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Many women now, educated more highly than they used to be — women with strong brains and loving hearts — are being driven into bitterness and into angry opposition, because their ambition is thwarted at every step, and their eager longing for a fuller life are forced back and crushed. A tree will grow, however you may try to stunt it. You may disfigure it, you may force it into awkward shapes, but grow it will. — Annie Besant. The Political Status of Women (1874).

Victorian essayists and their cultural links to the twentieth century have been for many years my field of research. So when I re-consider the canon, Annie Besant (1847-1933) may certainly be regarded as one of the first authors who come to our mind, for her work illustrates women's criticism at the turn of the century.

Although we cannot accept "the idea of a cyclical end-of-the-century experience" (Ledger, 1-10) resulting from the uniqueness of every historical moment, it is impossible, as Raymond Williams points out in , not to think about it as "a tentative redirection" (165). Actually, from the vantage point of our fin-de-Siècle, we perceive that many of our contemporary conflicts were already denounced in Annie Besant's works, which are still largely out of our reach. This non-availability of editions confirms that she keeps on being a non-canonical writer who seldom is considered by critics whose ideology should impel them to include her in the bibliographies of recognised corpora.

Certainly, in a not too distant future, the re-reading, or re-vision of the traditional canon for which Adrienne Rich has called shall clarify Annie Besant's dimension as a social critic. Taking no notice of the cultural importance of her discourse, critics have overshadowed and excluded her from the Victorian sage writing, i. e., non-fiction prose structured after the model of biblical prophecy. Therefore when we consider the standards by which womenÎs works have always been judged we notice that the mentioned standards are in fact biased in favour of male writers. Despite Besant's dialogue between her — the sage — and the audience, her activism and conversion to Theosophy have undoubtedly contributed to the persistence of her marginalization. Besides being a theosophist in later life, Annie Besant was a "scandalous woman" who left her clergyman husband and decided to preach freethought and feminism. She also defended with Charles Bradlaugh a birth control manual in the trial for obscenity of Knowlton's Fruits of Philosophy. Finally, she fought for India's self-government.

If these were the reasons that have allowed to identify her as a marginal author at the time one should ask why are her essays and autobiographies still excluded from any canon and why is this qualification of persona non grata still applicable at the end of our century?

Ironically, Besant considered herself a product of her own time as Autobiographical Sketches (1885) and An Autobiography (1893) make clear (xiii) Yet, her behaviour transgressed the unwritten rules of prudish Victorian conduct, and as Janet Oppenheim points out, her contemporaries considered that her attitudes in themselves justified social exclusion (12).

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


Besant, Annie. Autobiographical Sketches. London: Freethought Publishing Company, 1885.

Besant, Annie. An Autobiography (1893). reprint Adyar: The Theosophical Press, 1939.

Ledger, Sally. Scott McCracken, eds. Cultural Politics at the "Fin-de-Siècle". Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Oppenheim, Janet. "The Odyssey of Annie Besant." History Today no 39 (September 1989.

Rich, Adrienne. On Lies, Secrets, Silence. London: Virago, 1980.

Re-vision — the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction — it is for women more than a chapter of cultural history: it is an act of survival. Until we can understand the assumptions in which we have been drenched we cannot know ourselves. (35)

Williams, Raymond. Culture and Society, 1780-1950. Penguin, 1963.

Last modified 27 November 2006