Carol Hanbery MacKay, “A Spiritual Materialist Turns Material Spiritualist: Annie Besant Rewrites Her Secularist Years, 1889 and 1891”


Examining the published texts of two lectures delivered by Annie Besant, “Why I Became a Theosophist” (4 and 11 August 1889) and “1875 to 1891: Fragment of Autobiography” (30 August 1891), this entry argues that they constitute a little-known bridge between her Secular and Theosophical years. Written during the interim between Besant’s only two full-length self-accountings, Autobiographical Sketches (1885) and An Autobiography (1893), the lectures provide the grounds for discovering her continuity as a spiritual materialist and a material spiritualist, thereby also bringing to the fore her effort to maintain an ongoing dialogue between science and religion.

Infamous as an atheist and as a champion of birth control, Annie Wood Besant (1847-1933) gained further notoriety when she converted to Theosophy in 1889. Charles Bradlaugh had helped her recognize her agnosticism and incipient atheism when she joined the National Secular Society (NSS) in 1874, and for the next fifteen years she was a vocal materialist on the public platform and in the pages of the chief periodical voice of the NSS, the weekly National Reformer: Journal of Radicalism and Freethought. Twice during this period Besant gained nation-wide attention with her legal struggles, first when she fought for the right to publish information about contraception (1877-78), and second when she lost custody of her daughter to her clergyman husband because the mere fact of her atheism led the judge to declare her an unfit mother (1878-79). This is the climax to the story she relates in her first major exercise in self-writing, Autobiographical Sketches (1885), but for most modern-day readers of her life-story her 1893 post-conversion book publication, An Autobiography, has provided the only readily available personal assessment of her life.

Between her conversion to Theosophy in 1889 and the writing of her second and only other full-length autobiography (which the Theosophical Society has kept in reprint since 1893), she twice revisited and reevaluated her secularist years, each time vividly depicting the tension she continued to feel between her materialist and spiritual selves. Two key lectures—the first delivered in two parts and both complete texts subsequently published as freestanding pamphlets—escape the notice of all but the most informed scholars interested in Besant’s life and influence. In the first half of the first accounting, Why I Became a Theosophist (4 August 1889), Besant compellingly explains: “There is a sore need . . . in our unbrotherly, anti-social civilisation, of this distinct affirmation of a brotherhood as broad as Humanity itself” (14). Then, in the text of her farewell address to materialists at the Hall of Science, 1875 to 1891: Fragment of Autobiography (30 August 1891), she fills in still more gaps about her spiritual journey, reiterating her emphasis on open-mindedness in the pursuit of truth and observing in an “author’s note,” “I shall speak to any Branches of the National Secular Society, as I do to Spiritualists and others with whom I disagree, so long as they do not claim a censorship over what I say” (14). I contend that there is more continuity between Besant’s Secularist years and her Theosophical perspective than is usually recognized—and that these two intermediate texts between her two full-length autobiographical endeavors bring to the fore the interwoven elements of her spiritual materialism and her material spiritualism, which are ultimately united in the non-dualism that constitutes the arc of her life journey.

While Besant’s materialist compatriots–Secularists and Socialists alike—felt abandoned and betrayed by Besant’s conversion to Theosophy, her fellow Theosophists welcomed her without questioning the grounds of her belief system. Neither camp listened to or read closely her efforts to build a bridge between them during the interim between her conversion and the openly Theosophical An Autobiography. Materialism and spiritualism were assumed to be incompatible; the concept of either a spiritual materialist or a material spiritualist constituted an oxymoron. In general, the divide between science and religion appeared absolute to proponents of either camp, yet Besant took on the challenge of considering them within a dynamic dialectical discourse that she hoped might eventually blend and harmonize their disparate elements. After 1891, she and Theosophy were increasingly cordoned off from the ongoing developments and disputes of modern science; relocating to map iconIndia and being elected international President of the Theosophical Society in 1907 not only set her apart from the West but redirected her energies. The connections she had tried to forge between materialism and spiritualism were still part of her philosophical outlook, but they weren’t perceived as such—then or now. Today, however, we are in a position to reexamine the divide and to recognize the continuity between her two self-defining terms, to see their priorities as merely a question of emphasis.

Portrait of Annie Besant

Figure 1. Portrait of Annie Besant.

In Explanation: Why I Became a Theosophist (1889)

Before investigating the first of these key post-conversion texts, it is necessary to briefly contextualize Besant’s state of mind during the five years leading up to her conversion. Starting in 1884, she began serializing her Autobiographical Sketches in her own journal, Our Corner: A Monthly Magazine of Fiction, Poetry, Politics, Art, Literature.[1] This journal provides a record of her growing interest in both science and comparative religion, suggesting that her conversion to Theosophy was less a sudden change than the outgrowth of an ongoing quest for understanding the nature of human existence (intriguingly, the “Young Folks Corner” in the inaugural issue of the journal featured “A Hindu Legend”). Even though Bradlaugh (who had co-founded the journal with Besant in 1883) continued to publish articles in Our Corner, he and Besant were beginning to drift apart, as is obvious by their debate about the merits of Socialism in its pages during the journal’s penultimate year, 1887.[2] By this time, Besant was ready to become a Fabian Socialist, while she was still publicly declaring her atheism in a pamphlet entitled Why I Do Not Believe in God.[3] But the next year, 1888, is unusual in her publishing history for its absence of any articles apart from her contributions to her two journals, Our Corner and The Link: A Journal for the Servants of Man (co-edited and published with William Stead), and those to the National Secular Society’s National Reformer.

Having recently engaged in the self-scrutiny required to write Autobiographical Sketches and still seeking answers to fundamental questions not answered by materialism, Besant was open to the ideas expounded by the founder of the Theosophical Society, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. When editor W.T. Stead’s staff-writers for the Pall Mall Gazette demurred at the prospect of reviewing Madame Blavatsky’s two-volume tome The Secret Doctrine (1888), Besant took up the challenge, publishing her own enthusiastic but still equivocal review entitled “Among the Adepts” (23 April 1889). During the course of the following month, Besant met Blavatsky, joined the Theosophical Society, and wrote a two-part article for editor H.W. Massingham’s The Star—“Sic Itur ad Astra [thus do we reach the stars]; or, Why I Became a Theosophist.” Seeing the proofs of this article reportedly so unnerved George Bernard Shaw that he tracked down Besant to deliver “an unbounded denunciation of Theosophy in general, of female inconstancy, and in particular of H.P. Blavatsky” (“Mrs. Besant” 17).[4] Besant’s second review of The Secret Doctrine, “The Evolution of the Universe,” appeared the next month in the National Reformer (23 June 1889), followed a week later by Bradlaugh’s negative critique of Theosophy’s claims and Besant’s straightforward summary of the three aims of the Theosophical Society (30 June 1889).

The stage was thus set for a more extended explanation, on Besant’s own terms, of her position vis-à-vis Materialism and Theosophy. In a July issue of the National Reformer she announced her intention to give two lectures in the Hall of Science on map iconOld Street, map iconSt. Luke’s, London (the dates were advertised for August 4th and 11th) and to publish a pamphlet that united them under the title that formed the subtitle for the two-part Star article, Why I Became a Theosophist. Still sharing the proprietorship of the Freethought Publishing Company with Bradlaugh, Besant published the pamphlet under its auspices. For some time, longstanding Secularist G.W. Foote had been jealous of Besant’s role in the National Secular Society, and her membership in the Theosophical Society provided him with the opportunity to drive a further wedge between her and Bradlaugh. During the course of the summer of 1889, he attacked her and her new mentor in two pamphlets that he circulated via his own firm, the Progressive Publishing Company, entitling them Mrs. Besant’s Theosophy and The New Cagliostro: An Open Letter to Madame Blavatsky (he signed the latter, “Yours doubtfully”).[5] Besant raised the issue of these personal attacks (and others that appeared in Foote’s weekly Freethinker) toward the end of her second August lecture, pointing out, “It is not consistent with Freethought traditions to gratuitously attack a person and then decline discussion” (Why 30).

Besant launches Why I Became a Theosophist by taking her largely Freethought audience to task for their narrow-mindedness, pointing out that it is possible to be a Theosophist and a Freethinker or even a Christian, although she does acknowledge that a combination with the latter occurs much less successfully. Most importantly, she insists on her own continuity with the principles of Freethought:

No one turns his back on Freethought who subjects every new doctrine to the light of reason, who weighs its claims without prejudice, and accepts or rejects it out of loyalty to truth alone. It seems necessary to recall this fundamental truth about Freethought, in protest against the position taken up by some of my critics, who would fain identify a universal principle with a special phase of nineteenth-century Materialism. (Why 5)

By making this distinction between Freethought and the brand of Materialism practiced by some members of the National Secularist Society, Besant allies herself with truth-seekers for whom answers might lie outside a narrowly-defined materialist realm.

Tracing her own path through Christianity and Atheism, Besant declares that she has “remained satisfied that the universe is not explicable on supernatural lines,” but now she reports that she finds Materialism equally unsatisfactory, for not only does it fail to answer questions like “What is Life?” and “What is Thought?” but it claims that no answers “could ever be given” (Why 7). Besant observes that this approach to science fails to account for the psychological riddles posed by memory, clairvoyance, clairaudience, thought-transference, mesmerism, hypnotism, and dreams—puzzles that Theosophy seeks to address through natural channels. Of the three objects of the Theosophical Society, she says it is the third that most attracts her: “To investigate unexplained laws of nature and the psychical powers latent in man” (14).[6] Once again, Besant sees no reason for a Freethinker to dismiss Theosophy or for her to be expelled from the Freethought ranks. After all, she reminds her audience, “We seek for Truth” is the motto of the National Secular Society.

Misrepresentation has all along been a major problem for Theosophy, Besant asserts, and so her next stage focuses on defining and clarifying the Theosophical position with respect to the general public’s misperceptions about Theosophy and the so-called “miraculous”:

Whatever forces may be latent in the Universe at large or in man in particular, they are wholly natural. There is no such thing as miracle. Phænomena may be met with that are strange, that seem inexplicable, but they are all within the realm of law, and it is only our ignorance that makes them marvellous [sic]. This repudiation of the supernatural lies at the very threshold of Theosophy: the supersensuous, the superhuman, Yes; the supernatural, No. (Why 17)

Such language echoes the “Natural Supernaturalism” of Thomas Carlyle in Sartor Resartus (1833-34), which in turn has already influenced the American Transcendentalism of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. However, Besant clarifies,

“Spirit” is a misleading word, for, historically, it connotes immateriality and a supernatural kind of existence, and the Theosophist believes neither in the one nor the other. With him all living things act in and through a material basis, and “matter” and “spirit” are not found dissociated. But he alleges that matter exists in states other than those at present known to science. . . . Refusal to believe until proof is given is a rational position; denial of all outside our own limited experience is absurd. (28)

Here she seems to be thinking about spirit in light of refined materialism and matter almost as if they were condensed spirit. This line of reasoning prefigures some of the experiments Besant would later conduct with Charles Leadbeater—experiments leading to conclusions about subatomic particles that paralleled those of the New Physics—while at the same time it suggests that we would do well to recognize the affinities that she still shares with a retroactive designation of her as a spiritual materialist.[7] Chief among the experiments carried out with Leadbeater are the ones recorded in their collaborative volume Occult Chemistry (1908). Not only had her early training with Ellen Marryat, sister of novelist Frederick Marryat, emphasized the value of close observation, but Besant also pursued a science degree at the map iconUniversity of London during the early 1880s and she regularly wrote the science column as well as the series “Peeps through a Microscope” for Our Corner.

Ultimately, Besant sounds her perennial ringing cry of “Truth”: “I ask no other epitaph on my tomb, but ‘She tried to follow Truth’” (Why 31).[8] According to Lucifer, the official organ of the Theosophical Society edited by Blavatsky, “At brief intervals throughout the [August 11th] lecture [Besant] was greeted with vociferous and prolonged applause” (qtd. West 139-40), and afterwards a lively debate ensued on such issues as the transmigration of souls and mesmerism. Besant’s cantankerous opponent George Foote shortly thereafter followed suit with two lectures on “Freethought and Theosophy,” while Bradlaugh provided perfunctory coverage of the rival lectures and subsequent pamphlets in the National Reformer. Foote and Besant then took their respective cases on the lecture circuit throughout Britain, addressing the National Secularist constituency and the general public alike. Finally, in October 1890, Besant travelled to map iconIreland, with “Why I Became a Theosophist” as her featured lecture. By then she had reached both renown and stature, for she eclipsed the suffragist leaders Mrs. Henry Fawcett and Lady Aberdeen in a poll conducted by the magazine Woman, which asked the question, “Who is the most eloquent, convincing, rational, and powerful speaker among women today?” (qtd. Nethercot, First Five Lives 343).

In Further Explanation and Farewell: 1875 to 1891: Fragment of Autobiography

1891 was a hallmark year for Besant: Bradlaugh died on 30 January; Besant announced that she would not stand again for the London School Board; she represented the ailing Blavatsky at the American Section of the annual Theosophical Society convention during April; Blavatsky died on 8 May; and Besant succeeded her as head of the Theosophical Society in Europe and India.[9] That summer, the National Secular Society began booking lectures for its popular Sunday evening series in the Hall of Science and approached Besant about speaking on one of the many Freethought topics she was still delivering to NSS branches nationwide. But once Foote began to raise objections to her possibly using the Freethought platform to promote Theosophy, Besant in turn challenged his right to curtail her freedom of speech. She announced that she would present her farewell lecture to both Secularism and the Hall on 30 August. Entitled “1875 to 1891: Fragment of Autobiography,” the lecture was reprinted in full the following day in the Daily Chronicle and then made available as a pamphlet under the auspices of the Theosophical Publishing Society in Britain, America, and India.

While this text reads like a mini-autobiography of Besant as well as a preview of An Autobiography, summarizing what was heretofore only available to the public in her Autobiographical Sketches, it is primarily a continuation of Why I Became a Theosophist in terms of addressing Freethinkers on the question of their open-mindedness. After providing a brief history of her break with Christianity and her alliance with the Freethought movement, Besant reasserts her lack of belief in a personal God. Then she looks back to some of her published remarks in 1886 about the Pantheism of Eastern religions being “in accord with modern science,” now leading her to make a crucial distinction: “that whereas Pantheism speaks of one universal life bodying itself forth in all lives, Materialism speaks of matter and of force of which life and consciousness are the ultimate products and not the essential fact” (Fragment 7). Furthermore, she says, there are two schools of Materialism, that “which seeks only for personal gain, personal pleasure, personal delight,” and the higher form “which . . . recognizes the life of the race as that for which the individual is living, and to which all that is noblest and best in him is to be devoted” (8). Retroactively, she assigns Bradlaugh to this latter category because he lived materialism as a “selfless” philosophy, making him a philosophical materialist of the highest order.

Finally, Besant comes to the crux of the same issue that she had already begun to address in Why I Became a Theosophist, namely, the failure of Materialism to solve problems and its readiness to declare them insoluble. As for facts that “did not square with Materialism,” she asks, “Was I to refuse to see them because my philosophy had for them no place? Was I to do what men have done in every age—insist that nature was no greater than my knowledge, and that because a fact was new it was, therefore, a fraud or an illusion?” (Fragment 9). Having read two books in her pre-conversion years by A.P. Sinnett, The Occult World (1881) and Esoteric Buddhism (1884), she acknowledges,

They fascinated me on my scientific side, because for the first time they threw an intelligible light upon, and brought within the realm of law and of natural order, a large number of facts that had always remained to me unexplained in the history of man. They did not carry me very far, but they suggested a new line of investigation; and from that time onward, I was on the look-out for other clues which might lead me in the direction I sought. (10)

Notably, Sinnett invoked Besant’s keynote of truth in Esoteric Buddhism when he declared, “It is by the disposition to seek truth, to test and examine all which presents itself as claiming belief, that the great result is to be brought about,” going on to contrast the East and the West by pointing out that in the latter, “the realm of intellect, as the world is mapped out at present, truth unfortunately can only be pursued and hunted out with the help of many words and much wrangling and disputation” (Esoteric 244-45). Once Theosophy began providing the answers to her questions, Besant explains, “every month that has gone since then has given me reason to be more and more grateful for the light which then came; for it is better to live in a universe you are beginning to understand than in one which is full of problems never to be solved” (Fragment 11).

Turning to her audience, Besant then asks, “Are you quite wise to be so sure that you are right and that there is nothing in the universe you do not know?” (Fragment 12). Equally unwise, she says, is restricting access to their Freethought platform. “Truth” again becomes her battle-cry: “Truth is mightier than our wildest dreamings; deeper than our longest plummet-line; higher than our loftiest soarings; grander than you and I can even imagine to-day” (13). Her final word of “Farewell” uttered, Besant walked down the steps, followed by her daughter Mabel and her compatriot Herbert Burrows; The Star and Pall Mall Gazette reported that “as they left the Hall, the crowd burst into tumultuous cheering” (Nethercot, First Five Lives 365). For a full month afterwards, debate about the speech raged in the press, with correspondence columns both pro and con running rampant.[10] Besant repeated her performance during the first week of October at map iconSt. James’s Hall; no longer dressed in black, as had become her custom, she appeared “swathed in white silk” (Robins); her hair, too, had turned white within a month’s time. Actress Elizabeth Robins recalls seeing her as an “apparition” or a “white shining presence”; at the conclusion of her speech, Robins relates, “And then—a thing that took your breath. On the fall of a sentence, the white vision melted through the arrangement of screens at the back—. She was gone.”[11] Acclaimed for her oratorical skills, Besant clearly demonstrated dramatic talent as well. Making her the subject of his October biographical article in his Review of Reviews, Stead compared her favorably with Catherine Booth (co-founder of the Salvation Army) and Josephine Butler (suffragist and leading opponent of the Contagious Diseases Acts), calling them “the three most remarkable and apostolic women of the time” (Stead 2).

Looking Back and Ahead

It is not difficult to see the spirituality in Annie Besant’s Autobiographical Sketches or the materialism in An Autobiography; each contains latent elements of what only a superficial reader of her book-length autobiographies would label antagonistic to her current affiliation. After all, as a secularist writing her Autobiographical Sketches, she recalls the zeal of her youthful religiosity in a rhetoric that spills over into her present-time narration, having no qualms about self-identifying as a “spiritual warrior” (31), while An Autobiography still endorses the Socialist agenda that she hopes will better the material conditions of the poor: “I believe that the poverty is the result of ignorance and of bad social arrangements, and that therefore it may be eradicated by knowledge and social change” (309).[12] Following up on her first meeting with Bradlaugh in 1874, Besant carried to her second meeting the manuscript of her pamphlet On the Nature and Existence of God (1875), which reflected and prefigured her material spiritualism: “Matter is, in its constituent elements, the same as spirit; existence is one, however multiform in its phenomena; life is one, however multiform in its evolution” (A 141). Moreover, the year after she joined the materialist camp, she edited The Secular Song and Hymn Book and wrote the text for a secularist funeral service, and even after she converted to Theosophy she retained the titles of most of her publishing list with Freethought presses. The Labour Annual for 1898 provides a fascinating record of the protracted intermingling of Besant’s material-spiritual concerns. Despite having moved to India, she is still listed in the “Directory of Lecturers and Reformers” (34), while her photograph bears the caption “Theosophist and Social Reformer” (49).[13]

It is generally assumed that after Besant became a Fellow of the Theosophical Society she reversed her position on birth control as expressed in her pamphlet The Law of Population (1877), which recast in more accurate language the purport published in Charles Knowlton’s Fruits of Philosophy (1833). Republishing the Knowlton pamphlet was the basis for the 1877 obscenity lawsuit against Besant and Bradlaugh, who famously argued for the right to publish information about contraception. Her later pamphlet Theosophy and the Law of Population, published the same year as Fragment of Autobiography, incorporates her revised thinking on the subject, now that she believed in reincarnation. At this point, not only did she refuse to reprint The Law of Population, but she prohibited sale of its copyright. Yet in An Autobiography, published just two years later, Besant is already seeking to reconcile the two viewpoints. Arguing that she still cannot see “how any Materialist can rationally avoid the Neo-Malthusian position” (A 240), she admits “my heart somewhat failed me at withdrawing from the knowledge of the poor, so far as I could, a temporary palliative of evils which too often wreck their lives and bring many to an early grave, worn old before even middle age has touched them—yet the decision was made” (243). For the next several decades she simply refrained from taking a public stand either way on the issue, but when the Malthusian League celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Knowlton trial in 1927, Besant seized the occasion to reevaluate her position, once again admitting her support for the birth-control movement and its concomitant material benefits (Nethercot, Last Four Lives 393).

But neither Why I Became a Theosophist nor 1875 to 1891: Fragment of Autobiography remained long in print. Published by the Freethought Publishing Company that Besant had co-founded with Bradlaugh, the former lost its initial venue when the company was dissolved at the end of 1890, and Besant resigned her office of Vice-President in the National Secular Society at the same time. Lucifer (currently still under Blavatsky’s editorship) reprinted Why I Became a Theosophist for its Theosophical subscribers in 1889 and in map iconNew York “The Path Office” (under the auspices of William Q. Judge) published it as a free-standing pamphlet in 1890, a year before Besant took it on the lecture circuit during her first visit to America. Yet neither of these publications reached a general readership. Moreover, the publication of An Autobiography in 1893 presumably superseded the need for the Theosophical Publishing Society to keep either title on its roster. With the editorship of Lucifer passing into her hands after Blavatsky’s death in 1891 (G.R.S. Mead retained his post as sub-editor), Besant was in a position to revive its reprint of Why I Became a Theosophist yet again as a separate document, but by then she may well have been thinking about writing her second autobiography, which would reframe the material from both these key pamphlets. She makes no mention of delivering or publishing Fragment of Autobiography, nor does she draw from it in An Autobiography, which foregrounds a note of inner peace despite external obstacles that may lie ahead.

As a result, the record of Besant’s immediate responses to the tension between her secularist and spiritualist selves has slipped from our ready purview. As of 1893, she had moved onto the international scene, participating prominently in the World’s Parliament of Religions at the Chicago World’s Fair and visiting India for the first time, just prior to making it her permanent home for her remaining forty years and helping to move it toward Home Rule. During the second half of her life, Besant would primarily be known for two leadership roles—President of the Indian National Congress (1917) and President of the Theosophical Society worldwide (1907-33)—both of which drew upon her blend of materialism and spiritualism. This singular duality especially manifested itself in her devotion to educational reform, in India and abroad. It is fitting that land purchased by Besant in 1927 in map iconOjai, California, would become the home of the Besant Hill School in 1946, just one year before India achieved its independence from the British Empire.

As introducer and editor of the Broadview Press critical edition of Besant’s Autobiographical Sketches, I am acutely aware of the many misrepresentations of her life and writings, and my desire to publish the first modern edition of her first autobiographical undertaking has been coupled all along with the insistence that I provide an appendix that reproduces many of her out-of-print speeches and pamphlets, including excerpts from the two key texts discussed above. I here propose that we dismiss the mocking conversation about Besant’s “many lives” by arguing for both the continuity within her life-story and the rigorous self-honesty that a full assessment of the body of her work reveals. I hasten to add that Besant did not recant her materialist beliefs in the autobiographical endeavors that succeeded Autobiographical Sketches so much as reconsider them in light of her new-found spirituality. Thus, she can look back in all three post-conversion narratives to a materialist self who was yearning for a belief system that would encompass her evolving socialist and suffrage concerns—and not disown those important aspects of herself. By 1893, Annie Wood Besant could unequivocally conclude An Autobiography with the following injunction, “PEACE TO ALL BEINGS” (364).

published February 2017

Carol Hanbery MacKay is the J.R. Millikan Centennial Professor of English Literature at the University of Texas at Austin, where she teaches courses on the Victorian novel, autobiography, and women’s and gender studies. She is the author of Soliloquy in Nineteenth-Century Fiction (1987) and Creative Negativity: Four Victorian Exemplars of the Female Quest (2001), as well as the editor of The Two Thackerays (1988) and Dramatic Dickens (1989), and she most recently published the Broadview Critical Edition of Annie Besant’s Autobiographical Sketches (2009).


MacKay, Carol Hanbery. “A Spiritual Materialist Turns Material Spiritualist: Annie Besant Rewrites Her Secularist Years, 1889 and 1891.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].


Besant, Annie. An Autobiography. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1893. Print.

—. Autobiographical Sketches. 1885. Ed. Carol Hanbery MacKay. Peterborough: Broadview, 2009. Print.

—.  1875 to 1891: Fragment of Autobiography. London: Theosophical Publishing Society, 1891. Print.

—.  “The Evolution of the Universe.” Review of The Secret Doctrine by Helena Blavatsky. The National Reformer (23 June 1889): n.p. Rpt. in The Theosophist (Feb. 1939): 335-39. Print.

—. “A Few Words in Final Reply.” Our Corner 9.6 (June 1887): 324-27. Print.

—. The Law of Population: Its Consequences, and Its Bearing upon Human Conduct and Morals. London: Freethought Publishing, 1877. Print.

—, ed. The Secular Song and Hymn Book. London: National Secular Society, 1875. Print.

—. “Socialism: Its Truths and Its Hopes.” Our Corner 9.4 (Apr. 1887): 193-200. Print.

—.  Why I Became a Theosophist. London: Freethought Publishing, 1889. Print.

Besant, Annie, and Charles Leadbeater. Occult Chemistry: Clairvoyant Observations on the Chemical Elements. Benares: Theosophical Publishing Society, 1908. Print.

Besterman, Theodore. Mrs. Annie Besant: A Modern Prophet. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1934. Print.

Bradlaugh, Charles. “Rough Notes by Way of Rejoinder.” Our Corner 9.6 (June 1887): 321-24. Print.

—. “Socialism: Its Fallacies and Dangers.” Our Corner 9.3 (Mar. 1887): 129-36. Print.

Carlyle, Thomas. Sartor Resartus: The Life and Opinions of Herr Teufelsdroch. 1836. Ed. Charles Frederick Harrold. New York: Odyssey, 1937. Print.

Foote, G[eorge] W. Mrs. Besant’s Theosophy. London: Progressive Publishing, 1889. Print.

Gandhi, M.K. An Autobiography; or, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Ahmedabad, India: Navajivan P, 1927. Print.

The Labour Annual, 1898.  Rpt. British Political Sources: Political Party Year Books 59 (Brighton: Harvester P, 1971). Print

Miller, Elizabeth Carolyn. “Enlightenment Beyond Reason: Theosophical Socialism and Radical Print Culture.” Slow Print: Literary Radicalism and Late Victorian Print Culture. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2013. 221-56; 331-35. Print.

Nethercot, Arthur H. The First Five Lives of Annie Besant. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1960. Print.

—. The Last Four Lives of Annie Besant. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1963. Print.

Our Corner: A Monthly Magazine of Fiction, Poetry, Politics, Science, Art, Literature. Ed. Annie Besant. London: Freethought Publishing. Vols. 1-16 (1883-1888). Print.

Robins, Elizabeth. “Annie Besant.” TS.  Elizabeth Robins Papers, Fales Library, Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, New York University, New York, NY. Print.

Shaw, George Bernard. “Annie Besant and the ‘Secret Doctrine.’” The Freethinker 67 (14 Dec. 1947): 450. Print.

—. “Mrs. Besant as a Fabian Socialist.” The Theosophist 39 (Oct. 1917): 9-19. Rpt. as “Mrs. Besant’s Passage through Fabian Socialism.” Dr. Annie Besant: Fifty Years in Public Work. Ed. David Graham Pole. London: n.p., 1924. 3-14. Print.

Sinnett, A.P. Esoteric Buddhism. 1884. 6th ed.  New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1887. Print.

—. The Occult World. New York: J.W. Bouton, 1881. Print.

Stead, W[illiam] T. “Annie Besant: A Character Sketch, 1891.” Review of Reviews 4.22 (Oct. 1891): 349-67. Print.

Wadge, Elisabeth. “The Scientific Spirit and the Spiritual Scientist: Moving in the Right Circles.” Victorian Review 26.1 (2000): 24-42. Print.

West, Geoffrey. The Life of Annie Besant. London: Gerald Howe, 1929. Print.


Works Consulted

Besant, Annie. 1875 to 1891: Fragment of Autobiography. Rpt. as Adyar Pamphlet 84. Madras: Theosophical Society, 1917. Print.

—. “Among the Adepts: Madame Blavatsky on The Secret Doctrine.” Review of The Secret Doctrine, by Helena Blavatsky. Pall Mall Gazette (23 April 1889): 3. Rpt. in The Theosophist (Jan. 1939): 262-66. Print.

—. The Ancient Wisdom: An Outline of Theosophical Teachings. 1897. Adyar: Theosophical Publishing House, 1939. Print.

—. The Basis of Morality. Adyar: Theosophical Publishing Society, 1915. Print.

—. The East and the West. Adyar: Theosophist Office, 1908. Print.

—. Giordano Bruno: Theosophy’s Apostle in the Sixteenth Century. Adyar: Theosophist Office, 1913. Print.

—. Light, Heat and Sound. London: Freethought Publishing, 1881. Hall of Science Manual 1. Print.

—. On the Nature and Existence of God. London: Thomas Scott, 1875. Print.

—. Theosophy and the Law of Population. Lucifer (July 1891): n.p. Rpt. London: Theosophical Publishing Society, 1891. Print.

—. What Is Theosophy? Adyar: Theosophical Publishing Society, 1912. Print.

Bevir, Mark. “Annie Besant’s Quest for Truth: Christianity, Secularism, and New Age Thought.” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 50 (1999): 215-39. Print.

—. “A Theosophist in India.” Imperial Objects: Essays on Victorian Women’s Emigration and the Unauthorized Experience. Ed. Rita S. Kranidis. New York: Twayne, 1998. 211-27. Print.

Brake, Laurel, Bill Bell, and David Finkelstein, eds. Nineteenth-Century Media and the Construction of Identities. Houndsmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000. Print.

Brandon, Ruth. The Spiritualists: The Passion for the Occult in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1983. Print.

Broughton, T.L. “Women’s Autobiography: The Self at Stake?” Autobiography and Questions of Gender. Ed. Shirley Neuman. London: Frank Cass, 1991. 76-94. Print.

Cantor, Geoffrey, Gowan Dawson, Graeme Gooday, Richard Noakes, Sally Shuttlesworth, and Jonathan R. Topham. Science in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical: Reading the Magazine of Nature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004. Print.

Dawson, Gowan. “Stranger than Fiction: Spiritualism, Intertextuality, and William Makepeace Thackeray’s Editorship of the Cornhill Magazine, 1860-62.” Journal of Victorian Culture 7.2 (2002): 230-38. Print.

Ellwood, Robert, and Catherine Wessinger. “The Feminism of ‘Universal Brotherhood’: Women in the Theosophical Movement.” Women’s Leadership in Marginal Religions: Explorations Outside the Mainstream. Ed. Catherine Wessinger. Urbana and Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1993. 68-88. Print.

Franke, William. Secular Scriptures: Modern Theological Poetics in the Wake of Dante. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2016. Print.

Gilbert, Robert A. “Independent Witnesses: Observers of English Occultism in the Victorian Era.” Theosophical History 11.1 (2005): 17-30. Print.

Gomel, Elana. “‘Spirits in the Material World’: Spiritualism and Identity in the ‘Fin De Siècle.’” Victorian Literature and Culture 35.1 (2007): 189-213. Print.

MacKay, Carol Hanbery. “Annie Besant.” The Encyclopedia of Victorian Literature. 4 vols. Ed. Dino Felluga, Pamela Gilbert, and Linda K. Hughes. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015. 1: 118-24. Print.

—. “The Multiple Deconversions of Annie Wood Besant.” Creative Negativity: Four Victorian Exemplars of the Female Quest. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2001. 96-134; 207-14. Print.

—. “A Journal of Her Own: The Rise and Fall of Annie Besant’s Our Corner.” Victorian Periodicals Review 42.4 (2009): 324-58. Print.

Melton, J. Gordon, ed. and intro. Origins of Theosophy: Annie Besant—The Atheist Years. Cults and New Religions Series. New York and London: Garland, 1990. Print.

Oppenheim, Janet. The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985. Print.

Paxton, Nancy L. “Feminism Under the Raj: Complicity and Resistance in the Writings of Flora Annie Steel and Annie Besant.” Women’s Studies International Forum 13.4 (1990): 333-46. Print.

Stead, W[illiam] T. “Annie Besant: A Character Sketch, 1891.” 1891. Rpt. Adyar: Theosophical Publishing House, 1946. Print.

Taylor, Anne. Annie Besant: A Biography. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992. Print.

van der Veer, Peter. Imperial Encounters: Religion and Modernity in India and Britain. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2001. Print.

Wessinger, Catherine. Annie Besant and Progressive Messianism, 1847-1933. Lewiston: Edwin Mellon P, 1988. Print.

Williams, Gertrude Marvin. The Passionate Pilgrim: A Life of Annie Besant. New York: Coward-McCann, 1931. Print.


[1] Autobiographical Sketches was serialized in Our Corner between Jan. 1884 (vol. 3, no. 1) and June 1885 (vol. 5, no. 6) in seventeen parts (with no installment for April 1885), and subsequently published in book form by the Freethought Publishing Company that Besant had co-founded in London in 1877 with her co-defendant in the Knowlton trial, Charles Bradlaugh (by publishing Charles Knowlton’s Fruits of Philosophy under their own auspices, they sought to separate the obscenity charges for disseminating birth control literature from the financial responsibility of the National Secular Society).

[2] The 1887 debate played out in Our Corner as follows: Bradlaugh’s “Socialism: Its Fallacies and Dangers” in March; Besant’s “Socialism: Its Truths and Its Hopes” in April; in June, Bradlaugh’s “Rough Notes by Way of Rejoinder” and Besant’s “A Few Words in Final Reply” functioned as concluding responses.

[3] A year earlier, Besant had published another pamphlet with a similar title, Why I Am a Socialist (London: Freethought Publishing, 1886). I am not alone in noting this sequence and that the subsequent year lacked a major publication.  Theodore Besterman, writing a year after Besant’s death, was one of the first to speculate about its significance (132-33).

[4] Shaw recorded several different versions of this story, so it is difficult to know where the truth lies. According to one version, recorded some six decades after the event, he called her “quite mad” and then, as a longtime vegetarian, was taken aback by her jocular response: “She said she supposed that since she had, as a Theosophist, become a vegetarian, her mind may been affected” (“Annie Besant” 450).

[5] Alessandro Cagliostro was the alias of Italian occultist and con-artist Giuseppe Balsamo (1743-95).

[6] The other two aims, which Besant had published in her note following Bradlaugh’s recent critique in the National Reformer, are (1) “To found a Universal Brotherhood without distinction of race or creed” and (2) “To forward the study of Aryan literature and philosophy.” Both her gendered terminology and the subsequent highjacking of “Aryan” by the Nazi racist agenda have rendered these aims suspicious in the years after her death in 1933.

[7] My delineation “spiritual materialist” is a variation on Elisabeth Wadge’s choice of the term “spiritual scientist,” which she opposes to “scientific spirit,” in her 2000 article in Victorian Review.

[8] These are the same words she redeploys toward the end of the final chapter of An Autobiography, “Through Storm to Peace” (358).

[9] It is worth noting that Mohandas Gandhi was present at Bradlaugh’s funeral; he recalls in his autobiography that at the time he had already read Besant’s “How [sic] I Became a Theosophist” (Gandhi 164-70). During her first visit to the United States, she delivered her “Why I Became a Theosophist” lecture four times—in New York, Washington, Brooklyn, and Boston, the site of the Theosophical Society annual convention (26-27 April 1891).

[10] Besides the usual dailies, see additional coverage in the St. Stephen’s Review, Freethinker, Westminster Gazette, St. James’s Gazette, and Review of Reviews, as well as in Lucifer, the Path, and the Theosophist. The Daily Chronicle made a point of declaring an end to its publication of letters on the subject on 1 October 1891, the same day that Stead published his character sketch of Besant.

[11] See the Elizabeth Robins Papers (Fales Library, NYU). Robins later shared the suffrage platform with Besant in the map iconAlbert Hall on 15 June 1912. Shortly after Besant’s death in 1933, Robins began to work on a biography of Besant (unfinished at Robins’s death in 1952), despite the fact that Shaw tried to discourage her from doing so. Apparently both of these powerful women writers and orators put him on the defensive.

[12] Here Besant quotes from her own 1886 article entitled “Modern Socialism,” reprinted from Our Corner as a pamphlet by the Freethought Publishing Company. Elizabeth Miller treats Besant’s practice of self-quoting as creating an intertextuality that reflects the multiple voices of the autobiographer in a Modernist mode of fragmented selves, while I interpret that intertextuality as another indication of Besant’s continuity. See Miller (332 n. 9).

[13] As an indicator of the equivocal status of both Theosophy and Besant within the labor movement, however, the Annual cannot take a clear stand on either subject. It can publish a short article by William Jameson on the “Relation of Theosophy to Social Problems” (109) as well as list Lucifer: The Light Bearer as an example of “The World’s Reform Press” (158) and print an advertisement for the Theosophical Society in Europe (219), yet the biographical entry for Besant begins as follows: “Mrs. Besant’s life has been such a human kaleidoscope that it is difficult to decide whether to-day she is a Socialist, but she has undoubtedly done great service to the people’s cause” (194).