Catherine Wathen – USA
Theosophy was highly influential in the early twentieth century among upper-class Britons. That influence is alluded to in a new biography of one of the most scandalous members of the time and class: Lady Idina Sackville (1893-1955). The biography, by Lady Idina’s great-granddaughter, Frances Osborne, is entitled The Bolter (New York: Knopf, 2009). The title is an allusion to the fact that Lady Idina had five husbands from whom she bolted whenever a new male caught her fancy. Note that it was not Idina who was influenced by Theosophy, but her mother and some others of her kith and kin!
Ms Osborne is unfortunately badly informed about Theosophy and so makes a number of wrong generalizations about it. Those errors have, in the interest of faithful quotation, been left in the following extracts from the book. But readers of Theosophy Forward will know that, pace Ms Osborne, Theosophy is not “a religion,” but a spiritual philosophy; it is not a “cult” (which is a dismissive term for religious bodies one does not like); it is considerably more than a combination of Hinduism and Buddhism; and it certainly has nothing to say about a “God” that one can communicate with. A number of simple factual errors have been omitted from the following quotations or simply passed over to save the need for correcting them. But here, with various of its misconceptions and factual errors, are some of the book’s observations about Theosophy among the flappers of the Jazz age:
“[Idina’s mother] Muriel then took to a new religion. Her mother had brought her up to pursue two things: the vote for women and scientific knowledge. Muriel now made her own mark by breaking away from the latter dramatically. She took up with an Irishwoman called Annie Besant, who was in the process of attempting to overturn almost every convention she encountered. Besant, who had long been separated from her own husband, had been an advocate of Marxism, then social democracy. She had organized a groundbreaking strike by the young women working for the match manufacturer Bryant and May, in which she succeeded in helping them improve their pay and conditions. She had then been put on trial for publishing a book advocating birth control. She was freed on appeal, but the court case had lost her her own children; full custody of them was given to her estranged husband. She then published a book, The Law of Population. This also argued for birth control, and declared that abundant recreational sex within a marriage was healthy for women.
“In the late 1870s, when The Law of Population was published, it ran in direct contradiction to the belief of the Victorian establishment that women did not and should not enjoy sex, which was considered an unavoidable moment of regrettable bestiality unfortunately necessary to produce children. The work was condemned in the Times as “an indecent, lewd, filthy, bawdy and obscene book.” Besant, who rapidly became one of Muriel’s closest friends, continued to preach her views; her audience included the adolescent Idina. Despite the scandals, Besant was nonetheless elected to the London School Board in 1889. In the same year, she converted to the cult of Theosophy. Theosophy had been brought to Europe in the late nineteenth century by a Ukrainian mystic, Madame Blavatsky. The underlying principle of Theosophy, a combination of Hinduism and Buddhism, was that the dogmas of revealed religion had corrupted pure communication with God. Within a very few years, Besant was president of the British Theosophical Society, and Muriel followed her into the cult.
“. . . Besant and Leadbeater declared themselves clairvoyant, and said that they were searching for the New Messiah, who would be a young boy whom their clairvoyancy would enable them to identify. . . . Besant . . ., perhaps spotting the depth of / Muriel’s open purse, suggested that Idina’s brother, Buck, might be the New Messiah. Muriel was attracted to the reforming zeal of the Theosophists, and their acceptance of her despite her divorce. She went along with the plans for Buck to be anointed, and funded whatever was required.
“Muriel was not alone in her conversion to Theosophy. Lady Emily Lutyens, daughter of the Earl of Lytton and wife of the leading British architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens, was also a keen Theosophist. The late nineteenth century had seen a vogue for spiritualism, with fashionable parties procuring a mystic for postprandial entertainment, which often included table-turning. Theosophy caught this wave of fashion.
By 1911 Besant’s society had sixteen thousand members. Besant and Leadbeater had changed their minds about the New Messiah. In a move that managed not to offend Muriel or any of the society’s other keen donors who had sons in the running for the title, they chose an eleven-year-old Brahmin boy from India, called Krishnamurti. Muriel, her own son rejected, nonetheless deepened her bonds with Theosophy. She offered Krishnamurti a home at Old Lodge with her children—all of whom, including Idina, were still living there.” [pp. 28-30]
. . . . . . . . .
“Barbie Lutyens was eighteen years old and the eldest child of the most renowned architect in Britain, Edwin Luryeus. Lutyens had designed dozens of “modern” country houses in Britain and public buildings all over the British Empire. He was now working on the new Viceroy’s Palace in Delhi, a monumental building with several miles of passageways. Like Idina and Avie’s mother, Muriel, Barbie’s mother, Emily Lutyens, was an ardent Theosophist. When Krishnamurti had come to England in 1911 he had left Idina and Avie’s house to spend his summer holiday with Barbie’s family.” [p.71]