INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON ANNIE BESANT (1847-1933), LONDON, 30 SEPTEMBER - 1 OCTOBER 2017
The Theosophical Society in England (http://www.theosoc.org.uk) is holding a two-day international conference on Annie Besant (1847-1933) at the TSE Headquarters at 50 Gloucester Place, London W1U 8EA on Saturday and Sunday, 30 September and 1 October 2017.
The chair of the first day of the conference, which is primarily concerned with Annie Besant’s public work as a feminist, secularist, socialist and anti-imperialist, will be Dr Muriel Pécastaing-Boissière of the University of Paris-Sorbonne, Paris 4 (author of the new biography Annie Besant (1847-1933) : la lutte et la quête, soon to be published in English).
[Muriel Pécastaing-Boissière writes:] It is impossible to study late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Britain without coming across Annie Besant’s name. So the fact that she has fallen into relative obscurity, at least among the general public, remains difficult to understand.
From a historiographical point of view, Besant seems to have become a victim of trends in historical research that increasingly favor highly specialized and circumscribed studies. Most research has been limited to specific struggles, especially her pioneering fight in 1877–78 for the right to information on birth control and her support of the Match Girls’ Strike of 1888. Her influence on British secularism and socialism are just beginning to be re-evaluated. Yet the logic behind her personal evolution, leading from an early religious crisis to secularism, socialism, Theosophy, and Indian nationalism, has barely been addressed.
Besant’s conversion to Theosophy remains poorly understood and has even been ridiculed by researchers who underestimate the scope of the late-Victorian spiritual and occult revival, in which the Theosophical Society played a critical role. Some writers even lose interest in the second half of Besant’s life or evaluate her earlier struggles with skepticism in light of this conversion. Conversely, though the Theosophical Society has done a remarkable job in preserving and making available Besant’s Theosophical texts, many of its members remain unfamiliar with Besant’s life prior to her conversion.
Furthermore, in a climate of understandable post-colonial guilt, the role that this British woman played in India is an embarrassment to some Western historians, who tend to minimize it. Thus her presidency of the Indian National Congress in 1917 has been almost completely forgotten in the West – even though Indians themselves have preserved the memory of Besant as one of their freedom fighters. Streets in Chennai, Mumbai and indeed many other places in India bear her name and a prominent golden statue of Besant stands on the Chennai seafront alongside monuments to other influential Indian leaders. Despite the criticism of her cautious reformist approach that was expressed in her lifetime by more radical nationalists – including Gandhi – and that are occasionally repeated by Indian historians, Besant remains sufficiently well-known for the State Bank of India to have used her name and image in a publicity campaign in the early 2010s, with a slogan proudly proclaiming: “The banker to this Indian.”
Sadly, Annie Besant’s having been a woman may also have prevented her from passing into posterity. Though she worked and fought alongside a number of talented men in a spirit of brotherhood, many of them would be surprised today to learn that their memory has often eclipsed that of their female comrade.
The purpose of the Theosophical Society in England’s two-day international conference on Annie Besant is to bring together researchers on all aspects of her public life and work, so as to reflect on Besant’s ideological and spiritual evolution within the religious, ethical, social, and political context of her time.