Blavatsky and The Theosophist

Part 2

Who was Hélène Petrovosky Blavatsky?

Mme Fadeff, HPB’s aunt is quoted as follows:

““…she left her ‘husband’ forever, without giving him any opportunity to ever even think of her as his wife. Thus Mme Blavatsky abandoned her country at seventeen, and passed ten long years in strange and out-of-the-way places — in Central Asia, India, South America, Africa and Eastern Europe.””

Mme Fadeff, HPB’s aunt, as quoted in (Neff, 2015, p.81).

Just about every aspect of Mme Blavatsky’s character was unusual. Whatever might have been the ideal of a Victorian woman of means, she did not conform to it in any respect. From her upbringing to her education, to her employment to her marriages, even down to the way she dressed, HPB was an outlier in an era that valued conformity to social norms. As a cosmopolitan woman of varied background, however, she was, at least in certain circles, able to get by with her flouting of social convention and even to use the accompanying shock value to her advantage. Within a short time of her arrival in New York, where she arrived in July, 1873, direct from Paris, she had become a celebrity, a trajectory that could only have been accelerated by her quick friendship with Henry Steel Olcott, co-founder of the Theosophical Society, faithful convert and aid to her cause,  and most importantly, a newspaper man with a public platform.

Helena Blavatsky, detail of an oil painting by Hermann Schmiechen, 1884; in a private collection.
Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Blavatsky came to prominence in the shade of the spiritualism movement, and in later days it was hard for her to shake the accusations of charlatanism and mediumship that clung to her from her early days. She had met Olcott at a demonstration of  ‘mediumistic phenomena’ at a Vermont farmhouse known as the Eddy Homestead. Both were writing articles concerning the demonstrations, the Madame purportedly conducting secret experiments of her own devising as well. Whatever the exact nature of their experiences at the farmhouse, Olcott came away believing that HPB was, not only capable of manifesting unexplained phenomena, but that she was more than just a spirit medium but a prodigy of occult powers. Later, he would come to believe that she was in direct telepathic contact with Mahatmas, so called Ascended Masters, who were able to dictate letters and other writings to Mme Blavatsky, and who could also precipitate material objects into and out of existence. It is not my purpose here to either debunk or attempt to fortify such claims, only to note that it is necessary to understand what was believed to be the source of many if not all of Mme Blavatsky’s literary prowess.

Certainly, however, the Russian noblewoman had had an exceptional if unusual education.  First, she was educated by her mother, Helena Andrivena, a writer of novels and stories who garnered a literary reputation among Russian critics as the ‘Russian Geroge Sands,’ writing under the pseudonym Zenaida R. It is likely that she instructed her daughter in both the literary arts as well as in languages (HPBs grandmother is known to have spoken five) (Neff, 2015, p.57). Unfortunately, Hélène’s mother died when she was twenty-seven and she herself was only eleven. Clearly, HPB had been born to an exceptionally gifted but also exceedingly young woman. 

Hélène grew up with a number of tutors, governesses, and nurses who were from various European countries and spoke various languages including English and French. She was also bought up in a Greek Orthodox religious context, which may have added to her acceptance of miraculous phenomena. Her father, who was of a distinguished background, being descended from the Mecklenburg Princes, was a military man, and prior to her mother’s death, she spent several years growing up among the troops, being often cared for by the commanders’ aides. Later, having gone to live with her grandfather, a Civil Governor in Astakhan on the Caspian Sea, she claimed to have become familiar with Buddhism of a Lamaist variety. She also claims to have visited the Russian territories bordering Mongolia, which also practiced a Tibetian form of Buddhism, and says that she “knew all about Lamas and Thibetans before I was fifteen” (Neff, 2015, pp. 56–57). 

That Blavatsky was a non-conformist was true by her own admission. She is quoted by Neff, “I hated ‘society’ and the so-called ‘world’ as I hated hypocrisy in whatever form it showed itself; ergo, I ran amuck against society and the established proprieties” (1971, p.78).  HPB, as she preferred to be called, may have had more serious problems than simple stubbornness however, as this disturbing quotation may reveal:

““When hardly sixteen, I was being forced one day to go to a dancing party, a great ball at the Viceroy’s. My protests were not listened to by my parents, who told me that they would have me dressed up — or rather, according to fashion, undressed — for the ball by servants by force, if I did not go willingly. I then deliberately plunged my foot and leg into a kettle of boiling water, and held it there till nearly boiled raw. Of course, I scalded it horribly, and remained at home for six months. I tell you, there is nothing of the woman in me.”” 

(Neff, 2015, p. 78)

By the age of seventeen she had married, apparently against her will, a man who was thrice her age, whom she fled not long afterwards. In an attempt to escape her marriage and it’s legal ramifications, she left Russia to travel abroad and effect a legal separation, an event dependent upon a ten year absence on her part. She would later claim to have visited Tibet during these middle years, among other exotic locales, and to have become initiated into occult practices under the Lamas while sojourning there. She would always prefer to be called HPB rather than Mme Blavatsky, an effort to verbally erase her unwanted marriage.

A mural of leaves in the drawing room of the Lamasary, from (Olcott, 1895)

Once in New York, Blavatsky and Olcott, having formed the Society, founded a home base in a suite of rooms in a 34th Street apartment building. From this location Blavatsky and Olcott embarked on an ambitious program of self promotion, both founders using the press adroitly to explain and expound on the Society and their beliefs.

Soon after, the compatriots removed themselves to a new location, 302 W. 47th street, a location which soon became known as the ‘Lamasary.’ During this time, HPB also began work on her first voluminous work of esoteric occultism, Isis Unveiled, published in two volumes in 1877 to much success.

The ‘Lamasary’ building on 47th Street in the 1960’s

Mme Blavatsky’s working methods were unusual as the following quotes attest.

HPB describing her writing style in a letter her sister:

“Do not be afraid that I am off my head. All that I can say is that someone positively inspires me — … more than this: someone enters me. It is not I who talk and write: it is something within me, my higher and luminous Self, that thinks and writes for me.”

(de Zirkoff, 1972, p. 22)

and again, in a different letter:

“I tell you candidly that whenever I write upon a subject I know little or nothing of, I address myself to Them, and one of Them inspires me, i.e., he allows me to simply copy what I write from manuscripts, and even printed matter that pass before my eyes, in the air…”

(de Zirkoff, 1972, p. 22)

Note that whatever one may make of her claims to telepathic or clairvoyant communications, she was not alone in her beliefs, and such claims were steadfastly upheld by Olcott, with whom she worked closely during this period. 

It should be understood that HPB did not claim to be a medium in communication with the spirits of the dead, rather she believed, and Olcott too, that she was in communication, at least primarily, with living Masters who at times took it upon themselves to dictate their messages to her. Some of these she claimed to have met in the flesh during her journeys to India, Tibet, and elsewhere. No such claims were made as to the authorship of her articles in The Theosophist, nonetheless, it is important to understand something of her psychology and working methods in order to analyse her work there. 

H. S. Olcott commented on her working habits:

“Higgledy-piggledy it came, in a ceaseless rivulet, each paragraph complete in itself and capable of being excised without harm to its predecessor or successor. Even as it now stands, after all its numerous recastings, an examination of the wondrous book will show this to be the case.
… Her own manuscript was often a sight to behold; cut and patched, re-cut and re-pasted, until if one held a page of it to the light, it would be seen to consist of, perhaps, six, or eight, or ten slips cut from other pages, pasted together, and the text joined by interlined words or sentences.” 

(Olcott, 1895, pp. 204 – 205)

Isis Unveiled was a publishing success, selling out its initial printing in ten days, so fast that some advance subscribers were forced to await the second printing. Despite the success, the duo rejected lucrative offers on the copyright, which would have restricted the number of copies in print. Two years later, the Society’s reputation established, the duo decided to continue their studies by moving to India. This they did in the year 1879. 

Among the first things they did upon their arrival in India, after they had finished their sight seeing, was the establishment of an official library and reading room. The Adayr archives and library are said to still contain works used by Blavatsky in the production of her magnum opus. Isis Unveiled. Once there they found it difficult to maintain communication with their ever growing number of farfung followers and The Theosophist was born as a means of maintaining communication among the dispersed lodges of the Theosophical Society.

Part 3: The Theosophist