Annie Wood Besant.

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the more ambitious; but at the time of which I am writing no one dreamed
of the changes soon to be made in the direction of the "higher education
of women".

During the winter of 1862-1863 Miss Marryat was in London, and for a few
months I remained there with her, attending the admirable French classes
of M. Roche. In the spring I returned home to Harrow, going up each week
to the classes; and when these were over, Auntie told me that she thought
all she could usefully do was done, and that it was time that I should
try my wings alone. So well, however, had she succeeded in her aims, that
my emancipation from the school-room was but the starting-point of more
eager study, though now the study turned into the lines of thought
towards which my personal tendencies most attracted me. German I
continued to read with a master, and music, under the marvellously able
teaching of Mr. John Farmer, musical director of Harrow School, took up
much of my time. My dear mother had a passion for music, and Beethoven
and Bach were her favorite composers. There was scarcely a sonata of
Beethoven's that I did not learn, scarcely a fugue of Bach's that I did
not master. Mendelssohn's "Lieder" gave a lighter recreation, and many a
happy evening did we spend, my mother and I, over the stately strains of
the blind Titan, and the sweet melodies of the German wordless orator.
Musical "At Homes", too, were favorite amusements at Harrow, and at these
my facile fingers made me a welcome guest.

A very pleasant place was Harrow to a light-hearted serious-brained girl.
The picked men of the Schools of Oxford and Cambridge came there as
junior masters, so that one's partners at ball and croquet and archery
could talk as well as flirt. Never girl had, I venture to say, a brighter
girlhood than mine. Every morning and much of the afternoon spent in
eager earnest study: evenings in merry party or quiet home-life, one as
delightful as the other. Archery and croquet had in me a most devoted
disciple, and the "pomps and vanities" of the ballroom found the happiest
of votaries. My darling mother certainly "spoiled" me, so far as were
concerned all the small roughnesses of life. She never allowed a trouble
of any kind to touch me, and cared only that all worries should fall on
her, all joys on me. I know now what I never dreamed then, that her life
was one of serious anxiety. The heavy burden of my brother's school and
college-life pressed on her constantly, and her need of money was often
serious. A lawyer whom she trusted absolutely cheated her systematically,
using for his own purposes the remittances she made for payment of
liabilities, thus keeping upon her a constant drain. Yet for me all that
was wanted was ever there. Was it a ball to which we were going? I need
never think of what I would wear till the time for dressing arrived, and
there laid out ready for me was all I wanted, every detail complete from
top to toe. No hand but hers must dress my hair, which, loosed, fell in
dense curly masses nearly to my knees; no hand but hers must fasten dress
and deck with flowers, and if I sometimes would coaxingly ask if I might
not help by sewing in laces, or by doing some trifle in aid, she would
kiss me and bid me run to my books or my play, telling me that her only
pleasure in life was caring for her "treasure". Alas! how lightly we take
the self-denying labor that makes life so easy, ere yet we have known
what life means when the protecting mother-wing is withdrawn. So guarded
and shielded had been my childhood and youth from every touch of pain and
anxiety that love could bear for me, that I never dreamed that life might
be a heavy burden, save as I saw it in the poor I was sent to help; all
the joy of those happy years I took, not ungratefully I hope, but
certainly with as glad unconsciousness of anything rare in it as I took
the sunlight. Passionate love, indeed, I gave to my darling, but I never
knew all I owed her till I passed out of her tender guardianship, till I
left my mother's home. Is such training wise? I am not sure. It makes the
ordinary roughnesses of life come with so stunning a shock, when one goes
out into the world, that one is apt to question whether some earlier
initiation into life's sterner mysteries would not be wiser for the
young. Yet it is a fair thing to have that joyous youth to look back
upon, and at least it is a treasury of memory that no thief can steal in
the struggles of later life.

During those happy years my brain was given plenty of exercise. I used to
keep a list of the books I read, so that I might not neglect my work; and
finding a "Library of the Fathers" on the shelves, I selected that for
one _piéce de résistance_. Soon those strange mystic writers won over me
a great fascination, and I threw myself ardently into a study of the
question: "Where is now the Catholic Church?". I read Pusey, and Liddon,
and Keble, with many another of that school, and many of the seventeenth
century English divines. I began to fast - to the intense disapproval of
my mother, who cared for my health far more than for all the Fathers the
Church could boast of - to use the sign of the cross, to go to weekly
communion. Indeed, the contrast I found between my early Evangelical
training and the doctrines of the Primitive Christian Church would have
driven me over to Rome, had it not been for the proofs afforded by Pusey
and his co-workers, that the English Church might be Catholic although
non-Roman. But for them I should most certainly have joined the Papal
Communion; for if the Church of the early centuries be compared with Rome
and with Geneva, there is no doubt that Rome shows marks of primitive
Christianity of which Geneva is entirely devoid. I became content when I
found that the practices and doctrines of the Anglican Church could be
knitted on to those of the martyrs and confessors of the early Church,
for it had not yet struck me that the early Church might itself be
challenged. To me, at that time, the authority of Jesus was supreme and
unassailable; his apostles were his infallible messengers; Clement of
Rome, Polycarp, and Barnabas, these were the very pupils of the apostles
themselves. I never dreamed of forgeries, of pious frauds, of writings
falsely ascribed to venerated names. Nor do I now regret that so it was;
for, without belief, the study of the early Fathers would be an
intolerable weariness; and that old reading of mine has served me well in
many of my later controversies with Christians, who knew the literature
of their Church less well than I.

To this ecclesiastical reading was added some study of stray scientific
works, but the number of these that came in my way was very limited. The
atmosphere surrounding me was literary rather than scientific. I remember
reading a translation of Plato that gave me great delight, and being
rather annoyed by the insatiable questionings of Socrates. Lord Derby's
translation of the Iliad also charmed me with its stateliness and melody,
and Dante was another favorite study. Wordsworth and Cowper I much
disliked, and into the same category went all the 17th and 18th century
"poets," though I read them conscientiously through. Southey fascinated
me with his wealth of Oriental fancies, while Spencer was a favorite
book, put beside Milton and Dante. My novel reading was extremely
limited; indeed the "three volume novel" was a forbidden fruit. My mother
regarded these ordinary love-stories as unhealthy reading for a young
girl, and gave me Scott and Kingsley, but not Miss Braddon or Mrs. Henry
Wood. Nor would she take me to the theatre, though we went to really good
concerts. She had a horror of sentimentality in girls, and loved to see
them bright and gay, and above all things absolutely ignorant of all evil
things and of premature love-dreams. Happy, healthy and workful were
those too brief years.


My grandfather's house, No. 8, Albert Square, Clapham Road, was a second
home from my earliest childhood.

That house, with its little strip of garden at the back, will always
remain dear and sacred to me. I can see now the two almond trees, so rich
in blossom every spring, so barren in fruit every autumn; the large
spreading tufts of true Irish shamrock, brought from Ireland, and
lovingly planted in the new grey London house, amid the smoke; the little
nooks at the far end, wherein I would sit cosily out of sight reading a
favorite book. Inside it was but a commonplace London house, only one
room, perhaps, differing from any one that might have been found in any
other house in the square. That was my grandfather's "work-room", where
he had a lathe fitted up, for he had a passion and a genius for inventive
work in machinery. He took out patents for all sorts of ingenious
contrivances, but always lost money. His favorite invention was of a
"railway chair", for joining the ends of rails together, and in the
ultimate success of this he believed to his death. It was (and is) used
on several lines, and was found to answer splendidly, but the old man
never derived any profit from his invention. The fact was he had no
money, and those who had took it up and utilised it, and kept all the
profit for themselves. There were several cases in which his patents
dropped, and then others took up his inventions, and made a commercial
success thereof.

A strange man altogether was that grandfather of mine, whom I can only
remember as a grand-looking old man, with snow-white hair and piercing
hawk's eyes. The merriest of wild Irishmen was he in his youth, and I
have often wished that his biography had been written, if only as a
picture of Dublin society at the time. He had an exquisite voice, and one
night he and some of his wild comrades went out singing through the
streets as beggars. Pennies, sixpences, shillings, and even half-crowns
came showering down in recompense of street music of such unusual
excellence; then the young scamps, ashamed of their gains, poured them
all into the hat of a cripple they met, who must have thought that all
the blessed saints were out that night in the Irish capital. On another
occasion he went to the wake of an old woman who had been bent nearly
double by rheumatism, and had been duly "laid out", and tied down firmly,
so as to keep the body straight in the recumbent position. He hid under
the bed, and when the whisky was flowing freely, and the orgie was at its
height, he cut the ropes with a sharp knife, and the old woman suddenly
sat up in bed, frightening the revellers out of their wits, and, luckily
for my grandfather, out of the room. Many such tales would he tell, with
quaint Irish humor, in his later days. He died, from a third stroke of
paralysis, in 1862.

The Morrises were a very "clannish" family, and my grandfather's house
was the London centre. All the family gathered there on each
Christmastide, and on Christmas day was always held high festival. For
long my brother and I were the only grandchildren within reach, and were
naturally made much of. The two sons were out in India, married, with
young families. The youngest daughter was much away from home, and a
second was living in Constantinople, but three others lived with their
father and mother. Bessie, the eldest of the whole family, was a woman of
rigid honor and conscientiousness, but poverty and the struggle to keep
out of debt had soured her, and "Aunt Bessie" was an object of dread, not
of love. One story of her early life will best tell her character. She
was engaged to a young clergyman, and one day when Bessie was at church
he preached a sermon taken without acknowledgment from some old divine.
The girl's keen sense of honor was shocked at the deception, and she
broke off her engagement, but remained unmarried for the rest of her
life. "Careful and troubled about many things" was poor Aunt Bessie, and
I remember being rather shocked one day at hearing her express her
sympathy with Martha, when her sister left her to serve alone, and at her
saying: "I doubt very much whether Jesus would have liked it if Martha
had been lying about on the floor as well as Mary, and there had been no
supper. But there! it's always those who do the work who are scolded,
because they have not time to be as sweet and nice as those who do
nothing." Nor could she ever approve of the treatment of the laborers in
the parable, when those who "had borne the burden and heat of the day"
received but the same wage as those that had worked but one hour. "It was
not just", she would say doggedly. A sad life was hers, for she repelled
all sympathy, and yet later I had reason to believe that she half broke
her heart because none loved her well. She was ever gloomy,
unsympathising, carping, but she worked herself to death for those whose
love she chillily repulsed. She worked till, denying herself every
comfort, she literally dropped. One morning, when she got out of bed, she
fell, and crawling into bed again, quietly said she could do no more; lay
there for some months, suffering horribly with unvarying patience; and
died, rejoicing that at last she would have "rest".

Two other "Aunties" were my playfellows, and I their pet. Minnie, a
brilliant pianiste, earned a precarious livelihood by teaching music. The
long fasts, the facing of all weathers, the weary rides in omnibuses with
soaked feet, broke down at last a splendid constitution, and after some
three years of torture, commencing with a sharp attack of English
cholera, she died the year before my marriage. But during my girlhood she
was the gayest and merriest of my friends, her natural buoyancy
re-asserting itself whenever she could escape from her musical
tread-mill. Great was my delight when she joined my mother and myself for
our spring or summer trips, and when at my favorite St. Leonards - at the
far unfashionable end, right away from the gay watering-place folk - we
settled down for four or five happy weeks of sea and country, and when
Minnie and I scampered over the country on horseback, merry as children
set free from school. My other favorite auntie was of a quieter type, a
soft pretty loving little woman. "Co" we called her, for she was "such a
cosy little thing", her father used to say. She was my mother's favorite
sister, her "child", she would name her, because "Co" was so much her
junior, and when she was a young girl the little child had been her
charge. "Always take care of little Co", was one of my mother's dying
charges to me, and fortunately "little Co" has - though the only one of my
relatives who has done so - clung to me through change of faith, and
through social ostracism. Her love for me, and her full belief that,
however she differed from me, I meant right, have never varied, have
never been shaken. She is intensely religious - as will be seen in the
later story, wherein her life was much woven with mine - but however much
"darling Annie's" views or actions might shock her, it is "darling Annie"
through it all; "You are so good" she said to me the last time I saw her,
looking up at me with all her heart in her eyes; "anyone so good as you
must come to our dear Lord at last!" As though any, save a brute, could
be aught but good to "little Co".

On the Christmas following my eighteenth birthday, a little Mission
Church in which Minnie was much interested, was opened near Albert
Square. My High Church enthusiasm was in full bloom, and the services in
this little Mission Church were "high", whereas those in all the
neighboring churches were "low". A Mr. Hoare, an intensely earnest man,
was working there in most devoted fashion, and was glad to welcome any
aid; we decorated his church, worked ornaments for it, and thought we
were serving God when we were really amusing ourselves in a small place
where our help was over-estimated, and where the clergy, very likely
unconsciously, flattered us for our devotion. Among those who helped to
carry on the services there, was a young undermaster of Stockwell Grammar
School, the rev. Frank Besant, a Cambridge man, who had passed as 28th
wrangler in his year, and who had just taken orders. At Easter we were
again at Albert Square, and devoted much time to the little church,
decking it on Easter Eve with soft yellow tufts of primrose blossom, and
taking much delight in the unbounded admiration bestowed on the dainty
spring blossoms by the poor who crowded in. I made a lovely white cross
for the super-altar with camelias and azaleas and white geraniums, but
after all it was not really as spring-like, as suitable for a
"Resurrection", as the simple sweet wild flowers, still dewy from their
nests in field and glade and lane.

That Easter was memorable to me for another cause. It saw waked and
smothered my first doubt. That some people did doubt the historical
accuracy of the Bible I knew, for one or two of the Harrow masters were
friends of Colenso, the heretic Bishop of Natal, but fresh from my
Patristic studies, I looked on heretics with blind horror, possibly the
stronger from its very vagueness, and its ignorance of what it feared. My
mother objected to my reading controversial books which dealt with the
points at issue between Christianity and Freethought, and I did not care
for her favorite Stanley, who might have widened my views, regarding him
(on the word of Pusey) as "unsound in the faith once delivered to the
saints". I had read Pusey's book on "Daniel the prophet", and, knowing
nothing of the criticisms he attacked, I felt triumphant at his
convincing demonstrations of their error, and felt sure that none but the
wilfully blind could fail to see how weak were the arguments of the
heretic writers. That stately preface of his was one of my favorite
pieces of reading, and his dignified defence against all novelties of
"that which must be old because it is eternal, and must be unchangeable
because it is true", at once charmed and satisfied me. The delightful
vagueness of Stanley, which just suited my mother's broad views, because
it _was_ vague and beautiful, was denounced by Pusey - not unwarrantably -
as that "variegated use of words which destroys all definiteness of
meaning". When she would bid me not be uncharitable to those with whom I
differed in matters of religion, I would answer in his words, that
"charity to error is treason to truth", and that to speak out the truth
unwaveringly as it was revealed, was alone "loyalty to God and charity to
the souls of men".

Judge, then, of my terror at my own results when I found myself betrayed
into writing down some contradictions from the Bible. With that poetic
dreaming which is one of the charms of Catholicism, whether English or
Roman, I threw myself back into the time of the first century as the
"Holy Week" of 1866 approached. In order to facilitate the realisation of
those last sacred days of God incarnate on earth, working out man's
salvation, I resolved to write a brief history of that week, compiled
from the four gospels, meaning then to try and realise each day the
occurrences that had happened on the corresponding date in A.D. 33, and
so to follow those "blessed feet" step by step, till they were

"... nailed for our advantage to the bitter cross."

With the fearlessness which springs from ignorance I sat down to my
task. My method was as follows:

| | |
| | |
Rode into | Rode into | Rode into | Rode into
Jerusalem. | Jerusalem. | Jerusalem. | Jerusalem. Spoke
Purified the | Returned to | Purified the | in the Temple.
Temple. Returned | Bethany. | Temple. Note: |
to Bethany. | | "Taught daily |
| | in the Temple". |
| | |
| | |
Cursed the fig | Cursed the fig | Like Matthew. |
tree. Taught in | tree. Purified | |
the Temple, and | the Temple. | |
spake many | Went out of | |
parables. No | city. | |
breaks shown, | | |
but the fig tree | | |
(xxi., 19) did | | |
not wither till | | |
Tuesday (see | | |
Mark). | | |
| | |
| | |
All chaps, xxi., | Saw fig tree | Discourses. No |
20, xxii.-xxv., | withered up. | date shown. |
spoken on Tues- | Then discourses.| |
day, for xxvi., 2 | | |
gives Passover as | | |
"after two days". | | |
| | |
| | |
Blank. | | |
(Possibly remained in Bethany; the alabaster box of ointment.)
| | |
| | |
Preparation of | Same as Matt. | Same as Matt. | Discourses with
Passover. Eating | | | disciples, but
of Passover, | | | _before_ the
and institution | | | Passover. Washes
of the Holy Eu- | | | the disciples'
charist. Gesthse- | | | feet. Nothing said
mane. Betrayal | | | of Holy Eucharist,
by Judas. Led | | | nor of agony in
captive to Caia- | | | Gethsemane.
phas. Denied by | | | Malchus' ear.
St. Peter. | | | Led captive to
| | | Annas first. Then
| | | to Caiaphas. Denied
| | | by St. Peter.
| | |
| | |
Led to Pilate. | As Matthew, | Led to Pilate. | Taken to Pilate.
Judas hangs | but hour of | Sent to Herod. | Jews would not
himself. Tried. | crucifixion | Sent back to | enter, that they
Condemned to | given, 9 a.m. | Pilate. Rest as | might eat the
death. Scourged | | in Matthew; but | Passover.
and mocked. | | _one_ male- | Scourged by Pi-
Led to cruci- | | factor repents. | late before con-
fixion. Darkness | | | demnation, and
from 12 to 3. | | | mocked. Shown by
Died at 3. | | | Pilate to Jews
| | | at 12.

At this point I broke down. I had been getting more and more uneasy and
distressed as I went on, but when I found that the Jews would not go into
the judgment hall lest they should be defiled, because they desired to
eat the passover, having previously seen that Jesus had actually eaten
the passover with his disciples the evening before; when after writing
down that he was crucified at 9 a.m., and that there was darkness over
all the land from 12 to 3 p.m., I found that three hours after he was
crucified he was standing in the judgment hall, and that at the very hour
at which the miraculous darkness covered the earth; when I saw that I was
writing a discord instead of a harmony, I threw down my pen and shut up
my Bible. The shock of doubt was, however only momentary. I quickly
recognised it as a temptation of the devil, and I shrank back
horror-stricken and penitent for the momentary lapse of faith. I saw that
these apparent contradictions were really a test of faith, and that there

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Online LibraryAnnie Wood BesantAutobiographical Sketches → online text (page 3 of 17)