverick and inflammatory politicking in the turbulent subcontinent, which England truly held only by consent, earned her the soubriquet “naughty Annie” from the governor of Bombay. She used the methods Bradlaugh had taught her—go to the villages, speak directly to the people. In so doing, she prepared the way for Gandhi, to whom she gave the title “Mahatma.” She joined the Indian National Congress in 1913, was threatened with deportation in 1915, was interned in 1917, and for a few months after this “martyrdom,” as the new president-elect of Congress, briefly had supreme power in India in her grasp. When she revealed herself to the crowds as priestess and lawgiver instead of democratic politician—as Taylor remarks, a huge miscalculation—they turned elsewhere. The hectic activity of the next ten years—extraordinary for a woman in her seventies—produced nothing of moment. When, in 1929, Krishnamurti rejected the role in which she had cast him, her life was over. Membership in the Theosophical movement, which had peaked at forty-five thousand in 1928, began to decline. Four years later, she died.
“She ‘saw herself’ as a priestess above all,” said George Bernard Shaw. “That was how Theosophy held her to the end.” As much as this, she was an orator in an age electrified by oratory, an age in which women, like children, were meant to be seen and not heard. Her public ambition disoriented and even disgusted her contemporaries partly because she was a woman, partly because it was difficult to predict what would be its next object. Above all, she meant a great deal to a great many people, especially in India, at a time when the initiatives and symbols she provided had crucial importance. For all her flaws, she deserves a better biography.
Although Taylor marshals her facts competently (some disquieting inaccuracies aside), a fundamental lack of sympathy with her subject drags this book down. The writing is lackluster. Taylor has a distaste for the romantic, the tasteless, and the dramatic, but these were all part of the person whose story she tells. When Taylor tells us that Annie was genuinely convinced of the truths of Theosophy, her tone invites us to suspect fakery; Annie is lashed for wanting to “gratify” a “desire for self-sacrifice”; and it seems both harsh and naïve, given the nature of late Victorian radical politics, backhandedly to condemn her for “allow[ing] her distress at losing Mabel to be paraded in the interest of propaganda for the secularist cause.” It is also now unfashionable to respect outsiders who throw themselves into the life and affairs of another country: Because Annie Besant could not be an “authentic” Indian, it is implied, she was merely an intruder and a power-monger. The Indian verdict might be less negative. Finally, a new biography of Annie Besant requires a kind of contextualization that Taylor refuses to provide, in the situation of women from the 1870’s to the 1890’s, and demands understanding both for the dead ends they ran into and for their need for what Taylor derisively calls “masculine associates.” It is not fair or helpful to judge Besant by the standards of the late twentieth century. Her peregrinations helped form those standards.
Sources for Further Study
The Observer. March 29, 1992, p. 63.
New Statesman and Society. V, May 1, 1992, p. 38.
The Times Literary Supplement. June 19, 1992, p. 8.
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