Annie Wood Besant.

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allow me to take part in the service, that I had come to him in
despair, feeling how great was the intrusion, but - she was dying.

His face changed to a great softness. "You were quite right to come to
me," he answered, in that low, musical voice of his, his keen gaze
having altered into one no less direct, but marvellously gentle. "Of
course I will go and see your mother, and I have little doubt that, if
you will not mind talking over your position with me, we may see our
way clear to doing as your mother wishes."

I could barely speak my thanks, so much did the kindly sympathy move
me; the revulsion from the anxiety and fear of rebuff was strong
enough to be almost pain. But Dean Stanley did more than I asked. He
suggested that he should call that afternoon, and have a quiet chat
with my mother, and then come again on the following day to administer
the Sacrament.

"A stranger's presence is always trying to a sick person," he said,
with rare delicacy of thought, "and, joined to the excitement of the
service, it might be too much for your dear mother. If I spend half an
hour with her to-day, and administer the Sacrament to-morrow, it will,
I think, be better for her."

So Dean Stanley came that afternoon, all the way to Brompton, and
remained talking with my mother for about half an hour, and then set
himself to understand my own position. He finally told me that conduct
was far more important than theory, and that he regarded all as
"Christians" who recognised and tried to follow the moral law of
Christ. On the question of the absolute Deity of Jesus he laid but
little stress; Jesus was "in a special sense the Son of God," but it
was folly to quarrel over words with only human meanings when dealing
with the mystery of the Divine existence, and, above all, it was folly
to make such words into dividing walls between earnest souls. The one
important matter was the recognition of "duty to God and man," and all
who were one in that recognition might rightfully join in an act of
worship, the essence of which was not acceptance of dogma, but love of
God and self-sacrifice for man. "The Holy Communion," he concluded, in
his soft tones, "was never meant to divide from each other hearts that
are searching after the one true God. It was meant by its founder as a
symbol of unity, not of strife."

On the following day Dean Stanley celebrated the Holy Communion by the
bedside of my dear mother, and well was I repaid for the struggle it
had cost me to ask so great a kindness from a stranger, when I saw the
comfort that gentle, noble heart had given to her. He soothed away all
her anxiety about my heresy with tactful wisdom, bidding her have no
fear of differences of opinion where the heart was set on truth.
"Remember," she told me he said to her - "remember that our God is the
God of truth, and that therefore the honest search for truth can never
be displeasing in His eyes." Once again after that he came, and after
his visit to my mother we had another long talk. I ventured to ask
him, the conversation having turned that way, how, with views so broad
as his, he found it possible to remain in communion with the Church of
England. "I think," he answered, gently, "that I am of more service to
true religion by remaining in the Church and striving to widen its
boundaries from within, than if I left it and worked from without."
And he went on to explain how, as Dean of Westminster, he was in a
rarely independent position, and could make the Abbey of a wider
national service than would otherwise be possible. In all he said on
this his love for and his pride in the glorious Abbey were manifest,
and it was easy to see that old historical associations, love of
music, of painting, of stately architecture, were the bonds that held
him bound to the "old historic Church of England." His emotions, not
his intellect, kept him Churchman, and he shrank, with the
over-sensitiveness of the cultured scholar, from the idea of allowing
the old traditions to be handled roughly by inartistic hands.
Naturally of a refined and delicate nature, he had been rendered yet
more exquisitely sensitive by the training of the college and the
court; the polished courtesy of his manners was but the natural
expression of a noble and lofty mind - a mind whose very gentleness
sometimes veiled its strength. I have often heard Dean Stanley harshly
spoken of, I have heard his honesty roughly challenged; but never has
he been attacked in my presence that I have not uttered my protest
against the injustice done him, and thus striven to repay some small
fraction of that great debt of gratitude which I shall ever owe his

And now the end came swiftly. I had hurriedly furnished a couple of
rooms in the little house, now ours, that I might take my mother into
the purer air of Norwood, and permission was given to drive her down
in an invalid carriage. The following evening she was suddenly taken
worse; we lifted her into bed, and telegraphed for the doctor. But he
could do nothing, and she herself felt that the hand of Death had
gripped her. Selfless to the last, she thought but for my loneliness.
"I am leaving you alone," she sighed from time to time; and truly I
felt, with an anguish I did not dare to realise, that when she died I
should indeed be alone on earth.

For two days longer she was with me, my beloved, and I never left her
side for five minutes. On May 10th the weakness passed into gentle
delirium, but even then the faithful eyes followed me about the room,
until at length they closed for ever, and as the sun sank low in the
heavens, the breath came slower and slower, till the silence of Death
came down upon us and she was gone.

Stunned and dazed with the loss, I went mechanically through the next
few days. I would have none touch my dead save myself and her
favourite sister, who was with us at the last. Cold and dry-eyed I
remained, even when they hid her from me with the coffin-lid, even all
the dreary way to Kensal Green where her husband and her baby-son were
sleeping, and when we left her alone in the chill earth, damp with the
rains of spring. I could not believe that our day-dream was dead and
buried, and the home in ruins ere yet it was fairly built. Truly, my
"house was left unto me desolate," and the rooms, filled with sunshine
but unlighted by her presence, seemed to echo from their bare walls,
"You are all alone."

But my little daughter was there, and her sweet face and dancing feet
broke the solitude, while her imperious claims for love and tendance
forced me into attention to the daily needs of life. And life was hard
in those days of spring and summer, resources small, and work
difficult to find. In truth, the two months after my mother's death
were the dreariest my life has known, and they were months of
tolerably hard struggle. The little house in Colby Road taxed my
slender resources heavily, and the search for work was not yet
successful. I do not know how I should have managed but for the help
ever at hand, of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Scott. During this time I wrote
for Mr. Scott pamphlets on Inspiration, Atonement, Mediation and
Salvation, Eternal Torture, Religious Education of Children, Natural
_v_. Revealed Religion, and the few guineas thus earned were very
valuable. Their house, too, was always open to me, and this was no
small help, for often in those days the little money I had was enough
to buy food for two but not enough to buy it for three, and I would go
out and study all day at the British Museum, so as to "have my dinner
in town," the said dinner being conspicuous by its absence. If I was
away for two evenings running from the hospitable house in the
terrace, Mrs. Scott would come down to see what had happened, and many
a time the supper there was of real physical value to me. Well might I
write, in 1879, when Thomas Scott lay dead: "It was Thomas Scott whose
house was open to me when my need was sorest, and he never knew, this
generous, noble heart, how sometimes, when I went in, weary and
overdone, from a long day's study in the British Museum, with scarce
food to struggle through the day - he never knew how his genial, 'Well,
little lady,' in welcoming tone, cheered the then utter loneliness of
my life. To no living man - save one - do I owe the debt of gratitude
that I owe to Thomas Scott."

The small amount of jewellery I possessed, and all my superfluous
clothes, were turned into more necessary articles, and the child, at
least, never suffered a solitary touch of want. My servant Mary was a
wonderful contriver, and kept house on the very slenderest funds that
could be put into a servant's hands, and she also made the little
place so bright and fresh-looking that it was always a pleasure to go
into it. Recalling those days of "hard living," I can now look on them
without regret. More, I am glad to have passed through them, for they
have taught me how to sympathise with those who are struggling as I
struggled then, and I never can hear the words fall from pale lips, "I
am hungry," without remembering how painful a thing hunger is, and
without curing that pain, at least for the moment.

The presence of the child was good for me, keeping alive my aching,
lonely heart: she would play contentedly for hours while I was
working, a word now and again being enough for happiness; when I had
to go out without her, she would run to the door with me, and the
"good-bye" would come from down-curved lips; she was ever watching at
the window for my return, and the sunny face was always the first to
welcome me home. Many and many a time have I been coming home, weary,
hungry, and heart-sick, and the glimpse of the little face watching
has reminded me that I must not carry in a grave face to sadden my
darling, and the effort to throw off the depression for her sake threw
it off altogether, and brought back the sunshine. She was the
sweetness and joy of my life, my curly-headed darling, with her
red-gold hair and glorious eyes, and passionate, wilful, loving
nature. The torn, bruised tendrils of my heart gradually twined round
this little life; she gave something to love and to tend, and thus
gratified one of the strongest impulses of my nature.



During all these months the intellectual life had not stood still; I
was slowly, cautiously feeling my way onward. And in the intellectual
and social side of my life I found a delight unknown in the old days
of bondage. First, there was the joy of freedom, the joy of speaking
out frankly and honestly each thought. Truly, I had a right to say:
"With a great price obtained I this freedom," and having paid the
price, I revelled in the liberty I had bought. Mr. Scott's valuable
library was at my service; his keen brain challenged my opinions,
probed my assertions, and suggested phases of thought hitherto
untouched. I studied harder than ever, and the study now was unchecked
by any fear of possible consequences. I had nothing left of the old
faith save belief in "a God," and that began slowly to melt away. The
Theistic axiom: "If there be a God at all He must be at least as good
as His highest creature," began with an "if," and to that "if" I
turned my attention. "Of all impossible things," writes Miss Frances
Power Cobbe, "the most impossible must surely be that a man should
dream something of the good and the noble, and that it should prove at
last that his Creator was less good and less noble than he had
dreamed." But, I questioned, are we sure that there is a Creator?
Granted that, if there is, He must be above His highest creature,
but - is there such a being? "The ground," says the Rev. Charles
Voysey, "on which our belief in God rests is man. Man, parent of
Bibles and Churches, inspirer of all good thoughts and good deeds.
Man, the masterpiece of God's thought on earth. Man, the text-book of
all spiritual knowledge. Neither miraculous nor infallible, man is
nevertheless the only trustworthy record of the Divine mind in things
pertaining to God. Man's reason, conscience, and affections are the
only true revelation of his Maker." But what if God were only man's
own image reflected in the mirror of man's mind? What if man were the
creator, not the revelation of his God?

It was inevitable that such thoughts should arise after the more
palpably indefensible doctrines of Christianity had been discarded.
Once encourage the human mind to think, and bounds to the thinking can
never again be set by authority. Once challenge traditional beliefs,
and the challenge will ring on every shield which is hanging in the
intellectual arena. Around me was the atmosphere of conflict, and,
freed from its long repression, my mind leapt up to share in the
strife with a joy in the intellectual tumult, the intellectual strain.

I often attended South Place Chapel, where Moncure D. Conway was then
preaching, and discussion with him did something towards widening my
views on the deeper religious problems; I re-read Dean Mansel's
"Bampton Lectures," and they did much towards turning me in the
direction of Atheism; I re-read Mill's "Examination of Sir William
Hamilton's Philosophy," and studied carefully Comte's "Philosophie
Positive." Gradually I recognised the limitations of human intelligence
and its incapacity for understanding the nature of God, presented as
infinite and absolute; I had given up the use of prayer as a
blasphemous absurdity, since an all-wise God could not need my
suggestions, nor an all-good God require my promptings. But God fades
out of the daily life of those who never pray; a personal God who is
not a Providence is a superfluity; when from the heaven does not smile
a listening Father, it soon becomes an empty space, whence resounds no
echo of man's cry. I could then reach no loftier conception of the
Divine than that offered by the orthodox, and that broke hopelessly
away as I analysed it.

At last I said to Mr. Scott, "Mr. Scott, may I write a tract on the
nature and existence of God?"

He glanced at me keenly. "Ah, little lady, you are facing, then, that
problem at last? I thought it must come. Write away."

While this pamphlet was in MS. an event occurred which coloured all my
succeeding life. I met Charles Bradlaugh. One day in the late spring,
talking with Mrs. Conway - one of the sweetest and steadiest natures
whom it has been my lot to meet, and to whom, as to her husband, I owe
much for kindness generously shown when I was poor and had but few
friends - she asked me if I had been to the Hall of Science, Old
Street. I answered, with the stupid, ignorant reflection of other
people's prejudices so sadly common, "No, I have never been there. Mr.
Bradlaugh is rather a rough sort of speaker, is he not?"

"He is the finest speaker of Saxon-English that I have ever heard,"
she answered, "except, perhaps, John Bright, and his power over a
crowd is something marvellous. Whether you agree with him or not, you
should hear him."

In the following July I went into the shop of Mr. Edward Truelove,
256, High Holborn, in search of some Comtist publications, having come
across his name as a publisher in the course of my study at the
British Museum. On the counter was a copy of the _National Reformer_,
and, attracted by the title, I bought it. I read it placidly in the
omnibus on my way to Victoria Station, and found it excellent, and was
sent into convulsions of inward merriment when, glancing up, I saw an
old gentleman gazing at me, with horror speaking from every line of
his countenance. To see a young woman, respectably dressed in crape,
reading an Atheistic journal, had evidently upset his peace of mind,
and he looked so hard at the paper that I was tempted to offer it to
him, but repressed the mischievous inclination.

This first copy of the paper with which I was to be so closely
connected bore date July 19, 1874, and contained two long letters from
a Mr. Arnold of Northampton, attacking Mr. Bradlaugh, and a brief and
singularly self-restrained answer from the latter. There was also an
article on the National Secular Society, which made me aware that
there was an organisation devoted to the propagandism of Free Thought.
I felt that if such a society existed, I ought to belong to it, and I
consequently wrote a short note to the editor of the _National
Reformer_, asking whether it was necessary for a person to profess
Atheism before being admitted to the Society. The answer appeared in
the _National Reformer_: -

"S.E. - To be a member of the National Secular Society it is only
necessary to be able honestly to accept the four principles, as given
in the _National Reformer_ of June 14th. This any person may do
without being required to avow himself an Atheist. Candidly, we can
see no logical resting-place between the entire acceptance of
authority, as in the Roman Catholic Church, and the most extreme
Rationalism. If, on again looking to the Principles of the Society,
you can accept them, we repeat to you our invitation."

I sent my name in as an active member, and find it is recorded in the
_National Reformer_ of August 9th. Having received an intimation that
Londoners could receive their certificates at the Hall of Science from
Mr. Bradlaugh on any Sunday evening, I betook myself thither, and it
was on August 2, 1874, that I first set foot in a Freethought hall.
The Hall was crowded to suffocation, and, at the very moment announced
for the lecture, a roar of cheering burst forth, a tall figure passed
swiftly up the Hall to the platform, and, with a slight bow in answer
to the voluminous greeting, Charles Bradlaugh took his seat. I looked
at him with interest, impressed and surprised. The grave, quiet,
stern, strong face, the massive head, the keen eyes, the magnificent
breadth and height of forehead - was this the man I had heard described
as a blatant agitator, an ignorant demagogue?

He began quietly and simply, tracing out the resemblances between the
Krishna and the Christ myths, and as he went from point to point his
voice grew in force and resonance, till it rang round the hall like a
trumpet. Familiar with the subject, I could test the value of his
treatment of it, and saw that his knowledge was as sound as his
language was splendid. Eloquence, fire, sarcasm, pathos, passion, all
in turn were bent against Christian superstition, till the great
audience, carried away by the torrent of the orator's force, hung
silent, breathing soft, as he went on, till the silence that followed
a magnificent peroration broke the spell, and a hurricane of cheers
relieved the tension.

He came down the Hall with some certificates in his hand, glanced
round, and handed me mine with a questioning "Mrs. Besant?" Then he
said, referring to my question as to a profession of Atheism, that he
would willingly talk over the subject of Atheism with me if I would
make an appointment, and offered me a book he had been using in his
lecture. Long afterwards I asked him how he knew me, whom he had never
seen, that he came straight to me in such fashion. He laughed and said
he did not know, but, glancing over the faces, he felt sure that I was
Annie Besant.

From that first meeting in the Hall of Science dated a friendship that
lasted unbroken till Death severed the earthly bond, and that to me
stretches through Death's gateway and links us together still. As
friends, not as strangers, we met - swift recognition, as it were,
leaping from eye to eye; and I know now that the instinctive
friendliness was in very truth an outgrowth of strong friendship in
other lives, and that on that August day we took up again an ancient
tie, we did not begin a new one. And so in lives to come we shall meet
again, and help each other as we helped each other in this. And let me
here place on record, as I have done before, some word of what I owe
him for his true friendship; though, indeed, how great is my debt to
him I can never tell. Some of his wise phrases have ever remained in
my memory. "You should never say you have an opinion on a subject
until you have tried to study the strongest things said against the
view to which you are inclined." "You must not think you know a
subject until you are acquainted with all that the best minds have
said about it." "No steady work can be done in public unless the
worker study at home far more than he talks outside." "Be your own
harshest judge, listen to your own speech and criticise it; read abuse
of yourself and see what grains of truth are in it." "Do not waste
time by reading opinions that are mere echoes of your own; read
opinions you disagree with, and you will catch aspects of truth you do
not readily see." Through our long comradeship he was my sternest as
well as gentlest critic, pointing out to me that in a party like ours,
where our own education and knowledge were above those whom we led, it
was very easy to gain indiscriminate praise and unstinted admiration;
on the other hand, we received from Christians equally indiscriminate
abuse and hatred. It was, therefore, needful that we should be our own
harshest judges, and that we should be sure that we knew thoroughly
every subject that we taught. He saved me from the superficiality that
my "fatal facility" of speech might so easily have induced; and when I
began to taste the intoxication of easily won applause, his criticism
of weak points, his challenge of weak arguments, his trained judgment,
were of priceless service to me, and what of value there is in my work
is very largely due to his influence, which at once stimulated and

One very charming characteristic of his was his extreme courtesy in
private life, especially to women. This outward polish, which sat so
gracefully on his massive frame and stately presence, was foreign
rather than English - for the English, as a rule, save such as go to
Court, are a singularly unpolished people - and it gave his manner a
peculiar charm. I asked him once where he had learned his gracious
fashions that were so un-English - he would stand with uplifted hat as
he asked a question of a maidservant, or handed a woman into a
carriage - and he answered, with a half-smile, half-scoff, that it was
only in England he was an outcast from society. In France, in Spain,
in Italy, he was always welcomed among men and women of the highest
social rank, and he supposed that he had unconsciously caught the
foreign tricks of manner. Moreover, he was absolutely indifferent to
all questions of social position; peer or artisan, it was to him
exactly the same; he never seemed conscious of the distinctions of
which men make so much.

Our first conversation, after the meeting at the Hall of Science, took
place a day or two later in his little study in 29, Turner Street,
Commercial Road, a wee room overflowing with books, in which he looked
singularly out of place. Later I learned that he had failed in
business in consequence of Christian persecution, and, resolute to
avoid bankruptcy, he had sold everything he possessed, save his books,
had sent his wife and daughters to live in the country with his
father-in-law, had taken two tiny rooms in Turner Street, where he
could live for a mere trifle, and had bent himself to the task of
paying off the liabilities he had incurred - incurred in consequence of
his battling for political and religious liberty. I took with me my
MS. essay "On the Nature and Existence of God," and it served as the
basis for our conversation; we found there was little difference in
our views. "You have thought yourself into Atheism without knowing
it," he said, and all that I changed in the essay was the correction
of the vulgar error that the Atheist says "there is no God," by the
insertion of a passage disclaiming this position from an essay pointed
out to me by Mr. Bradlaugh. And at this stage of my life-story, it is
necessary to put very clearly the position I took up and held so many
years as Atheist, because otherwise the further evolution into
Theosophist will be wholly incomprehensible. It will lead me into
metaphysics, and to some readers these are dry, but if any one would
understand the evolution of a Soul he must be willing to face the
questions which the Soul faces in its growth. And the position of the
philosophic Atheist is so misunderstood that it is the more necessary
to put it plainly, and Theosophists, at least, in reading it, will see
how Theosophy stepped in finally as a further evolution towards
knowledge, rendering rational, and therefore acceptable, the loftiest
spirituality that the human mind can as yet conceive.

In order that I may not colour my past thinkings by my present

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Online LibraryAnnie Wood BesantAnnie Besant An Autobiography → online text (page 8 of 23)