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  Annie Besant (1847–1933), by Hayman Selig Mendelssohn Annie Besant (1847–1933), by Hayman Selig Mendelssohn
Besant [née Wood], Annie (1847–1933), theosophist and politician in India, was born at 2 Fish Street Hill in the City of London on 1 October 1847, the only daughter of William Persse Wood (d. 1852), underwriter, and his wife, Emily Roche Morris (d. 1874). Other relatives were Matthew Wood (1768–1843), lord mayor of London; William Page Wood, Lord Hatherley (1801–1881); Katharine Wood, wife of Captain W. O'Shea and later of C. S. Parnell; and Sir Henry Trueman Wood, her elder brother. The Woods came from Devon, but Annie's grandfather, as a younger son, went to Ireland and settled in Galway. His son, Annie's father, studied medicine at Trinity College, Dublin, where he married Emily, who came of an Irish family whose fortunes had declined. In 1845 they returned to London, where William's family connection secured him a City post. He and Emily had three children; the first two, Henry (1845–1929) and Annie, survived. When Annie was five years old her father died. Although her prosperous Wood in-laws offered support, Emily chose to see Henry through Harrow School without help. She rented a house near the college and took in boys as boarders. There was no room for a precocious little girl, so in 1856, when a wealthy spinster, Ellen Marryat (sister of Captain Frederick Marryat, author of boys' adventure stories), offered to educate Annie, Emily accepted, though she knew how keenly her daughter would feel the separation.

Education, marriage, and loss of faith

Miss Marryat had a ‘perfect genius’ for teaching (Besant, Sketches, 16). The children she educated in a handsome, sunny house near Charmouth in Dorset were encouraged to learn from observation and experience. Because her father had made a fortune planting sugar, she had always been accustomed to affluence and social position. Consequently, besides Latin, French, history, and geography, Annie absorbed the unshakeable self-confidence of an English gentlewoman, together with the sense of duty towards others less fortunate than herself that was the evangelical Miss Marryat's guiding principle. Religion was to be Annie's chief preoccupation, recreation, and study, but she was not attracted to Miss Marryat's plain and serviceable faith, preferring ritual. At sixteen, when Miss Marryat dismissed her, she was intensely devout; in her own words, the very stuff of which fanatics were made. She was prevented from converting to Roman Catholicism only by a prior commitment to the Oxford Movement; Edward Pusey, Henry Liddon, and John Keble ruled her faith, while her imagination was engaged by the esoteric practices discussed by the fathers of the church. Their works were in Harrow School Library, where she studied by herself in the brief interval between returning to her mother and her marriage in Hastings parish church on 21 December 1867 to the Revd Frank Besant (1840–1917), son of William Besant, a wine merchant. He was seven years older; an impecunious, parsimonious, stiff-necked young man from Portsea, whose evangelicalism was approvingly described as ‘serious’ (one of his five brothers became the writer Sir Walter Besant). Digby, their first child, was born on 16 January 1869, followed by Mabel on 28 August 1870.

In 1872 Lord Hatherley, now lord chancellor, preferred Frank Besant to the living of Sibsey, an agricultural parish in Lincolnshire. The marriage was already under strain from the—to Annie—horrid inevitability of a third pregnancy which, she argued, was beyond their means and a result of her having fallen out with God, whose failure to spare Mabel from a near fatal illness in 1871 she regarded as unjust. In vain she sought a remedy for her distress at losing her faith in the works of orthodox theologians, while an appeal in person to one of her heroes earned her a rebuke. ‘You have read too much’, E. B. Pusey told her (Besant, Sketches, 66). She turned for sympathy to the former vicar of Healaugh, Charles Voysey, whose appeal to the privy council against a sentence of deprivation for unorthodoxy had been upheld at a hearing on 11 February 1871 presided over by ‘Pontius’ Hatherley. Voysey, now head of a ‘theistic’ church in London, introduced her to the freethinker , who encouraged her to write a pamphlet, which he published in 1872 as On the Deity of Jesus of Nazareth, by the wife of a beneficed clergyman. Fearful that this might put his own living at risk, in the summer of 1873 Frank Besant issued an ultimatum: Annie was to be seen to take holy communion regularly at Sibsey or she was to leave. ‘Hypocrisy or expulsion’, Annie wrote, ‘I chose the latter’ (Besant, Autobiography, 99). In 1874 she moved to London.

A freethinker: Bradlaugh and birth control

Annie Besant existed in London on the small allowance awarded to her under a deed of separation dated 25 October 1873 that gave her custody of Mabel, and by what she earned from writing articles in favour of freethought commissioned by Thomas Scott. Digby stayed with his father, who continued vicar of Sibsey until his death in 1917. In 1875 Charles Bradlaugh, president of the National Secular Society, gave her a job writing for the freethought newspaper, the National Reformer, and encouraged her to speak in public (her first attempt had been behind locked doors, from the pulpit of Sibsey church). Soon she was second only to Bradlaugh in her ability to fill the halls of science up and down the country. ‘What a beautiful and attractive and irresistible creature she was then’, the Irish journalist T. P. O'Connor wrote, ‘with her slight but full and well-shaped figure, her dark hair, her finely chiselled features … with that short upper lip that seemed always in a pout’ (T. P.'s Weekly, 21 Aug 1903). Her other asset was her voice, which Beatrice Webb described as ‘the voice of a beautiful soul’ (Diary, 4.305).

For the next eleven years Mrs Besant and Bradlaugh, who was fourteen years older, were close and affectionate colleagues. As Ajax she wrote a weekly column, ‘Daybreak’, in the Reformer about current affairs, while research for lectures such as ‘The gospel of Christianity v. the gospel of freethought’ and ‘The atonement’ (of which she disapproved) called for the kind of theological knowledge possessed by a clerk in holy orders. As bishop, Bradlaugh demanded excellence. On 20 January 1877 they set up the Freethought Publishing Company, promising that ‘All that we publish we shall defend’ (National Reformer, 4 March 1877). In March the publishing company invited prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 by reissuing Charles Knowlton's treatise on birth control, The Fruits of Philosophy (1877). Bradlaugh and Besant aimed to establish the right to circulate information about a subject that, if mentioned at all, was referred to as neo-Malthusianism. At the trial on 18 June 1877 Mrs Besant conducted her own defence; the first woman publicly to endorse ‘checks’ on conception. In her evidence she stressed that such measures would help to relieve poverty. The pamphlet was judged to be calculated to deprave public morals, but Besant and Bradlaugh were exonerated from any corrupt motive in publishing it. Besant soon produced her own advice, The Law of Population (1878), which sold thousands over the years. But she stood condemned as shameless by the public, and on 18 May 1878 Frank Besant succeeded in an action to reclaim Mabel on the grounds that Annie's views made her unfit to bring up a young girl. Mabel and Digby were reconciled to their mother later on; Frank Besant never was. His vocation ruled out any question of divorce.

In 1879 Annie Besant was tutored in science by Edward Aveling, and matriculated at London University for a science degree, with which she did not proceed.

From 1880 to 1886 Annie Besant was caught up in the bitter struggle over Bradlaugh, as an atheist, taking his seat in parliament as MP for Northampton. Her approach to politics, always radical, grew more extreme. In 1884 a new recruit to the freethought movement, Edward Aveling, introduced her to socialist ideas; they began appearing in Our Corner, the literary magazine she had just launched. Its art critic after 1885 was George Bernard Shaw, who introduced her to the Fabian Society. In March 1885 she became a member of its executive. When she saw how repressive the Liberal government was in containing unrest in Ireland and among the unemployed in London she also offered her support to the Marxist Social Democratic Federation. These moves upset Bradlaugh, who regarded socialism as a disruptive foreign doctrine. In November 1887 he was further infuriated by her attempt to involve him in the agitation against the Metropolitan Police commissioner's decree closing Trafalgar Square to demonstrations. On Sunday 13 November Annie Besant led one of many processions starting in the East End that aimed to force the square. Her plan, to get arrested in order to test the law, was frustrated when the police, recognizing her, removed her from the vicinity of the violent clashes for which the incident was known as ‘bloody Sunday’. She joined W. T. Stead, William Morris, H. M. Hyndman, John Burns, Jacob Bright, and others in the Law and Liberty League, the aim of which was to uphold the right of free speech. In the summer of 1888 its journal, The Link, of which she was editor, carried the first account of the strike by the match-girls employed by Messrs Bryant and May to improve their pay and conditions. Besant helped them form a union, the first for women only. In the next two years, by means of publications to which she was connected as editor or contributor—The Link, Our Corner, Justice, The Commonweal, National Reformer—she became a major figure in the organization of unskilled workers, referred to as the ‘new unionism’. She published Why I am a Socialist and Modern Socialism (1886). By then it seemed the striking and effective personality she had become must find a role in politics. She hoped to stand for the newly founded London county council, but women were excluded. In 1889 she was top of the poll for the London school board when she won Tower Hamlets on a socialist platform. Hard work earned her the gratitude of her ‘constituents’ and the respect of her opponents on the board. In middle-class eyes her reputation, so badly damaged by her association with Charles Bradlaugh, was on the mend. But she refused a second term.

Theosophy

In 1888 Besant's investigations into what she called the obscure side of consciousness—dreams, hallucinations—convinced her that ‘there was some hidden thing, some hidden power’ which it was her destiny to find (Besant, Autobiography, 309). She was disillusioned with other means of improving the human condition, not excepting socialism. In 1889 she put her large house at 19 Avenue Road, St John's Wood, at the disposal of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Russian co-founder of the Theosophical Society and author of the celebrated Isis Unveiled (1877) and The Secret Doctrine (2 vols., 1888). The society, which Madame Blavatsky and an American colonel, Henry Steele Olcott (1832–1907), founded in New York in 1875, had its headquarters at Madras. According to Madame, India was open to spiritual regeneration, as was another country under British rule—one for which Annie Besant had a special feeling—Ireland. The origins of the Theosophical Society were to be found ‘in a group of Superhuman Men, Teachers, Masters, Adepts whose universal knowledge of evolution … constitutes them the wise Initiators and Guides of all movements designed to influence profoundly the growth of the world’, a disciple wrote (Ransom, 1). Among these teachers were mahatmas who communicated from their sanctuary in the Himalayas. Besant's acceptance of this new discipline profoundly changed her attitude and beliefs, and astonished her former colleagues. Because Blavatsky held that birth control was incompatible with reincarnation, Besant withdrew all copies of her Law of Population. Celibacy was another requirement of Madame's which seemed to contradict what had gone before—the world supposed Annie and Bradlaugh had been lovers. It may have been so; however, in her Autobiographical Sketches she revealed that, because her mother preferred her to be innocent, her wedding night had shocked and humiliated her; some thought the harm done to her pride then was never forgiven or repaired.

‘Theosophists appear to me to have sought to rehabilitate a kind of Spiritualism in Eastern phraseology’, Bradlaugh wrote in the National Reformer (30 June 1889), believing as he did that many of their allegations were erroneous and their reasoning unsound. Though Annie was offended, she was devastated by his death on 30 January 1891, aged only fifty-eight. Four months later, while she was lecturing in America, Madame Blavatsky also died. She had appointed Mrs Besant ‘in the name of the Master, Chief Secretary of the Inner Group of the Esoteric Section, and Recorder of the Teachings’ (Farquhar, 268). W. B. Yeats, who was briefly a member of the society at this time, reported that the esoteric section concerned itself with magic.

India

On 16 November 1893 Mrs Besant was welcomed to India by Colonel Olcott, president founder of the Theosophical Society. Olcott hoped she would help him administer the many branches established since 1882, when he and Blavatsky moved into the former maharaja's palace on the banks of the River Adyar at Madras. Besant's progress towards Adyar was marked by such enthusiastic crowds that she was encouraged into breaking a taboo—she called on them to throw off the foreign yoke. The government of India had long since made it clear that theosophists must not engage in politics, a rule that Olcott scrupulously observed. Besant's speeches caused the vernacular press to hail her as the long-awaited leader against the raj. Rebuked by The Times (5 February 1894) for inflammatory remarks, she was called to order by Colonel Olcott. He and she also differed in the emphasis they placed on existing forms of belief: he was an enthusiast for Buddhism, she immersed herself in Hindu religion and culture. As long as he lived Olcott presided at Adyar, while Besant made her home for six months every year at Benares, the sacred Hindu city. She adopted Indian dress, white sari and white sandals (the Hindu mourning colour): she was in mourning for the wrong British rule had done to India.

For the next fourteen years Mrs Besant was apparently content to carry on her work of regeneration in the field of education. In 1897, in Benares, she founded the Central Hindu College—monastery and English public school combined—where boys observed the Hindu way of life while becoming familiar with Western ideas. She published her own translation from Sanskrit of the sacred text the Bhagavad Gita (1895). According to her its most important lesson was that ‘union with divine life may be achieved and maintained in the midst of worldly affairs’ (A. Besant, The Bhagavadgita, 1895, Preface), a call to social duty which Miss Marryat must have approved.

In 1907, when Colonel Olcott died, the masters chose Mrs Besant to succeed him when she moved to Adyar. As president she reinstated Charles Webster Leadbeater, a former Anglican clergyman, who had resigned from the Theosophical Society in 1906 after charges of perversion—which were never proved—were brought against him. Leadbeater was an observant traveller on the astral plane and wrote many books describing his experiences. He and Besant collaborated to produce Occult Chemistry (2nd edn, 1919), when they used clairvoyance to examine atoms. Leadbeater was responsible for the discovery on the seashore at Adyar in 1909 of the fourteen-year-old Brahman boy Jiddu Krishnamurti, whom Mrs Besant brought up as the reincarnation of the World Teacher. Her failure to follow her own advice and keep this discovery secret caused many defections from the society, and was the reason why the Central Hindu College, where a personality cult focused briefly on the boy, ultimately passed from her control (it became the Hindu University).

Olcott's death enabled Besant to re-enter Indian politics, where she poured her superabundant energy into campaigning for self-government by means of newspapers she controlled—The Commonweal and New India—and in lectures such as India Bond or Free? (1926). In 1913 she joined the Indian National Congress. In 1915 she proposed to its executive committee that a network of home rule leagues be set up across the country. While at the outbreak of the 1914–18 war most Indian politicians, including Gandhi, the rising star, called a truce in their opposition to the raj, Besant did not, proclaiming ‘England's need is India's opportunity’ (New India, August 1914). In 1916 the tragedy of the Dublin Easter rising incited Mrs Besant to new heights of ferocity and contempt. In May 1917 the viceroy, Lord Chelmsford, bowed to Anglo-Indian demands and interned her at Ootacamund. The historic announcement made at Westminster on 20 August 1917 promising ‘the progressive realisation of responsible government in India’ (Hansard 5C, 97, 1917, col. 1695) secured her release, when all India celebrated. Shortly afterwards the secretary of state, Edwin Montagu, granted her an interview at Viceregal Lodge at which she told him of her long-standing efforts to counter racial discrimination and advised him on his future course. ‘If only the Government had kept this old woman on our side’, he lamented in his diary; ‘if only she had been well handled from the beginning’ (Montagu, 58–9). On 26 December 1917 she became the first woman president of the 32nd Indian National Congress meeting at Calcutta. It was the summit of her influence, which thereafter declined. She did not get on with Gandhi, whose new method of passive resistance she denounced, and in 1919 she was reviled when she miscalculated her response to the massacre by British soldiers of civilians at Amritsar in the Punjab. But in the 1920s she continued to attend those occasions when the two sides met to discuss the future. Her last official appointment—a token one—was in 1928 when she was named a member of the Nehru committee to draft an agreed constitution.

In this last decade, as president of the Theosophical Society, Besant visited branches all over the world, taking to the aeroplane with enthusiasm. Her support for Leadbeater and his Liberal Catholic church, for which she was visitor, remained a source of controversy. She presided at an annual camp in Holland when the coming of the World Teacher was proclaimed. In 1929 Krishnamurti's repudiation of this role was the blow that effectively ended her career. She retired to Adyar where she was much loved and, as her consciousness declined, faithfully looked after. She died there on 20 September 1933 and was cremated on the shore.

Anne Taylor

Sources  

A. W. Besant, Autobiographical sketches (1885) · A. W. Besant, Annie Besant: an autobiography, 2nd edn (1908) · A. Taylor, Annie Besant: a biography (1992) · Chancery records · C. Bradlaugh, ‘The Queen v. Bradlaugh and Besant’, National Reformer (10 June 1877) [transcript in full] · TNA: PRO, HO 144/204 · National Reformer (1875–89) · Bernard Shaw: the diaries, 1885–1897, ed. S. Weintraub, 2 vols. (1986) · E. Royle, ed., The Bradlaugh papers (1975) · J. Ransom, A short history of the Theosophical Society, 1875–1933 (1938) · A. H. Nethercot, The first five lives of Annie Besant (1961) · A. H. Nethercot, The last four lives of Annie Besant (1963) · J. N. Farquhar, Modern religious movements in India (1915) · E. S. Montagu, An Indian diary, ed. V. Montagu (1930) · The diary of Beatrice Webb, ed. N. MacKenzie and J. MacKenzie, 4 vols. (1982–5) · b. cert. · deed of separation, 25 Oct 1873 · will extract, Principal Registry of the Family Division, London, G29/94–05– 00803

Archives  

Theosophical Society, Adyar, Chennai (Madras), India · TNA: PRO, Bloody Sunday, HO 144/204 · U. Leeds, Brotherton L., pamphlets |  BL, letters to George Bernard Shaw, Add. MS 50529 · BL OIOC, corresp. with David Graham Pole, MS Eur. F 264 · BLPES, corresp. with Fabian Society · CAC Cam., letters to W. T. Stead · National Secular Society, London, Bradlaugh MSS · National Secular Society, London, Bradlaugh Bonner MSS · NL Scot., letters to Patrick Geddes · NL Scot., letters to R. B. Haldane · TNA: PRO, papers relating to Regina v. Bradlaugh and Besant

 

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Likenesses  

photographs, c.1927, NPG · Klein & Peyerl, photograph, 1933, NPG · postage stamp, 1947?, India · Barraud, photograph, NPG; repro. in Men and Women of the Day, 4 (1891) · H. S. Mendelssohn, photograph, NPG [see illus.] · bust, probably Theosophical Society, Varanasi, India · photographs, Adyar Archives, Madras, India · photographs, repro. in Besant, Autobiographical sketches · statue, Madras, India

Wealth at death  

£3510 11s. 9d.—in England: resworn probate, 1934, CGPLA Eng. & Wales · Rs131,647—gross in India · Rs62,961 ·