Contemporaries of Rudolf Steiner:
Annie Besant was born Annie Wood on October 1st, 1847 in London. Her family was middle-class, with an Irish background, making them somewhat of outsiders in the society of the time. Her father was a doctor, but he died in 1852 when Annie was only five. From then on her mother, Emily, struggled to provide for the family and keep them from abject poverty. In Victorian England, there was no social safety net, and the drop from the middle class to utter penury could come abruptly. Emily Wood took a job providing for boarders at the Harrow School. However, her position did not allow her to care for her daughter or Annie's brother. Annie was placed in the care of Ellen Marryat, a family friend, who ran a small school for girls out of her home. Ms. Marryat, a spinster, ran an Evangelical Christian household in a strict manner. Sundays were for Bible study, theatre was evil, and the purpose of life was to serve God. The young Annie absorbed these teachings willingly and enthusiastically. Visiting Paris at age 15, Annie witnessed a Catholic mass and was struck by the beauty and ritual of the ceremony. Having been brought up reading the works of prominent Protestant theologians, she now turned her attention to the early Church Fathers, the theological basis of both the Catholic and Anglican churches. Her whole heart and mind were devoted to religion, she was absorbed in the subject and all her passion went into understanding the life of Christ. She experimented with fasting and even self-flagellation, trying to test her dedication and endurance. She yearned for a great challenge, an opportunity to be a martyr for her faith. In trying to relive in imagination the events of the last week of Jesus' life, she made a chart to synchronize the events as related in each of the four Gospels. And here she discovered on her own what many a theologian had already noticed: there are contradictory descriptions in the different parts of the New Testament. This was her first crisis of faith, and her reason struggled mightily with her passion. She settled the matter by deciding that God had placed the discrepancies there to test the faith of those like herself that thought so much about these things.
The young and still very idealistic Annie was still determined to live a life dedicated to the service of Christ. Frank Besant, a 26-year-old Evangelical Anglican clergyman appeared to be a kindred spirit. Due to the social customs of Victorian England, they were not very well acquainted when their marriage was arranged, but it seemed to everyone, including Annie and Frank, that it was an ideal match. And so the 19-year-old Annie was married at Hastings in Sussex in 1866. Frank became vicar at Sibsey in Lincolnshire, and by 23 Annie Besant was a vicar's wife with two children, a boy and a girl. It could have been an ideal life. Instead it was already cracking at the edges. She and Frank were poorly suited; temperamentally and philosophically opposed on almost every level. Frank was a typical Victorian male: chauvinistic, traditionalist, narrow-minded, and possibly a little insecure with a wife whose intellectual talents far surpassed his own. Annie was progressive, independent, and very intelligent; in every way ill suited to being a Victorian middle-class housewife. Their problems started early. Annie wrote short stories, children's books, and newspaper and magazine articles. Frank took the money she earned. In Victorian England, women were not legally allowed to own property. Philosophical differences showed in other ways. The parishioners of Frank's parish were mostly farm laborers, who lived a miserable and bleak existence – just the kind of people Annie had hoped to dedicate her life to helping. The biggest political issue for the area was the attempts by the farm laborers to unionize, probably the only way they had to introduce real improvements to their living conditions. Frank Besant was a staunch Tory, an anti-unionist who sided with the landowners and capitalists. This was the source of more than one argument in the household.
Three years into their marriage, Annie reached a complete crisis. She was a loving, doting mother, and her youngest child became violently ill. All her strength and attention went into caring for her sick child. But her heart was filled with despair. In every way her life was miserable. She could not comprehend how a merciful God could allow such suffering in the world: her own, that of her parishioners, and that of her child. With her child nearly recovered, she collapsed; a physical and emotional breakdown. In the depths of despair she contemplated suicide. Frank was no help, and his attitudes remained unchanged. One day when he hit her, she left him and returned to London with her two children. And she began to seriously question her faith. She took her questions to leading theologians, such as Dr. Pusey, leader of the Catholic wing of the Church of England. In the patronizing manner of a British Victorian, he told her she had simply read too many books. Others were more helpful, suggesting the books of F. D. Maurice and J. S. Mill, liberal theologians who argued that the Bible was to be interpreted symbolically. She soon resolved never again to say "I believe" unless she had proven to herself the truth of what she was saying. She also decided to return to her husband and try to repair her marriage. She managed the first, but the second proved futile. Her spiritual striving lead her to question the utility of Communion, and when her refusal to take it embarrassed her husband in front of his parishoners, she was banished from her home. She moved again to London, but Frank kept their son Digby. Divorce was impossible for Frank, both because of social convention and his theological beliefs. Society would not accept a woman divorcing a good man for no valid reason; therefore Annie remained Mrs. Besant for the rest of her life. Forced to choose between convention and her own intellectual integrity, she chose independence. The choice would cost her dearly.
With her voracious intellect, she was now exposed to new currents of thought. She read the latest works of critical theology, such as Renan's Historical Life of Jesus which takes as its premise the fact that the Bible is an unreliable guide to history. The rising scientific picture of evolution also caught her attention, and she studied the latest advances in various fields. She later described how Darwin "had done much towards freeing me from my old bonds." In her quest for truth, she came, after much study, to reject the entire Bible, and all that was based upon it. The devout protestant girl who dreamed of martyrdom had, through experiencing the worst of her age, and at great personal cost, won through to spiritual independence. She had become an atheist. Within two years she joined the Secular Society, a group notorious for its efforts to separate civil society from the influence of the Church of England.
As a single mother in London, Besant turned to writing to support herself. Socially an outsider, she fell in with other dissidents against Victorian social constraints. In the Secular Society she met Charles Bradlaugh, editor of the National Reformer. He gave her a weekly column, and her sharp pen fought for moral and spiritual truth and justice. She abhorred state-sponsored religion, as well as the ways religions of all forms interfered in peoples lives. Of personal interest was the status of women in society, and she wrote many an article on marriage and the rights of women. She and Bradlaugh advocated for freedom of conscience and free speech, things that many take for granted today. Besant was allowed to speak publicly for the Secular Society, and soon became an accomplished orator. Attending public lectures was a major form of entertainment in Victorian Europe – a world before radio and television – and Besant was soon in demand. She traversed the nation by railroad, reiterating the themes of her columns.
In 1877 Besant and Bradlaugh decided to take on reproductive rights by publishing the American reformer Charles Knowlton's book The Fruits of Philosophy in England. Tame by today's standards, it consisted of a philosophical argument for birth control – that working-class families would never be happy unless they could choose how many children to have – and suggested medical methods to accomplish this. The result was a prompt trial for obscenity, where they stood accused of publishing material "likely to deprave or corrupt those whose minds are open to immoral influences". In court Besant and Bradlaugh argued that "we think it more moral to prevent conception of children than, after they are born, to murder them by want of food, air and clothing." They were found guilty of "obscene libel" and sentenced to six months prison each. The conviction was overturned on appeal. The trial was the topic of conversation for months. Opinions raged back and forth in the columns and letter pages of newspapers and magazines throughout the land. Besant and Bradlaugh became household names. Besant then wrote her own book advocating contraception, titled The Laws of Population. Newspapers like The Times of London accused her of writing "an indecent, lewd, filthy, bawdy and obscene book". And Annie lost custody of her daughter Mabel; such a woman was not fit to be a mother.
Bradlaugh was a strict individualist, and Besant understood and agreed with his individualism whenever it was threatened by social or religious convention. But at heart she maintained a deep moral commitment to the improvement of humanity. And as she observed the depth and extent of suffering around her, it became clear to her that workers would improve their lot best through collective action to address the injustices forced upon them through social inequality. She and Bradlaugh parted ways, philosophically and literally, over the issue. It was George Bernard Shaw, the young Irish playwright, who introduced philosophical socialism to Besant. They became close (how close is a matter of speculation) and she joined the Fabian Society. She was now in her 30's.
Through the 1880's Besant worked for socialist causes. She joined the Social Democratic Federation, and started her own newspaper called The Link. She used all her powers as a public orator to advance socialism, and was notably successful in several instances, including successfully unionizing a match factory, opposing the most powerful industrial lobby in England at the time. In 1889 she was elected to the London School Board, where she ushered in a host of far-reaching reforms, including the first program of free lunches for undernourished children. By 1890 she was a prominent public figure in Great Britain, a progressive advocate for a host of liberal causes, and a household name. The next major turn in her destiny would puzzle many.
As early as the mid 1880's Besant, who was a widely read intellectual, became interested in phenomena which could not be explained by ordinary science. She was hardly alone in this. Many late Victorian intellectuals explored the limits of science and were interested in the paranormal. Spiritualism was a fairly widespread movement by that time, and the reality of the phenomena of manifestations and séances were widely accepted. Besant began to hold séances in her home. The reality of the events impressed her, but she felt dissatisfied with the explanations given for such events. A friend with an interest in the occult gave her Blavatsky's Secret Doctrine to review for her newspaper. She studied it diligently and gave it a positive review. Upon reflection, she was even more intrigued and wanted to meet the author. She found Blavatsky in Paris and soon joined the Theosophical Society.
To some her path from fervent Christianity to atheism, socialism and Marxism, and then on to Theosophy was a riddle of contradictions. But her evolution is better seen as an organic development along the path of striving for truth. She was unafraid to go where the truth took her, no matter the cost.
With her usual energy she threw herself into promoting Theosophy. Upon Blavatsky's death in 1891 she was the best known member of the Theosophical Society, and organizationally the most capable. Her conversion was not without personal cost – old friends abandoned her, a phenomenon that Steiner would experience as well. George Bernard Shaw wrote disparagingly that, "She was born an actress. She was successively a Puseyite Evangelical, an Atheist Bible-smasher, a Darwinian secularist, a Fabian socialist, a Strike Leader, and finally a Theosophist… She saw herself as a priestess above all. That was how Theosophy held her to the end." These are not exactly kind words from a former close friend. Within two years she moved to India, the home base of the Theosophical Society, arriving in 1893.
In India Besant continued her program of social reform in a new context. Already in her pre-Theosophical period in England she had campaigned for Home Rule (or independence) for Ireland and India. She received a hero's welcome on account of her status as a campaigner for social justice and Indian Home Rule. In India she spoke for the advancement of Theosophy, but her way of doing so gave special emphasis to the Hindu aspects. She saw it as her job to revive Indian culture and make the country proud of its heritage, while reforming certain aspects to which she objected, such as child brides and widow burning. She established a college in Benares and planned an entire network of universities. She then went around the world raising money for her educational initiatives. Membership in the Theosophical Society surged, especially in India. Older European and American members, however, became concerned with what they called the orientalization of the Society and complained about its emphasis on all things Hindu. The American branch under W. Q. Judge broke with the leadership in Adyar, and to this day the American Theosophical Society remains independent. In India, Besant's closest colleague came to be Charles Webster Leadbeater.
Annie Besant remained humble about her abilities, and upon commencing her working relationship with Leadbeater claimed personal clairvoyant insight only infrequently. Instead she placed herself at the service of a greater goal. She was a talented speaker and a phenomenal organizer. Under her leadership the Theosophical Society exceeded 100,00 members and had a worldwide impact. But she was dependent on Leadbeater for direction. This is the irony of her life, a life devoted to independence: she ended up dependent on Leadbeater for spiritual insight and direction. While she was indeed a talented and accomplished speaker, the fact she had nothing of her own to say was evident to discerning listeners, as shown by a comment that Albert Schweitzer made in 1906 to Steiner about his impression of one of her speeches: "A person quite lacking in independence, who has nothing to say." How Steiner related this to Marie von Sievers in a letter indicates that he agreed. It was characteristic of Besant that she placed her talents in the service of the vision of others. Whether it was Christ, Marx, Blavatsky, or Leadbeater, it was her intention to serve with all her ability and will. In that regard, her intentions were good.