Thursday, 3 December 2015

Book Review: The Letters of H.P. Blavatsky Vol. One, 2003

The Letters of H.P. Blavatsky Vol. One, Quest Books, 2003, John Algeo, editor.
Early in the new millenium, Blavatsky's Collected Works project got a welcome re-boot with the first installment of her collected letters. There are 134 letters, covering mainly a four-year period, 1875-78, the important seminal years of the Theosophical Society and the writing of Isis Unveiled, in the United States. Roughly three quarters of these letters have previously appeared in various books of collected letters of hers, giving roughly 30 letters that are more obscure, although almost all of the letters have been published; the only exception being a short previously unpublished note to Olcott from the Adyar archives in India (letter 29). There is a Canadian connection in that several of the more obscure letters were reprinted in the late-lamented magazine The Canadian Theosophist in the 1980s. The thoroughness in gathering all this material together is impressive.
On a more controversial note, the inclusion of possible forgeries or adulterated source material, of which Blavatsky has been the victim, for purposes of defamation, on several occasions. In most cases, a note indicating the problematic nature of the letter is included. Fantastically, there is letter 7, an alleged letter of Blavatsky offering her services to a secret government department as a spy for Russia. Although the reference information in the letter seems fairly accurate, the letter on the whole comes across as far-fetched and contrived and so is most likely inauthentic, although the original copy has never been analyzed, which is a shame. Ironically, this letter originally surfaced in 1986, shortly after the Society for Psychical Research  (SPR) issued a  publication analyzing the infamous 1885 Hodgson report, the main source of her mainstream reputation woes, largely exonerating her. This new letter has had considerable mileage in academic circles.

The interesting letters to Hurrichund Chintamon were transcribed by Eleanor Sidgwick on behalf of the SPR, and although probably mostly authentic, there are some wonky passages of questionable authenticity. A series of letters that do not have any notes indicating problems of authenticity are the letters to A.N. Aksakov, a Russian spiritualist writer,  taken from Solovyov's A Modern Priestess of Isis, which has a notoriously negative portrayal of Blavatsky, most likely inspired by the Hodgson report, which entailed probable adulteration of certain otherwise authentic letters. Although they seem mostly authentic, the letter involving Andrew Jackson Davis in particular, seems questionable. Since it is a rather touchy issue, a certain disclaimer might have been appropriate. Since this problem had been amply covered previously, notably in Jean Overton Fuller's Blavatsky and her Teachers, it would have been a good opportunity to set the record straight. There are at least four distinct cases of forgery problems with Blavatsky so perhaps a separate study on all of them would be useful.
Of particular interest are letters to Olcott (44), to W.S. Moses (59), and C.C. Massey (65,74) which contain much interesting passages on esoteric philosophy, which, interestingly, shows that she was already acquainted with the distinctive theosophical tenets that were only published during and after her stay in India  (It is very regrettable that the considerable correspondence known to exist to the latter two have been lost). Moreover, there are a half dozen lengthy letters to her aunt Nadya de Fadeyev, both erudite and heartfelt. One small caveat is that since many of the letters that deal with the mysterious character of John King, concern a mysteriously produced painting, it would have been nice to include an illustration of said painting, as it has survived.

Most of the original Russian letters are previously unpublished translations by original collected works editor Boris de Zirkoff and many letters have benefited from verification with the archived originals. There is much helpful historical notes and explanatory text as this hefty 600-page tome collects much scattered material together for the first time, a treasure-trove of material for both theosophists and historians alike. Volume two is eagerly awaited.