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The Odyssey of Annie Besant

Exactly a century ago, Annie Besant appalled her friends in the secularist and socialist movements of late Victorian England by converting to Theosophy. Hers was a particularly dramatic spiritual odyssey, beginning with the High Church fervour of her adolescence, passing through a much publicised endorsement of free-thought and materialism, to end at last in the eclectic occultism of Theosophy. Such a pilgrimage poses special difficulties for today's interpreters of her life. Besant's atheist stance is still attractive, with its impassioned plea for individual freedom of choice and its rousing appeal to human reason. In her Theosophical guise, she appears to have surrendered to mystical dogmatism, preferring obscurantism before rationalism. We honour her courage in the first instance and, in the second, deplore her relapse into an emotion-laden religiosity.

Historical perspective, as is well known, offers a highly distorting lens through which to observe the past. The very traits that many people today admire most in Annie Besant – her fight for women's rights, her hatred of racism and imperialism, her republican views and socialist commitments – are precisely what most horrified her contemporaries. They, by contrast, could sympathise with the quality we find hardest to appreciate – her spiritual restlessness and compelling need to find shelter in some secure religious creed. While few late Victorians and Edwardians commended her final selection of Theosophy, most would have welcomed her repudiation of secularism as, at least, a step in the right direction. The moral judgments of one generation often provoke the wrath, ridicule, or sheer bewilderment of its successors. The historian can best serve this strong-willed, fearless woman, not by embarking on yet another exercise in cultural relativism, but by attempting to restore to view the choices that she perceived confronting her and thus better to understand the contrasting roles she adopted.

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