Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Anna Kingsford and Dion Fortune

Anna Kingsford (1846-1888) and Dion Fortune (1890-1946) were remarkable esoteric teachers and campaigners of succeeding generations, with certain odd parallels in their lives, not that there is any suggestion of a reincarnational link. New biographies have recently appeared for each of them, that are worth a place on anybody’s bookshelf.

Priestess: the Life and Magic of Dion Fortune
By Alan Richardson (Thoth Publications 2007) ISBN 978-1-870450-11-9

Alan Richardson is the pioneer of all Dion Fortune biographers and this is a revised edition of his first attempt back in 1987, when he was faced with the unenviable task of making bricks without very much straw and was obliged to quote large chunks out of Psychic Self Defence, which is perhaps the closest Dion Fortune ever got to autobiography.

However, over the last twenty years others have joined the fray - including myself, my old Inner Light companion, Alan Adams (under the pen name of Charles Fielding), and the intrepid American questor Janine Chapman. As Alan Richardson remarks, we have all taken bits and pieces from each other, and will no doubt continue to do so, but it now seems likely that, for better or for worse, there is little more to be said. Yet it seems to me that no single one of us has been able to provide a fully rounded portrait of the woman and her work; we each have our limitations.

In The Story of Dion Fortune it is a pity that Alan Adams was not able to correct some of the well intentioned inaccuracies inserted by his co-author and financial patron Carr P. Collins Jnr. who liked to portray things as he thought people would like them to be rather than as they were. (A dear man and a generous one, none the less.) However Alan Adams did live long enough to produce a foreword to the Thoth Publications edition indicating some of the gaffes to look out for; and as it stands Fielding and Collins give the best account of the actions and intentions of the Guild of the Master Jesus, a much neglected aspect of Dion Fortune’s work.

Janine Chapman’s Quest for Dion Fortune never pretended to be a full length biography, but simply a quest for what remained of DF in the memory of a number of old Inner Lighters, including W.E.Butler. Her effort was savaged somewhat within the pages of this Journal, and rather churlishly I thought, simply perhaps for what may have seemed an over-ambitious title. It nonetheless contains some gems of reminiscence without which we would all be the poorer.

Alan Richardson envies my apparent unlimited access to the archives of the Society of the Inner Light, yet despite having the advantage of being an inside job, Dion Fortune and the Inner Light lacks for many people a broader perspective. Indeed one disappointed reader claimed that it is not a proper biography. Nor is it, if the struggles of a human personality to the challenges of life is the main level of interest. It is more in the nature of the magical record of an important occultist’s esoteric career.

Alan Richardson’s Priestess probably goes closest to being a biography in the usual sense. It does not lack for human interest and as well as being a biographer of considerable talent and readability, he has a well developed esoteric sense, which is all too rare in commentators upon the occult scene.

One of his techniques is, like Jeanine Chapman, conversation with old timers, which can provide illuminating perspectives on things past, although one has to bear in mind that they too had their limitations of perspective on what was going on around them, and there is a shifting boundary between hard evidence, contemporary gossip, and even the settling of old scores. I fancy that Christine Hartley (née Campbell-Thompson) had a bit of a down on W.K.Creasy for one reason or another, whether justified or not we shall probably never know. Oddly enough, both were admitted to the Fraternity on the very same day, 27th February 1934, the initiating magus being Colonel C.R.F.Seymour. I don’t know if Alan Richardson knew that, or even if it is relevant, but there is perhaps a case for Alan Richardson being given a free run of the archives in the event of a third edition.

Another point of caution is Alan’s fondness for searching for fact in Dion Fortune’s fiction. I tended to think that in the first edition this was a means of filling space in the lack of hard biographic material. However he obviously likes the game as he is still at it, seeking pen portraits of her acquaintances, self revelations or glimpses of relationships she might have had or have wished to have in snippets from her novels. This is admittedly a fascinating speculative literary game as long as we remember that it is only speculation, and may be as revealing of the speculator as the intended subject of analysis. Much imaginative writing is indeed ultimately drawn from life, but usually in such a piecemeal and composite fashion that I have never been a believer that one could deduce a portrait of the goose from the golden eggs it lays.

However with the benefit of what he has been able to glean from the rest of us Alan Richardson’s new edition is a much improved and welcome piece of work. And insofar as it paints a broad picture of the esoteric scene, from the early Theosophists and the redoubtable Anna Kingsford through to the present, Priestess is likely to remain the staple introduction to Dion Fortune for members of the general public as well as being of great interest to the more esoterically committed.

Red Cactus: the Life of Anna Kingsford
By Alan Pert (Books & Writers Network 2006) ISBN 978-1-740180-5-2
[UK distributor:]

Anna Kingsford is one of the most fascinating and charismatic of all characters who have graced the western esoteric tradition. She was the inspiration of many of her contemporaries, including MacGregor Mathers, who acknowledged as much in his major work “The Kabbalah Unveiled”. Indeed it is possible that the famous Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn would never have come to birth if she had lived, but would have been subsumed within the Hermetic Society that she founded in 1884, only for it to wither away after her tragically premature death at the age of 41 in 1888.

Today she is remembered more for her work in the field of animal rights, particularly anti-vivisection and vegetarianism of which she was a passionate advocate. Yet her exposition of esoteric philosophy, The Perfect Way, and the record of her illuminations, posthumously published as Clothed with the Sun, are both classic Hermetic texts.

To write the story of Anna Kingsford might seem a relatively straightforward task as it already seems to have been done, and at great length, in 1896, by her esoteric colleague Edward Maitland in his Anna Kingsford: Her Life, Letters, Diary and Work. Thus at first sight it seems no more than a question of editing Maitland’s two weighty volumes of late Victorian prolixity down to reasonable and relevant proportions. So it appeared to Alan Pert at first. And indeed to me.

Alas, things are not so simple. For the question remains how far Maitland can be trusted in all he has said. This is not a question that is easy to answer with any accuracy, for after writing his great tome, by accident or intention Maitland destroyed all her diaries and correspondence.

In his own approach to the problem Alan Pert comes down pretty heavily against Maitland , and not without reason. Whether he has come down too heavily or not enough is likely to be a matter of discussion.

As far as Alan Pert is concerned, Maitland’s unreliability is self evident from the way that, despite his apparent adulation of Anna Kingsford, Maitland subtly does her down in ways that are at odds with her perceived character. A principal example of this being the allegation that in her horror at the actions of contemporary vivisectionists, including Louis Pasteur, she was driven to try to kill them by occult means. To Alan Pert such a suggestion, given her lofty character and high principles, is self evidently ludicrous.

But to support this intuitive assessment we needs must have some kind of supporting evidence, either in the witness of contemporaries who knew them both, or, in the lack of manuscript material by Anna Kingsford, other writings by Edward Maitland.

The latter, it has to be said, are not an easy read, but I can claim to be one of the few, along with Alan Pert, to have attempted the task, for I did at one time also contemplate writing an up-date on Anna Kingsford, and as preparation read most of Maitland’s literary work, along with books that he said had influenced him. It was a wild and woolly scenic ride through early Victorian romanticism, and had its fascinating and invigorating moments, including Emerson, Lord Lytton, Southey’s “Thalaba the Destroyer”, Charlotte Bronte, the now obscure Abraham Tucker and the now unheard of Philip James Bailey, whose “Festus” is a vast cosmological drama in verse.

Maitland cites these in The Pilgrim and the Shrine, his promising first novel which is largely autobiographical, containing an account of his youthful adventures in the West Indies, the 1849 California gold rush, and thence via the Pacific Islands to Australia to seek a fortune in the gold mines of New South Wales. However, once arrived in the antipodes the novel begins to lose its pace and grip and devolves into rather tedious metaphysical discussion, a trend to which he had been intermittently prone in earlier pages.

His next novel By-and-By: an Historical Romance of the Future continued this trend, although as a utopian metaphysical science fiction novel it could have been a great idea at the time, even foreshadowing Jules Verne, it suffers from a cloying sentimentality, and his view of womanhood is quite bizarre, a kind of submissive and not very bright angel being his ideal of femininity. It is thus surprising that he claims it was Anna Kingsford’s admiration for this novel that caused her to get in touch with him, for it contains material very much at odds with her feminist principles. Indeed he admits to her saying that at first reading she had flung it down in disgust – but this apparently because she saw elements of herself in his heroine! Make of this what we may.

It seems that his publishers encouraged him to abandon fiction after this but his non-fictional work England and Islam becomes at times quite off the wall. It is a political diatribe that began as a letter to “The Times” but developed into a lengthy volume, dashed off in six weeks, that he felt had almost divine authority, because parts of it were written under spirit guidance, his fingers at times being controlled as he worked at the typewriter.

That his publishers accepted it is surprising, although it may have seemed topically opportune, as dealing with current concern over possible war with either Russia or Turkey. That his family considered it as grounds for having him mentally certified seems not unreasonable, although he considered this to have been sectarian bigotry on their part that was fortunately thwarted by psychic intervention.

He later confessed that the work had probably destroyed his literary reputation, such as it then was, but having met Anna Kingsford he now brought out The Soul and How it Found Me, a book recording the mystical effect of their association upon his inner life. It found few readers outside of the spiritualist movement and on strong representations from Anna Kingsford was withdrawn from publication. Although she was not mentioned by name in it, it was evidently doing her reputation no good at all. Maitland bought in all the remaining stock and had it destroyed, but vowed to use the material in his eventual book on Anna Kingsford.

Over this, of course, the great biography, she was no longer able to lay a restraining hand, and it is larded with detailed accounts of his visits to mediums along with personal psychic experiences, together with the assumption that he and Anna were co-founders of a new religious dispensation – buttressed by his conviction of having been no less than St. John in a previous life, the beloved disciple of Jesus and author of Revelations.

Indeed the conclusion seems to be that Edward Maitland, sincere and harmless old buffer though he may have appeared to be, was in serious need of help and something of a menace to the reputation of Anna Kingsford. Should there be any doubt in the matter it seems sufficient to study just the last chapter of his life of Anna Kingsford, entitled “Post Mortem”, and in particular the very last paragraph of the book:

While writing I was suddenly seized with a strong desire to exchange supposition for positive assurance in regard to my identity with John; and looking up from my writing, I mentally put the question as to my own inmost self, being, as was my invariable wont, absolutely calm and collected, and without the smallest expectation of a response: “May I be quite certain of the reality of my seeming recollections of having been John the Evangelist and Seer, and that I am truly a reincarnation of the soul that was in him?” The response to this question came with an instantaneousness and force which seemed to imply that the question had been prompted and expected in order to make answer to it, there being no moment of delay to suggest the need of the arrival of anyone to answer it. It was electric for its swiftness, vividness, and intensity, and seemed to radiate from the very centre of my system to its farthest extremities, and it consisted in a mighty “YES,” which appealed to every sense at once, being alike heard, seen, and felt. And when the sensation had passed away and the tones of the utterance had ceased to vibrate, I found myself perfectly content and satisfied, and undesirous of further assurance. The answer seemed to be intended as a final and conclusive reply, to seek beyond which would be to exhibit a distrust wholly without excuse in view of the history, relations, experiences, and achievements in which it had been given me to bear part.

In this is encapsulated much of the self deception and grandiose self regard of which Edward Maitland seemed capable, and which begs one to question how much of his previous 884 pages can be regarded as reliable, to say nothing of his editing of her Illuminations. The tragedy is that his appropriation of the legacy of Anna Kingsford has tended to make her an object of neglect and misunderstanding, and is perhaps why Anna Kingsford is remembered more for her vegetarian and anti-vivisection causes than for the remarkable seer that she undoubtedly was.

It is to be hoped that Alan Pert’s serviceable and competent biography will do something to put this right, having brought new material to light, including the witness of close contemporaries such as Anna Kingsford’s friend Florence Miller. Regrettably, perhaps too much emphasis has had to be taken up in the book (as in this review) with Edward Maitland`s shortcomings rather than Anna Kingsford’s remarkable qualities.

“Red Cactus” was an emblem said, in one of her Illuminations, appropriately to represent her, the cactus being an organism that causes the desert to bloom. The high regard in which she was held by her contemporaries seems witness to this. Alan Pert has performed a useful service in providing us with a succinct and accurate record of her outer life. It perhaps remains for the gist of her inner life and esoteric teaching to be presented in systematic and modern terms, for the importance of much that she taught and realised has barely been appreciated even today.