Victorian Studies 45.4 (2003) 746-747
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Divine Feminine: Theosophy and Feminism in England, by Joy Dixon; pp. xix + 293. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001, $54.95, £40.50.
Divine Feminine offers a fresh account of the Theosophical Society that is of considerable historiographical as well as empirical value. Its prompt was an examination of the classified advertisements in early twentieth-century women's suffrage journals. There Joy Dixon found evidence of "a feminist culture" around "a self-conscious attempt to create a feminist spirituality" in which the Theosophical Society featured prominently (xi). Such evidence is at odds with the existing literature on this period in English history. At best, religion has been seen as providing a language with which women expressed more real concerns of a secular and political nature. As a consequence there are two largely distinct historical literatures, on the history of feminism and of religion at the turn of the twentieth century, that rarely acknowledge each other. Dixon's aim here is to understand the place of spirituality, and especially theosophical beliefs, within English feminism at this time, paying particular attention to discourses of gender, class, race, and empire. She has produced a thoughtful, elegant, and closely argued analysis. Her concern is not with what theosophy "really meant" or the truth about the sometimes questionable practice and beliefs of its followers. Instead Dixon seeks to provide an account of the powerful historical effects of such beliefs, practices, and "truth-claims," in order to "insist that the power relationships embedded in these claims be open to scrutiny" (13). The very malleability and relative openness of this religion meant that it might appeal to a range of different constituencies, and those constituencies might vary over time in the degree of control they had over the affairs of the church.
The analysis offered here further demonstrates the instability of such dichotomous categories as science and religion, western and "oriental," while exploring the varying forms of Orientalism to be found within the practice and beliefs of the Theosophical Society. In part 1, "Domesticating the Occult," Dixon explores the paradoxical determination of Madame Blavatsky "to proclaim publicly occult or esoteric truths that by definition are secret" (xii). Blavatsky, by this account, sought to reconcile the oppositions of her age: she did not seek to defy the credibility of science, but to supercede it by attempting to [Begin Page 746] synthesise all religions, philosophies, and systems of scientific knowledge. She also sought to subvert the racial and gender hierarchies then commonly accepted as scientific categories by emphasising her own "half-Asian" origins and sexual ambiguity. The early history of the Theosophical Society is read as "a series of attempts to create a usable version of both eastern and feminine authority" (19). This phase ended with the exposure by the Society for Psychical Research of the chicanery involved in the supposed communication between Blavatsky and her spiritual guides, the "Mahatmas." The next phase was marked by the efforts of the upper- and middle-class men then prominent in the Theosophical Society to bring the occult under "manly," scientific, rational control. They sought to create a "scientific spirituality" through the pursuit of careful scholarship on eastern religions, and promoted within sections of the Society the ethos of a gentleman's club (42).
Annie Besant, former socialist agitator, converted to theosophy in the 1890s and eventually became president of the Society in 1907, at a time when women were beginning to form an increasing proportion of the membership. Her creation of a "neo- theosophy" brought the resignation of many of the previously prominent respectable gentlemen, who saw it as a feminine form of spirituality subject to "Oriental despotism." Eventually, such gender struggles were resolved through a sexual division of spiritual labour within the society. Women theosophists embraced mysticism, sometimes represented as a more passive, feminine form of spirituality, while occultism remained largely the province of the male membership. This phase was also marked by controversies over the "multiple meanings of sexuality, and particularly of male homosexuality, in relationship to spirituality" (95). Accusations of...