Originally printed in the September-October 2000 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: McMain, Deanna Goodrich. "Annie Besant Speaks." Quest 88.5 SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER 2000): pg 184-189.
By Deanna Goodrich McMain
The following is an imaginary interview with Annie Besant, the second international President of the Theosophical Society and, with Helena Blavatsky, the best known of all Theosophists. As the interview begins, the interviewer notes that Annie Besant is only five feet tall, although most people are unaware of her height because her powerful speech and ideas magnify her diminutive size.
DM: So, Mrs. Besantâ€”"BEZZ-ant" is how you pronounce your name, isnâ€™t it?
AB: Yes, it is. Some members of my husbandâ€™s family, such as his brother, Sir Walter Besant, a well-known man of letters, pronounce the name "bi-ZANT," but when my husband and I separated, I adopted the pronunciation "BEZZ-ant." Of course I was born "Annie Wood."
DM: Yes, I see. Well, Mrs. Besant, could we take just a moment here to learn a little about your early years? Apparently you were English?
AB: Well, I was born in England, regrettably, in 1847, and I was raised there, but Iâ€™m proud to say Iâ€™m actually three-quarters Irish. My mother was Irish, and my father half Irish and half English. Iâ€™ve always considered myself an Irishwoman.
DM: And your childhoodâ€”what was that like?
AB: Oh, it was idyllic. I was called "Sunshine" when I was a girl because I was always happy.
DM: But didnâ€™t your father die when you were five?
AB: Yes, and then my mother moved our family to Harrow, where she operated a boarding house for schoolboys. So my brother got a sound education, and when I was eight I was taken in by a wealthy maiden lady and home-schooled until I was 16.
DM: And you obviously got a good education, too. You were lucky to have had this arranged for you as a girl at that time in history, werenâ€™t you?
AB: Yes, I was very fortunate there, too. I had a tutor by the name of Ellen Marryat. She taught me literature and languages, and I learned how to study independently, which was quite unusual for a girl at that time.
DM: And you were very religious as a young girl, as I understand it. Could you talk a little about that?
AB: Certainly. I was raised in the Church of England, but I was quite drawn to Catholicism. I felt very much attuned to the religious figures and the ceremony of the Catholic Church. I wanted to have been born at an earlier time. I fasted and even flagellated myself to see if I could bear pain. My tutor, Miss Marryat, was a devout Christian, and I probably developed much of my passion for the Church through her influence.
DM: Can we talk a bit about your marriage now? I know you married a minister, and yet that marriage didnâ€™t seem to have been "made in heaven," as they say. How old were you when you married?
AB: I was twenty when I married the Rev. Mr. Frank Besant, by whom I had two children, Digby in 1869 and Mabel in 1870.
DM: Somehow I donâ€™t see you as the kind of woman who would marry and raise a family. That takes a lot of time, and you had many causes to work for in your life.
AB: Yes, well, in those days English girls rather idealized clergymen. In addition, I had reconciled myself to the thought of marriage in place of the ascetic religious life which I had envisioned because I would be the wife of a priest, working in the Church and among the poor and doing good for the world. I had hoped my marriage would be a wonderful collaboration, but of course my husband was a product of his time, and I rebelled against the strictures of a Christian marriage of that time.
DM: How so?
AB: Well, my husband believed in male power and female subservienceâ€”that wasnâ€™t uncommon thenâ€”and I had political interests, too, which just added fuel to the fire. Another event that shocked me deeply was earning 30 shillings in payment for some short stories I had written and learning the money wasnâ€™t mine, but belonged to Frank! Also society didnâ€™t approve of women speaking in public before audiences containing menâ€”meetings with both men and women in the audience were called "promiscuous assemblies," and a woman speaking in one of them was considered immoral. But let me tell you how I discovered my ability to give speeches, as I recorded that discovery in my Autobiographical Sketches (72):
In that spring of 1873 [when 26 years old], I delivered my first lecture. It was delivered to no one, queer as that may sound. And indeed, it was queer altogether. I was learning to play the organ, and was in the habit of practicing in the church by myself. One day, being securely locked in, I thought I would like to try how "it felt" to speak from the pulpit. Some vague fancies were stirring in me, that I could speak if I had the chance; very vague they were, for the notion that I might ever speak on the platform had never dawned on me; only the longing to find outlet in words was in me; the feeling that I had something to say, and the yearning to say it. So, queer as it may seem, I ascended the pulpit in the big, empty, lonely church, and there and then I delivered my first lecture! I shall never forget the feeling of power and of delight which came upon me as my voice rolled down the aisles, and the passion in me broke into balanced sentences, and never paused for rhythmical expression, while I felt that all I wanted was to see the church full of upturned faces, instead of the emptiness of the silent pews. And as though in a dream the solitude became peopled, and I saw the listening faces and the eager eyes, and as the sentences came unbidden from my lips, and my own tones echoed back to me from the pillars of the ancient church, I knew of a verity that the gift of speech was mine, that if ever--and it seemed then so impossible--if ever the chance came to me of public work, that at least this power of melodious utterance should win hearing for any message I had to bring.
DM: You are quite an orator indeed! I now have a little understanding of how you might have had a difficult time staying in the kind of marriage you describe. What would you say was the driving factor that led to your separation?
AB: When Mabel was a baby, she suffered a long and painful illness, and I began to doubt the goodness of a God who could inflict such a fate on an innocent child. I read all manner of religious literature, including teachings from the East, and I learned that Jesus was not the only incarnation of the Deity. Then I felt I could no longer take communion. Well, Mr. Besant and I had been increasingly estranged, but the climax came when he commanded me to take communion or leave his home.
DM: So you left home?
AB: Oh, yes, I certainly did. I obtained a legal separation in 1873 and was granted legal custody of Mabel. I became a freethinker and continued to study religious subjects. The next year I met Moncure Conwayâ€”a former Methodist minister who had become a Unitarian, then a rationalistâ€”and Charles Bradlaugh, who was an atheist. Charles Bradlaugh and I became friends. I joined his organization and later became co-editor of his atheistic journal, National Reformer. I supported his campaign for election to Parliament and his right to take his seat, which was contested because of his atheism. My friendship with him coupled with my having become an atheist made me the object of attacks. Then in 1877 Mr. Bradlaugh and I published a pamphlet on contraception, and we were tried in a court of law for obscenity! Mind you, this was medical information to protect womenâ€™s health and to give poor couples the means to limit the size of their families, and it was deemed pornography! I think this course of events brought to national attention the issues of contraception and poverty.
DM: That was a courageous stand for a woman to take in that era.
AB: It was quite a time. The lives of the poor were absolutely wretched, and I felt it was my duty to help them. I had so much compared to them.
DM: Well, you certainly made a difference!
AB: I paid a price! Frank Besant won custody of Mabelâ€”she was wrested right out of my arms, screaming terribly at what was happening to her. I had been declared unfit as a parent. I became very lonely and thought of death. The good news is that when Digby and Mabel came of age they both left their father and returned to me. Many years later, Digby wrote an article saying I was in every way his ideal of a mother.
DM: What an ordeal! What came next in your life?
AB: I became a friend of George Bernard Shaw, the playwright, and through his influence became a Fabian socialist. The Fabians, you know, were a group of socialists who believed in slow, not revolutionary, change in government.
DM: What did you accomplish during your time with the Fabian Society?
AB: For one thing, I studied at London University and received advanced certificates in eight sciences. Then I was elected to the London School Board and served 3 years before I decided not to run for reelection. Meanwhile I was working, speaking, and writing for reform in taxation, Irish home rule, repeal of capital punishment, fair labor laws, national education, and many other issues.
DM: Iâ€™ve read about the match girl strike of 1888, for which you were responsible, in large part.
AB: Yes, thatâ€™s true. In a London match factory, on the East Side, the workers were mostly girls, including children as young as six years old! They worked from 6:30 in the morning until 6:00 at night. One-eighth of the work force suffered caries of the jaw from constant exposure to the phosphorus fumes. First there was loss of the teeth, then of the jawbone itself. I wrote an article called "White Slavery in London," published in a socialist newspaper so that these conditions would become public knowledge. I sent a copy to the owner of the factory; he replied by threatening legal action. But I also received letters from many of the match girls in support of my work, and finally the fines and deductions levied on the workers were abolished.
DM: And you founded large unions of unskilled workers that eventually corrected many unjust practices.
AB: Yes, Iâ€™m glad to say the unions were successful.
DM: I understand you came across The Secret Doctrine by Madame Blavatsky while you were doing this work. How did that occur?
AB: I was beginning to become dissatisfied with the negative aspects of free thought, and so I began researches into spiritualism, hypnotism, and the nature of truth. One day I heard again the same voice I had heard earlier when I was nearly suicidal. It asked, "Are you willing to give up everything for the sake of learning the Truth?" I immediately said, "Yes, Lord." A few days later the publisher of a journal handed me Madame Blavatskyâ€™s book The Secret Doctrine to review. I was so impressed with it that I asked for an introduction to Madame Blavatsky. On our second meeting, I applied for membership in the Theosophical Society. Not that it was a particularly easy decision. Part of me fought against it. You see, my work on the London School Board had largely undone public prejudice against me, so I had a smoother road ahead of me. Did I really want to plunge into a new vortex of strife and once again make myself a mark for ridicule by fighting for an unpopular truth? Did I really want to turn against materialism and face the shame of publicly confessing that I had been wrong, misled by intellect to ignore the soul? It was not a clear-cut decision. But I did join and was happy to be in the company of Madame Blavatsky.
DM: What an inspiration that must have been for you to continue your work and your search for truth!
AB: Ah, that it was! That was in 1889. I found in HPB (as she liked to be called) the mother and female guide who did not urge me to curtail my self-development or constrict my truest self to conform to the restricted female role of that time. I brought her into my home to live until she died two years later in 1891.
DM: You plunged right into Theosophy rather quickly, didnâ€™t you?
AB: Many people thought I moved too swiftly, but I believe the decision had been long approached and brought into realization the dreams of my childhood. I have gained a certainty of knowledge about life.
DM: How did Madame Blavatskyâ€™s death affect your life?
AB: I made my first trip to India in 1894 and began to learn about Indian culture and then began work to revive the peopleâ€™s self-respect and reverence for their own culture, which had been weakened by Western influence. When Col. Olcott, the President-Founder of the Theosophical Society, died in 1907, I was elected as his successor.
DM: What are some of the important events during your tenure as President?
AB: There are many, but the story wouldnâ€™t be complete without mention of Jiddu Krishnamurti. My colleague Charles Leadbeater met him on the beach at Adyar when the boy was in his early teen years and recognized in him some very unusual and wonderful qualities. He had an aura about him that led Leadbeater to believe Krishnamurti could become the embodiment of a great teaching. I assumed responsibility for the boy and his brother as their guardian because their mother was dead and their father worked for the Society. I remained personally close to Krishnamurti ever after, although we had several substantial differences of philosophy.
DM: I understand you had major differences with Mohandas Gandhi, too. Could you also say a word about him?
AB: Yes, well, although I was the first to refer to him as "Mahatma," which means Great Soul, he and I did not agree about how to achieve our goals. He was no politician and disliked what some have referred to as my "rampant propaganda." I, on the other hand, disapproved of his form of bringing about social change, which was deliberately to break laws and create confrontations. I thought that policy could lead the ordinary person into a disregard of the law. A great deal more could be said about our differences, but thatâ€™s enough for the present.
DM: What were some of your accomplishments in India?
AB: I founded the Central Hindu College in Benares, the Theosophical Educational Trust, the Sons and Daughters of India, and the Indian Boy Scout and Girl Guide movements. I also established and edited the New India newspaper in support of home rule for India. I funded the India Home Rule League and was elected President of the Indian National Congress for the year 1917. I drew up the Commonwealth of India Bill and spoke to both houses of Parliament at its presentation.
DM: You wrote quite a lot, too.
AB: Yes, I wrote a great many books, pamphlets, and articles, edited twelve periodicals, and traveled around the world, giving hundreds of lectures in my lifetime.
DM: What were some of the main ideas you wanted to communicate through your writings and speeches? Obviously you were a feminist long before the word existed. You worked tirelessly for womenâ€™s rights, including their right to know about contraception. And you certainly demonstrated your commitment to serve your fellow humans.
AB: I saw service as the supreme object in life. It is one of the three limbs of the Theosophical movement, along with study and meditation. My book In the Outer Court says that the shorter pathway in our evolution is "service to humanity." I also wrote in Principles of Education that every subject of instruction, whether it be in the area of mental, moral, physical, or religious education, is not only a means toward self-development, but an avenue through which service may be rendered to others. We can cooperate consciously with the divine will in the evolutionary process and at the same time attain a sense of deep peace and great joy.
DM: Another area in which I think you exerted a lot of influence is thought. You wrote a book called Thought Power.
AB: When you consider that our thoughts inevitably determine our actions, you see the great importance of how we think. Right thinking has to be based on right memory, and right memory means that a wrong done to a person is immediately forgotten by that person, but a kindness is treasured and remembered for all time. Right thought and right action are considered in a poem I wrote in 1919:
If a comrade be faithless; let us be faithful to him;If an enemy injure, let us forgive him;If a friend betray, let us stand by him;Then shall the Hidden God in us shine forth.
DM: Yes, you seem to believe in the importance of fostering peace and harmony between individuals. Could you say just a bit more about that?
AB: I talked about that in The Doctrine of the Heart. We need to recognize that the Self in all people is one, so that in each person with whom we come into contact, we ignore all that is unlovely in the outer casing, and recognize the Self seated in the heart. Now Iâ€™m speaking of Self with a capital "S." The next thing is to realizeâ€”in practice, not only in theoryâ€”that the Self is trying to express itself through the casings that obstruct it, and that the inner nature is altogether lovely but is distorted in our awareness by the envelopes that surround us. We should identify ourselves with that Self, which is indeed ourselves in its essence, and cooperate with it in its efforts to rise above the elements that stifle its expression.
DM: What can you say about how we might develop our power to think and to use our thought for good?
AB: We might begin by comparing the mind to a mirror. A mirror appears to have objects within it, yet it does not. What we see in the mirror are only images, illusions, reflections. In the same way, the mind knows only the illusive images of the universe, not things themselves. The first requirement for competent thinking is attentive, accurate observation. If you are not accurate, you will compound your errors so that nothing can correct them except going back to the very beginning. And you can develop your powers of accuracy just by observing and testing yourself. How can we develop our power to think? One way is by learning to concentrate. That is a key to thought power. Reading by itself does not build the mind; thought alone can build it. Reading only furnishes material for thought; therefore you should read for five minutes and think for ten.
DM: What if Iâ€™m a worrier? How can I stop that?
AB: Worry is the process of repeating the same train of thought over and over with only small alterations, and not only coming to no end result but not even aiming at the reaching of a result. Probably the best way to get rid of the "worry-channel" is to dig another of exactly opposite character. You do this by giving three or four minutes in the morning, when you first get up, to an encouraging or positive thought, such as "The Self is peace; that Self am I. The Self is strength; that Self am I." During this time you also consider that you are one with God and mistakenly regard your pain and your anxiety as yourself. Nothing can injure us that is not brought to us by our own previous willing and acting. The great law of karma works to free us by forcing us to face the debts that keep us in prison tied to the whirling wheel of births and deaths.
DM: Thank you so much, Mrs. Besant, for being here with us. Is there anything else you would like to leave us?
AB: Perhaps I will end with a little piece I wrote about my loyalty to Truth:
She may lead me into the wilderness,Yet I must follow her; She may strip me of all I love,Yet I must pursue her;Though she slay me, Yet will I trust in her; And I ask no other epitaph on my tomb but "She tried to follow Truth."
Deanna Goodrich McMain, PhD, is a writer, photographer, and student of classical guitar. A former computer programmer, audiologist, and clinical counselor, she lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with her husband, hiking the mountains of the southwest and staying close to Nature. She served as Silver City Study Center secretary for two years.