Leslie Price – England
The author Leslie Price
[This text, written by Leslie Price in September 2014, has been extensively revised by the editor, John Algeo; any remaining or newly introduced errors are therefore his responsibility.]
Madame Blavatsky (HPB), one of the founders of the Theosophical Society in New York in 1875, was and is controversial. And not least of the mysteries around her is a set of archival mysteries. One might argue that only by solving these archival mysteries, can we understand the greater mystery of the Old Lady herself.
In a recent biography Yearning for the New Age: Laura Holloway-Langford and Late Victorian Spirituality (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012) Diane Sasson observes: “It may seem obvious that what history gets written depends on what documents are preserved. Any historical reconstruction is based on partial information” (p. 54). Moreover, accounts by witnesses, especially when composed later, may be suspect. Thus Sasson also says of Mrs Holloway, who actually knew Blavatsky: “It is important to realize, however, that Holloway-Langford’s reminiscences, although autobiographical, are literary creations, not history” (p. 163). With these warnings, let us approach our first mystery which concerns marriage.
The First Mystery: Why Did She Commit Matrimony?
On August 3 2014, in his blog “Chasing Down Emma,” Marc Demarest printed the earliest discovered press account of HPB in the United States, dating from October 1874 (http://ehbritten.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/bound-up-in-her-adroit-coils-hpb.html). One newspaper reported: “Helen P. Blavatsky is about forty years of age. At the age of seventeen she married a Russian nobleman and councilor of state, then in his seventy-third year.” Another newspaper interviewed HPB: “‘It is true, as stated,’ said Madame Blavitsky [sic], ‘that I am about forty years of age, and that I was married at the age of sixteen to a man over seventy years old’.”
She went on to speak rather critically of her husband. But what was the reason for the marriage? In 1999, the Brazilian Theosophist Marina Sisson examined the mystery in an on-line account: http://www.katinkahesselink.net/his/hishpb1.htm.
The most widely known account of HPB’s marriage is that in A. P. Sinnett’s 1886 book Incidents in the Life of Madame H. P. Blavatsky Compiled from Information Supplied by Her Relatives and Friends. Mme Hahn, as she then was, supposedly married the administrator Blavatsky to show her governess that at least someone would marry her — but left him soon afterwards. Sinnett stated HPB believed him nearer seventy than sixty.
Marina Sisson in her examination, “New Light on the First Marriage of H.P.B.,” used a biography of HPB written for the Russian public by Helena Fyodorovan Pissarev entitled Yelena Petrovna Blavatskaya. She supported her account with details told by HPB herself in her letters to her friend, Prince Dondoukoff-Korsakoff (H. P. B. Speaks, volume 2). Sisson argues that HPB chose to marry Blavatsky as a means of getting freedom to pursue her occult researches. She also notes “There is a passport issued to HPB on August 23rd, 1862, in Tiflis, and its original is in the Point Loma's Archives. In this document it is said that it was issued ‘in pursuance of a petition presented by her husband to the effect that she, Mme. Blavatsky, accompanied by their infant ward Yury, proceeds to the provinces of Tauris, Cherson and Pskoff for the term of one year’” (Collected Writings 1:xlvi).
Who was the infant ward, Yury? It would appear that HPB was back living in Blavatsky’s house about 1862, and he was assisting her explorations. I should also point out that the letters to Prince Dondoukoff-Korsakoff have been dismissed as forgeries by Jean Overton Fuller, a TPH-London author, and no stranger to this platform
(http://www.filosofiaesoterica.com/ler.php?id=896#.U_3pFZUg_IU ). However, their genuineness has been defended by Erica Georgiades (http://ericageorgiades1.wordpress.com/2014/07/16/controversies-about-the-dondoukoff-korsakoff-letters/ ). I focus on just one small detail today. In reality, Mr Blavatsky was only about 39 or 40 when he married the young Helena. He was not 70 or even 60. This matter was discussed in the July 2008 Psypioneer monthly on-line journal (http://www.woodlandway.org/PDF/PP4.7July08..pdf ).
Although the TS Adyar headquarters website is more guarded, one can still find Theosophical websites that impugn the youth of the bridgegroom. Thus the TS Cardiff site declares: “1849 — She married General Blavatsky, a very elderly man.” In Psypioneer, July 2008, Dr John Algeo, editor of the first volume of HPB’s letters, also noted that HPB could be very inaccurate about her own age, claiming at various times to be younger or older than she was. Before leaving this mystery, I would just add that Colonel Olcott once warned there were up to four Madame Blavatskies wandering the East at one point. One of them at least was not always accurate about mundane matters.
The Second Mystery: The Spying Mystery
“Then he [Soloviof] said that he had seen in the Secret Dept., documents in which I had offered myself as a Spy to the Russian Govt. Do you understand the game?” (Letters of H. P. Blavatsky to A. P. Sinnett and Other Miscellaneous Letters, edited by A. T. Barker, 1925; facsimile edition [Pasadena, CA: Theosophical University Press, 1973], letter 89).
In 1884-1885, reports of psychical phenomena in the Theosophical Society were investigated by the infant Society for Psychical Research, founded in 1882. Their chief investigator, Richard Hodgson, who went out to India, struggled to understand her motivation, and wrote in the final SPR report: “At last a casual conversation opened my eyes. I had taken no interest in Central Asian perplexities, was entirely unaware of the alleged capacities of Russian intrigue, and had put aside as unworthy of consideration the idea — which for some time had currency in India — that the objects of the Theosophical Society were political, and that Madame Blavatsky was a ‘Russian spy.’ But a conversation with Madame Blavatsky, which arose out of her sudden and curious excitement at the news of the recent Russian movement upon the Afghan frontier, compelled me to ask myself seriously whether it was not possible that the task which she had set herself to perform in India was to foster and foment as widely as possible among the natives a disaffection towards British rule. Madame Blavatsky’s momentary emotional betrayal of her sympathies in the onset of her excitement was not rendered less significant by the too strongly impressed ‘after stroke’ of a quite uncalled-for, vituperation of the Russians, who, she said, ‘would be the deathblow of the Society if they got into India’.” Hodgson added: “I cannot profess myself, after my personal experiences of Madame Blavatsky, to feel much doubt that her real object has been the furtherance of Russian interests.”
The belief that Madame Blavatsky was a spy, began even before she arrived in India from America via England. Turkish sources in America suggested it to the British authorities in 1878. Not until 1993 were the relevant papers, then in the India Office library, found by Tony Hern and published in Paul Johnson’s book The Masters Revealed (1994).
Meanwhile, another document had come to light and was quoted by Maria Carlson in her 1993 book No Religion Higher than Truth: A History of the Theosophical movement in Russia 1875-1922 (Princeton University Press). That document was an 1872 letter of application by Madame Blavatsky to the Russian authorities, seeking employment as a spy. The full text appeared in translation by Carlson in the journal Theosophical History of July 1995; another translation, with cautionary remarks about authenticity, is in Letters of H. P. Blavatsky,volume 1, edited by John Algeo (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, Quest Books, 2003). It appears that she was not offered employment.
When that handwritten letter was first revealed, its Russian original was unavailable, and so was suggested not to be genuine. That was the indignant view, for example, of Carlos Cardoso Aveline who called it “a masterpiece of editorial forgery” (http://www.theosophyonline.com/ler.php?id=18 ).
I do not further pursue here the political interests of Madame Blavatsky, though every serious student should read the letter of application. An interesting section deals with the Spiritist Society founded in Cairo by HPB in 1872, and suggests it was used as an intelligence gathering operation. The reason HPB thought of being a spy may well have been the same as her reason for marriage — an opportunity to pursue her occult investigations while being paid to move from place to place.
The Third Mystery: The Mahatic Writings
Another mystery is not one but a long series of documents — letters from Mahatmas or great souls, living chiefly in the East. The first of these was dated 1870 and received by HPB’s aunt in Odessa, but the majority came to two Englishmen resident in India, A.O. Hume and A. P. Sinnett, in 1880-1884. This group of documents is now in the British Library, but in their former home the British Museum, they were examined by an American Theosophist and printer, Geoffrey Barborka.
In his important work The Mahatmas and Their Letters (1962), he identified two types of Mahatma letters: first, the impressed letters of which he said: “These letters convey the appearance of being imbedded into the paper. They are not similar to the ordinary handwritten letters which, of course, are placed on the surface of the paper by means of pen and ink (or pencil)” (p.112). The second type he called precipitated letters, in which characters were composed of many strokes. Both types of writing are difficult to explain.
In the 1980s all the letters were re-examined by Dr Vernon Harrison, who had been chief scientist to the bank note people, De La Rue. Detecting forgery was part of his business. He put his conclusions in a book, accompanied by an affidavit, which can be read on line (http://www.theosociety.org/pasadena/hpb-spr/hpbspr-h.htm ).
He said in part: “Having read the Mahatma Letters, I am left with the strong impression that the writers ‘KH’ and ‘M’ were real and distinct human beings, not demi-gods or ‘shells’. They have their fair share of prejudice and are influenced by the viewpoint of their time. I am of the opinion that all the letters initialled by ‘KH’' originated from him. The basic characteristics of his handwriting persist from first to last; but in the earliest letters in particular, there are variations in and distortions of some of the characters. These variations do not bear the hallmark of the apprentice forger. They seem to have been introduced by the method (unknown) of transmission of the Letters. I draw attention to curious and unexplained features of the writing of the Mahatma Letters, that is to say: the regular, clear striations of some of the writing apparently written in blue pencil; the small amount of ink penetration even when thin ‘rice’ paper was used; the unexplained features of the erasures seemingly made with ink eradicator yet without staining or roughening of the paper; the variability of some (but not all) of the characters; and the (at times) grossly exaggerated t-bars. These features suggest that the documents preserved in the British Library may be copies, made by some unknown FAX process, of originals which we do not possess. Laboratory work on these scripts is desirable. I have found no evidence that the Mahatma Letters preserved in the British Library were written by Helena Blavatsky consciously and deliberately in a disguised form of her own handwriting cultivated over a period of several years, as claimed by Richard Hodgson. That is to say, I find no evidence of common origin between the ‘KH’, ‘M’ and ‘HPB’ scripts. In any ordinary legal case I would regard them as different scripts and attribute them to three different persons. If any of the ‘KH’ and ‘M’ scripts came through the hand of Helena Blavatsky while she was in a state of trance, sleep, multiple personality or other altered states of consciousness known to psychologists and psychiatrists, ‘KH’ and ‘M’ might be considered sub-personalities of Helena Blavatsky. To what extent the supposed sub-personalities are independent is a matter for debate; but in no case would conscious fraud or imposture be involved. Nor does this supposition circumvent the difficulty that there are ‘KH’ letters which even Richard Hodgson had to admit Helena Blavatsky could not possibly have written, as she was too far away at the time and communications were bad.”
Some of us here knew Dr Harrison; he was an adviser to the SPR on photography and handwriting. You may not agree with his views, and think that Madame Blavatsky and a small number of accomplices wrote the Mahatma Letters. But if you are a serious student, you will want to read and ponder both Geoffrey Barborka’s work and that of Dr Harrison. If you have not read Barborka and Harrison on these matters, how much is your opinion worth?
Dr Harrison stated in his book that he had joined the SPR in 1937 and had been a member ever since. He also wrote: “I am not a member of the Theosophical Society, though I can subscribe to the three principles on which it was founded” (H.P.B. Blavatsky and the S.P.R.,” p. xii). However, an obituary in The Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, October 2002, asserted that he was a Theosophical Society member. The obituary also claimed: “It was greatly to the credit of the SPR that, while disclaiming corporate responsibility for the verdict, Harrison was permitted to present his case for the defence (JSPR 53 pp. 286-310). That sentence is worth pondering. Surely as a matter of course, a scientific body would publish evidence for and against a disputed matter, especially if submitted by an expert.
You may also agree with Dr Harrison’s statement thatlaboratory work on these scripts is desirable.When attempts were being made to arouse interest in such work on the Mahatma letters in the early 1980s, Christmas Humphreys of the Mahatma Letters Trust reacted with horror. The letters, he cautioned, were religious artefacts, not to be profanely tampered with. It also seems likely that the British Library will resist any work on their conserved records, although, as the case of the Elgin Marbles indicated, conservation can risk the destruction of the object conserved.
To be continued