Mrs. , Besant
The Life of Annie Besant. By Geoffrey Nest. (Howe. 13s.)
"DARLING Aaocra's only-fault--she has been too religious:' Mrs. Besant's mother uttered these words on her death-bed. and they are a true, if a worldly, summing-up of the career of the President of the Theosophical Society.. With intense and
self-less fervour she has espoused one cause after another, first within the fold of the Established Church, then in the camp • of its bitterest enemies ; now from the tolerant haven of Adyar, where all faiths seem true ; as social worker, young wife of a" country parson ; associate of Bradlaugh, atheist, _
revolutionary writer of doggerel such as :
" Has England forgotten Cromwell's teaching, Is Ifampden's poured-out blood in vain.: • Shall a land that saw a King's impeaching, Now be bound by a Brunswick chain " "—then as a firebrand Socialist, a member .of the Executive " Council of the Fabian Society, an expeditionary force always to the front when there was danger or trouble; carrying away - audiences, founding branches," dashing into the great strikes ; then, by another lightning change, coming under the spell of
Madrime-BlaVatsky and retiring from the smoke and struggle of London to eat lentils and learn beatitude by the margin of the sunlit -.Ganges ; always throughout the chances and
changes of her amazing career she has been a person of intense faith—even as an atheist. Also she has kept her friends, even • when they could no longer agree with her.
Mr; West makes a modest claim for his Life, saying it is
merely an account of one of the most remarkable personalities
of the last- eight years, not the account. In that we concur, but if all the book had been up to the level of the prologue and opening chapters we should have been able to add that it was a great biography. Indeed, Mr. West has the makings of an excellent biographer and early draws our attention to the fact that the career of his heroine, from " an unhappy girl struggling against her first timid doubts " to the " autocratic leader of a new and prosperous religion," is one of those adventures which are much too strange not be true. Nothing could be more vivid that his account of Mrs. Besant's ancestry and early years, her whole-hearted piety, her innocence, her en- thusiasm, her unfortunate marriage, and the incongruous menage at Sibsey where an eloquent and forceful Irish girl
drove her conventional husband into a permanent state of " tight-lipped annoyance."
Unfortunately, however, when Mrs. Besant moves on to a wider stage, the author deserts his premiss that a biographer must be impartial. His essay on theosophy (rightly given in an appendix) misses the whole gist of the matter and merely expresses his own (and to us, immature) view that any form- alized religion is useless ; while his strongly Socialist bias is ,expressed in a series of irritating asides such as " she opposed all forms of religious education (on this point, alas! she has recanted)" and "one scarcely knows whether to regret more that Bradlaugh could not follow Mrs. Besant into Socialism, or" to rejoice that she was able to set herself free to move onward to ti" truer arid more constructive political solution." Soon, as we know, Mrs. Besant moved on to the Mahatmas.
Wherever her path has lain, Annie Besant has always trodden it as a power and a portent amongst her associates. Her eloquence at one time was unrivalled, and even of late years to anyone who has heard her (as this reviewer has) either at Benares or under the banyan at Adyar speaking for an hour on end on some philosophic abstraction without once referring to a note, it must be clear that she still retains faculties which have probably never been surpassed in any age by any woman.'
She comes of an able family and one of her sons is head of a large insurance company. Had she devoted her life to the West, had the Great War, for instance,. come when she was still a girl, or had her emotional life been different, she might have found in England that field of service which she has so long and so valiantly cultivated in India. We wish (and no doubt Mr. West will agree) that it had been so, and that she had remained for a few more years as a social worker here, believing "in man's -redeeming powers, in man's remoulding energy, in man's approaching triumph, through_ knowledge, love, and work." But it was not to be. All her noblest instincts, unsatisfied by the compromises of politics, and insulted by her cruel forced separation from her children, turned with trembling passion to the " kingly wisdom and kingly mystery " of the Aryan teachers, as brought to London by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and there published by her in The Secret Doctrine.
It was this book, sent to- her for review in the Pall Mall Gazette, by W. T. Stead, which became the shining light upon the road to Damascus in her conversion just forty springs ago. She obtained immediately an introduction to the author and visited her in her house in Lansdowne Road. Mrs. Besant was then a beautiful woman of forty-two, with bobbed hair and sparkling brown eyes (Mr. West publishes a delightful portrait of her in her " Fighting Forties,") while Madame Blavatsky was a fat, mannish, whisky-drinking, cigarette- smoking seer of fifty-eight—but with lambent wit and real knowledge of Eastern esoterics.
Nothing remarkable passed between the two women that evening except that as Mrs. Besant rose to go, Blavatsky, with a yearning throb in her voice," said, " If you would only come among us ! " Pride and caution held Mrs. Besant back, but she went again and again to Lansdowne Road and soon— in May, 1889—she became a Theosophist.
Like Mr. West, we have left ourselves too little space to deal with her activities in India but we do not agree with him that because those activities are remote they are any less im- portant. At the age of eighty-two Mrs. Besant is still a power in the land, still speaking and writing, still editing newspapers and flying about Europe on lecture engagements. She may not always be wise, or tactful, or exact, or even grammatical, but she is always honest and always active in what she believes to be the service of her mistress—Truth. With that we must leave her : white-haired, bright-eyed, eager, wrong-headed perhaps, but a heroine, certainly.