Monday, October 20, 2014
Chapter Five Mothers, Husbands, and Impossible Situations
“She tried to follow Truth.” This was to be Annie’s epitaph. It had been her request from an early age, and an odd one, considering that she humbly added tried to follow Truth.” Could she have guessed that each chapter of her life would be a relentless pursuit of Truth, of self-reinvention, of swinging from martyrdom to leadership, from defeat to victory and then more..? Each one nobly trying to follow Truth…?
“You have always been too religious,” Annie’s mother complained.
“Yes,” she agreed. “When I pray, I ask Him to kiss me with the kisses of His mouth; for His love is better than wine.”
Her mother must have winced, yet this is what she wrote in her autobiography.
Annie was a passionate Christian as a young woman and was never non-religious, even when she became an avowed Atheist in her thirties. She once confessed to George Bernard Shaw, an intimate friend and comrade during their days as Fabian Socialists: “If religion be morality touched by emotion, then I was the most religious of Atheists.” Shaw never liked her earnestness, a trait he found most unappealing in any woman. But it was true, in Annie’s movement from one crusading ‘religion’ to another there was a consistency: all her faiths were linked by a personal crusade for social betterment and the deep desire to find meaning behind the suffering she saw around her.
Annie Wood Besant had a difficult start in life. She was born in England in 1847, a female at a time and place which valued male children. Her father died when she was very young, leaving her mother to pour her time, energy and money into educating her son, as was done at the time. Annie competed for her mother’s attention and wanted to be educated to be as smart as her brother, so she read voraciously and beyond her years, intent on proving her worthiness. But Mrs. Wood had other ideas for her daughter, and at the age of eight Annie was sent away from home to be educated by an evangelical tutor, Miss Marryat, while her brother stayed at home with her beloved mother and went to Harrow, the nearby private school. Annie had an excellent education with Miss Marryat, yet being so devoted to her mother, she suffered from deep loneliness while away. Her unrequited love of her mother became as great as her desire for Christ, and both were to let her down at her times of greatest need. This was, perhaps, her first defeat.
After a proper Victorian education, Annie was led into a hasty engagement at the age of 18 to an austere minister, the Reverend Frank Besant. He would be a poor substitute for Christ; a matter-of-fact man who enjoyed mathematics more than theology, a man could never live up to the yearnings of Annie’s heart. He was a serious, unambitious man with conventional expectations.
Shortly after their engagement was announced, Annie recognized her mistake, and pleaded with her mother to end what would turn into a disastrous marriage. Her mother, having once announced the engagement, refused the embarrassment of repealing it. She would not allow it.
Typical of many of the young women of her time, Annie had been taught nothing of sexuality or that she would lose what few legal rights she had by being married. Annie liked to write short stories as a young woman, and little did she know that every penny she earned by selling her stories would now belong to her husband, Frank. He also preferred that she not write under her own name.
Despite all her instincts, and with the pressure of her mother, she convinced herself that being a minister’s wife would bring opportunities for heroic acts of self-sacrifice—she could tend to the sick, bring them food, and care for their souls. And so she married.
Annie’s first child was a boy, Digby, and eighteen months later, her second child, Mabel was born. Mabel was a sickly baby and fell desperately ill of whooping-cough. For weeks she lay in hourly peril of death. As Annie says in her autobiography: “We arranged a screen round the fire like a tent, and kept it full of steam to ease the panting breath; and there I sat, day and night, all through those weary weeks, the tortured baby on my knees. I fought with Death for my child. At length, one morning the doctor said she could not last through the day, and took a bottle of chloroform and put a drop of it on a handkerchief till the drug soothed the convulsive struggle.”
Mabel’s life was saved, but this was the beginning of the end of Annie’s faith. If God was all good and all loving, how could he allow such suffering, such evil?
It was just after this time that she resumed her studies of the Bible, determined still to be a good minister’s wife, but much to her dismay she discovered that the four synoptic gospels in the Bible didn’t align themselves as one story—she lined them up in columns and saw that their reports of Jesus’s life didn’t match. Talking with other ministers didn’t help; she was advised to pray more and read less.
The marriage slid from bad to worse. Frank had recently become the pastor of a poor rural church in Sibsey, Lincolnshire, England, and was struggling to keep up appearances. His wife’s passionate concern over religious dogma was embarrassing and incomprehensible to him. It was her business to think of the comfort of the family, and leave the theology to him.
Annie endured listening to Frank’s sermons on the glory of God’s grandeur and grace, while she threw herself into parish work. Maybe by helping the poverty-stricken families in their faming district she could find her sense of mission. What she found instead was great poverty aggravated by continuous child-bearing and alcoholism. In her Book, Autobiographical Sketches, Annie remembered one case where the husband was out of work and ‘had taken to drink.’ She found his wife in their one room cottage lying in bed, with a sick child on one side of her, and a dead baby on the other side. The smell inside the cottage was something that Annie never forgot; it pierced through any illusions she had struggled to maintain.
The meaning of human suffering and the nature of a benevolent God could be debated, despaired over, or cosmically understood, but one thing would always be the first thrust of Annie’s pen: the absolute necessity of ameliorating intolerable social conditions and ignorance.
It was at this time that Annie discovered a new idea for service—a way which would give people control over their lives and change the conditions of poverty. She came across an obscure old pamphlet on birth control, and realized what effect it would have if the women in the village knew about this. She pleaded with Frank to share it with the women in the village, but he came to an astounding conclusion—what Annie needed was to have another baby herself, not to be running all over the village spreading strange ideas. Discussion finished. Annie hid the little book and secretly vowed that someday she would do something with it.
It was all getting to be too much for her: “Because I had not yet learned to live for hope for man, and had lost my hope in God,” she wrote in her autobiography, “I began to feel that I could endure it no longer.” Frank was not only impatient with her, but at times, violent. Annie considered suicide--the bottle of chloroform was still in the cabinet. As she wrote:
“I uncorked the bottle and was raising it to my lips when, as though the words were spoken softly and clearly, I heard: ‘O coward, coward, who used to dream of martyrdom and cannot bear a few short years of pain! A rush of shame swept over me, and I flung the bottle away….”
Instead she retaliated against Frank by refusing to receive Holy Communion in church on Sundays. Annie declared she would not live a lie and act on what she did not believe.
Meanwhile her mother lay dying. It was a good excuse to get away from Frank for awhile and to live with her mother. But mother was heart-broken at Annie’s renunciation of Christianity. She had always declared that Annie’s greatest fault was that she was ‘too religious” but now this new stance was too much.
Disregarding Annie’s attempts to explain her position, Mrs. Wood put Annie to the test. It became Mrs. Wood’s dying wish that Annie receive Communion with her, because she said, “I would rather die and be in hell with Annie than saved without her.” Surely Annie must love her mother enough to do this.
The melodrama that ensued must have been high drama from the accounts of the tears and anguish recorded in Annie’s autobiography. Her desire to please and appease her mother, combined with her insistence to Frank that she could not live a lie, put her in quite a squeeze.
But Annie was very resourceful and managed to pull off quite a coup. After seeing innumerable ministers who flatly refused to get involved, Annie found one who agreed to administer Communion to both of them, despite the fact that Annie didn’t consider herself a Christian in the strict sense of the word. Seeing Annie’s pain and love for her mother, the liberal minister declared it “folly to make words into dividing walls between earnest souls who were trying to follow moral laws….”
So the deed was done, and Mrs. Wood died in peace, and Annie, not being a believer anymore, suffered no guilt. Annie had just pulled off the first of her attempts to reconcile the irreconcilable, but she had not yet come home to herself.
In her Autobiographical Sketches, she noted that her voice was the first to come—that is, she found something uniquely her own in that voice that emerged quite unexpectedly. It happened one afternoon in early spring. She had been feeling restless and distraught, and so decided to lock herself in her husband’s old stone church and play the organ. Usually this helped, but today it wasn’t enough. Looking up at the pulpit she felt a twinge of regret—oh, if only she had been born a man with religious passion, what sermons she’d preach!
Impulsively she sprang up the steps of the wooden pulpit and looked out the through the shaft of dusty sunlight that cut across the aisle and began to speak. Her rich voice swelled and echoed down the aisles and under the stone arches, filling her with awe.
She barely recognized her own voice. All her pent up passion broke into balanced sentences—she spoke about the sources of inspiration; her voice resonating musically as she appealed to the hearts and souls of her imaginary listeners. At that moment she knew the gift of speech was hers.
At a later date she wrote about inspiration in a pamphlet called “Avataras” and it might have been quite similar to her private sermon that day:
“Have you ever been drawn away for a moment into a higher more peaceful realm when you have come across something of beauty or art? Have you for a time lost sight of the pettiness of earth, of trivial troubles, and felt yourself lifted in a calmer region, beyond the light of common Earth? Have you ever stood before some wondrous picture where the painter has lit the canvas with all the hues of beauteous color? Or have you listened while the divine spell of music has lifted you…Ah, if you have known any of these in life’s desert, then you know how all-prevading is inspiration…”
And that’s the way Annie was always to speak: with no notes, no gestures, no strutting on the stage. Her language sounds old-fashioned now, but she instinctively knew how to touch the heart and wrestle with the intellect.
At barely five foot two inches tall and with no microphone, how did she project such courage and deep belief? And—how did I move the audience so much on that day when I won first prize on the college debating team? It’s true that I passionately cared for the suffering of the mentally ill—maybe that was it—because it was if I wasn’t there. Only the message, the plea, the cause was there, the reason to speak. It’s interesting to speculate on where this gift, this power might come from—could it be a hint of reincarnation?
In her old age Annie was once to remark whimsically that she ought to have been a good orator because she had been practicing for innumerable lifetimes; particularly in an incarnation as the martyred monk, Bruno. It seems to be the same question as to ask where did Mozart get his genius at such an early age? This is another case in which the theory of past lives seems a plausible explanation.
But now—spell-bound by the sense of her voice and half-dazed—Annie walked down the narrow steps, out of the church, and out of the life of Frank Besant forever. She had found her voice. It was 1873 and Annie was 26 years old.
Excerpt from upcoming book. (c)