The Occult Imagination in Britain, 1875–1947 ed. by Christine Ferguson and Andrew Radford
Focusing on the period book-ended by the foundation of the Theosophical Society in 1875 and the death of Aleister Crowley in 1947, this edited volume contains twelve chapters exploring esotericism in Britain from an array of thematic perspectives. Its inclusion within Routledge's Among the Victorians and Modernists Series perhaps reflects its editors' background in the study of English literature, although there is much here to interest scholars of alternative and esoteric religion from other disciplinary perspectives.
Following Christine Ferguson's introduction, which demonstrates an awareness of current theoretical thought in the study of esotericism, Michael Shaw provides a chapter on the Theosophical Society in Scotland. Nicholas Daly's contribution examines occult elements in the work of Anglo-Irish playwright Lord Dunsany, while Clare Button explores how the English folk dance revivalist Rolf Gardiner used occult topoi in his conceptualization of the landscape. Jake Poller discusses the "Neo-Theosophy" of Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater, before Nick Freeman outlines the role of the malicious black magician in the fiction of the period. The reception of psychoanalysis within the British esoteric milieu of that period is examined by Elsa Richardson.
Moving on to chapters that focus on women's occulture, Caroline Tully examines Florence Farr, a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and her relationship with ancient Egypt, specifically the Egyptian artefacts in the British Museum. Dennis Denisoff follows with a discussion of the artist Pamela Colman Smith, best known for her series of Tarot illustrations, before Andrew Radford details how Aleister Crowley is portrayed (and vilified) in Dion Fortune's novel The Winged Bull. The final three chapters focus on artistic and literary works, with Aren Roukema delving into Ghost Land, a pseudonymous 1876 book likely written by the prominent Spiritualist Emma Hardinge Britten. In the penultimate contribution, Massimo Introvigne explores the paintings depicting the Theosophical "Masters," while the book concludes with Steven J. Sutcliffe's introduction to occult elements in the novels of David Lindsay. [End Page 161]
Although not all chapters clearly focus on the titular "occult imagination"—it could just as easily have been called Esotericism in Britain, 1875–1947—the volume successfully demonstrates the diversity present in the British esoteric milieu of this period. As well as featuring a rich assortment of material, it features contributions from a broad spectrum of scholars—from well-established academics to those just starting their academic careers. Part of the volume's importance is in counteracting the Anglo-centric predisposition present in many earlier studies of British occultism while also giving coverage to figures like Colman Smith, who have been comparatively neglected till now. There nevertheless remains a bias toward middle-class and/or intellectual sectors of the milieu. There is nothing here on more rural or working-class esotericists like the Society of Horsemen. This is a minor issue, however, and is perhaps symptomatic of the study of esotericism more broadly.
An interesting feature of the book is its juxtaposition of studies on practicing occultists alongside discussions of individuals who employed occult elements in their work without actively adhering to occult systems or practices. For this reason, it is not surprising that Christopher Partridge's concept of "occulture" crops up repeatedly throughout the volume. Ultimately, this is an important and well-assembled contribution that warrants wide reading among scholars of British esotericism, particularly those specializing in Theosophy. Hopefully a paperback volume might be forthcoming to make it more accessible.