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Decorative Initial nnie Besant's life as a devout, a secularist and, towards the end, President of the Theosophical Society cannot be merely seen as a form of active opposition to the most widely accepted way of thinking. Thus, on trying to establish an evaluation as unbiased as possible, our selection depends not only on the purpose of re-reading the male controlled canon, but mainly on the recognition of Besant's achievements whenever dealing with the great issues of Victorian society in which she was aware of its intrinsic gender questions. In her writings, she does take a feminist approach to her topics, on considering gender as culturally constructed ideas and expectations of female and male roles. This statement invites us to see both the links between Victorian women essayists and our new era of feminism. To a certain extent, her autobiographical representations express not only the Victorian compromise, but also a constant desire to do her own evaluation in an attempt to find her own identity; however, in her first writings she only meant to bring the social double standards to an end. Although at the beginning of her marriage she had tried to help her husband's parishioners, she quickly understood that poor people needed better living and fair working conditions rather than handouts. In spite of her awareness of culturally shaped attributes, she sometimes referred in her theosophical reflections, that polarity is founded on biological premises. Besant naturally does not mention the Victorian aim to conciliate antinomic values and simply wants to explain the function of evolution by the union of the "pairs of opposites" (Varela, 66; see also 241.). Nevertheless, when focusing female and male relationship, as she did when delivering her first lecture after joining the National Secular Society, she always criticised women's subjection:

Remove authority, which is tyranny, and people will readily "agree to differ." There will possible be a little more care before marriage about the opinions of the lady wooed than there is now, when the man fancies that he can mould the docile girl into what shape he pleases, and the future happiness of both is marred if the woman happens to be made of bright steel, instead of plastic clay. ("The Political Status of Women" (1874))

As John Stuart Mill stated in "The Subjection of Women," feminine education served as one of the strongest instruments to maintain masculine supremacy at that time. The male vision led to passiveness, but, paradoxically, in Annie's situation it was marriage, and mainly her reaction against this oppressive situation, that made her able to free herself. For her marriage was not the end but the beginning of her story, a situation that is evident in Marriage, As It Was, As It Is, And As It Should Be: A Plea For Reform (1878), which originally appeared serially in the National Reformer (See Saville, Section II, no 11.). Though the patriarchal conception of the Angel in the House remained for a long time, with the image of a dutiful wife submissive to her husband, in the last decades of the century there was a slight opening of the public sphere to women, expressed mostly in the access to higher education. Whenever she fought for education, she always looked forward to the new century both as a new world for women and for colonised people.

Interpreting her own life or explaining how she re-evaluated her own self, Annie Besant's activity was remarkable as an orator. She had experienced it for the first time, in 1873, from her husband's pulpit in the empty, lonely church, as she liked "to try how it felt" (Autobiographical Sketches 72). However, when analysing the cultural discourse of some Victorian sages, Thaïs Morgan points out the authoritative dimension of the sage and inexplicably forgets Annie Besant. However, Mrs. Radha Burnier, the seventh President of the Theosophical Society, said that, when Annie Besant arrived for the first time in India in 1893, she had a great power of inspiration which had certainly been silenced by education. In spite of having a great activity in the public sphere, she was confined at all times to a marginal situation. In this condition of censorship, the presence of several masculine figures such as Edward Pusey, Charles Voysey, Thomas Scott, Charles Bradlaugh, and Edward Aveling has a special meaning. Though we have no revelation of sexual involvement between Annie Besant and her friends, according to the judgement of many contemporaries, these relations suggested transgressive attitudes, which deserved social exclusion.

Actually, her autobiographies, as Broughton has argued, which have to be complemented by her manifestos, namely the Social and Political Pamphlets, have to be examined both as very sensitive and accurate descriptions of a locus for many social, economic and cultural threads. Her continuous confrontation with everything that had affected her mind, feelings and her own experience, a feminine one which had been repressed since her childhood, stimulates the appraisal of contemporary problems and brings her analysis close to the minority ones.

Annie Besant's Shifting Identity and Fin-de-Siècle Culture


Besant, Annie. Reincarnation (1892) Adyar: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1963.

Broughton, Trev. "Women's Autobiography: The Self at Stake?", Prose Studies vol. 14, no 2 (1991), 92-93.

The elusive character of women's autobiography can thus be traced to this three-way transposition: gender takes the structure of genre; genre adopts the lineaments of history; and history embodies the condition of gender. Hence in a feminist reading of autobiography gender, genre and history must dance together.

Mill, John Stuart . "The Subjection of Women" in Alan Ryan (ed.), Mill. 1869; reprint New York, London: Norton, 1996. 144-45.

Morgan, Thaïs E., ed. Victorian Sages and Cultural Discourse: Renegotiating Gender and Power. New Brunswick and London: Rutgers University Press, 1990. 1-18.

Saville, John. ed. A Selection of the Social and Political Pamphlets of Annie Besant. New York: Augustus Kelley, 1970, Section II, no 8, 13.

Varela, Leonor. "Annie Besant. Texts and Subjectivities", Diss. Faculty of Social and Human Sciences, New University, Lisbon, 1995.

Last modified 27 November 2006