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Decorative Initial o a certain extent, having surpassed the evangelical notion of sin, and later the problems concerning individual freedom, Annie Besant was able to fight for spiritual development. Annie's awareness of conflicts was a real source of creativity and growth. Her continuous process of self-examination reached its highest degree with her conversion to theosophy. From what we have observed, we cannot mention shifting identities but mainly an individual process similar to the collective fin-de-siècle experience, in which there was a compulsive necessity of redirection. It was a paradigm shift as it really corresponded not only to a deep change in her consciousness but also to a new way of understanding life. Actually, we don't see any explicit judgements on gender issues, though this assertion doesn't invalidate her decisive contribution to women's emancipation as a feature of the turn of the century. Expressing a transitional process, sometimes in situations which were not woman-friendly, namely in the science field, we perceive the New Woman who, when searching for alternatives in the public sphere, was fighting not only for a different kind of family but also for a different sexual politics. Having joined the Fabian Society, she had initiated the new Unionism, which swept Britain in the eighties. She also contributed to the creation of a new political force toward the granting of Home Rule to Ireland and later to India, coming "to the forefront of agitation for women's education" as Edward Said states (264). Looking at the late Victorian period and its double standard values, we have to admit that to a certain extent spiritualism was a way of challenging the dominant values. Thus, this subversive belief was very important to many contemporary women as a way of revolting against patriarchy. This ritual of resistance attracted Annie Besant too.

Though not clearly focusing gender issues, Besant's writings expressed her conviction that gender differences are a justification for the inequality between women and men. Actually, in her time, which was a redirective one very similar to ours, she referred that women's oppression was not founded on biological principles but on convictions, which had been culturally constructed. Notwithstanding that nowadays equality is established from the legal point of view and in the so-called civilised countries, we perceive in our fin-de-Siècle experience a still gender-based inequality. Perhaps better than a gender-based, we should say a difference-based inequality.

Besant's attitudes, sometimes considered shifty and too flexible by the critics are clearly understandable when we read her theosophical writings, namely Why I became a Theosophist (1889). In this essay, she shows that she didn't aim at a coherent identity but that it was simply a point of departure to her process of self-consciousness, which she identifies with Theosophy. As the declared purposes of the Society were the formation of a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood, the encouragement of the study of comparative religion, philosophy and science and the research of the laws of nature, there was no justification for the distinction of sex, race or caste. Fighting against gender roles, she anticipates many of the issues of the twentiethth century and her marginal situation led to a more effective possibility of social transformation.

According to An Autobiography, 1886 meant a complete shift in her convictions to be confirmed three years later. Having in mind not only radical social transformations, but also human fraternity, she admitted at the time that both Socialism and Materialism were not operative. There was a need of redirection (Autobiography, 308-309), which was compulsive in Besant's behaviour, namely the suspension of belief frequently attributed to Victorians and confirmed by her unquestionable biographers (see Besterman, 131-33, and Nethercot, 211). Nevertheless, we disagree with those critics who can only see the explanation for her attitudes in her extreme incoherence and not in a sincere quest aiming at an unified way of perceiving reality.

The interesting specificity of Annie Besant is that she represents the Victorian episteme with all its configurations, namely the ones corresponding to a structure of feeling which had been forgotten by several academic traditions (See Williams). From those days we feel an unending dialectic between the social and the psychic dimensions with the political continuously intruding in all her works, studying "the obscurer sides of consciousness, dreams, hallucinations, illusions, insanity" (Autobiography, 309). In fact, many contemporary freethinkers, and Fabians too, were at that time showing interest in the development of scientific experiments where the psychological ones were included. We think this is one of the less studied features of late Victorian society and a clear example of its antinomies. Actually, many scientists in the last twenty years of the nineteenth century decided to research the spiritual dimension from a true scientific perspective. This meant a bilateral expression, as on one side there was a revival of spiritualism and hermetic societies and, on the other, the foundation of the Society for Psychical Research (1882) which even attracted many freethinkers. An apparent paradox that has been explored by critics as a cultural contradiction and can be simply explained by anti-clerical positions and a strong belief in progress.

Though Besant called 1889 a "never to-be-forgotten year", we cannot but consider her own life a slow process of maturation similar to the century endings in which we easily feel the flowing of several experiences:

I was dazzled, blinded by the light in which disjointed facts were seen as parts of a mighty whole, and all my puzzles, riddles, problems, seemed to disappear. The effect was partially illusory in one sense, in that they all had to be slowly unravelled later, the brain gradually assimilating that which the swift intuition had grasped as truth. But the light had been seen, and in that flash of illumination I knew that the weary search was over and the very truth was found. [Autobiography, 310].

During all her life, Besant was able to break from social and cultural norms, a reason why she was always very receptive to otherness. This was for her a form of innovating and not aligning with the majority. Concerning Indian culture, she was worried not only about the expropriation of the practices of colonised people but also about the way the British made the appropriation of India's cultural features.

Re-reading her autobiographical texts and pamphlets shows us a chrysalis process and her path is symbolically alike to a spiral one. From Evangelism to Freethought and Fabianism, with flights from her first years of ambiguity, we perceive an immense creative power, with moments of contraction and expansion, until the supreme moment, according to her words, in which she became a theosophist. However, all those moments that oblige us to locate and dislocate our sense of the present were a way of reframing resistance.

Note: By episteme, a concept central to Foucault, we mean the cluster of relations through which discursive practices achieve a form of unity.

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


Theodore Besterman, Mrs Annie Besant. A Modern Prophet.

Houghton, Walter E. "The Critical Spirit and the Will to Believe." The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830-1870. New Haven, London, Yale University Press, 1957. 93-109.

The First Five Lives of Annie Besant. London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1961.

Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism (1993). London: Vintage, 1994)

Williams, Raymond. "The Analysis of Culture." The Long Revolution (1961). Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1975. 57-88.

Last modified 27 November 2006