Annie Besant

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Annie Besant


Annie Besant was born Annie Wood on October 1, 1847.  She lived in Clapham, London and was married “in 1867 to Frank Besant, who became a vicar in Lincolnshire, resulted in the birth of two children, but Annie's increasingly irreligious views led to a legal separation in 1873” (BBC). She was educated by Ellen Marryat, sister of the noted writer of sea adventures, Frederick Marryat. Miss Marryat ensured that Annie had a very broad education including travel in Europe (BBC).

She took many actives roles in many different movements.  She was a member of the Fabian society, was part of the National Secular Society and was an outstanding orator in the Hall of Science. She was elected president of the Theosophical Society, a philosophical religious movement based on mystical insights, in 1907 and president of the Indian National Congress in 1917.

            She used her positions in there organizations to give herself influence on many of her beliefs and ideas.  She fought for the sexual rights of women (Malafaia, Besant 3) and worked alongside Charles Bradlaugh for the right of free publication. The two attempted to explain how contemporary ideology, defending family and imperialism, was a social danger, namely due to male control over women's sexuality.” (Malafaia, Besant 2) She had very strong opinions concerning free thought and feminism.  “Concerning Indian culture, she was worried not only about the expropriation of the practices of colonised people but also about the way the British made the appropriate of India's cultural features.” (Malafaia, Besant 2). 

            During her time in India she founded the Central Hindu College at Benares, promoted voluntary pledges by parents in which they promised to delay the marriage of their daughters, and sought the end of ostracism of those Indians who had travelled to England (Mortimor 61).  She carried many of her ideas wherever she went though it was believed that she strayed form some of the core beliefs of Theosophy. “She published a series of articles later collected under the title Nation Building, in which she urged that religious divisions be merged under the Theosophical concept of the spiritual union of all religions” (Mortimor 62).

            In the late 1920s Besant travelled to England and the United States with her protegé, Jiddu Krishnamurti, whom she claimed was the new Messiah and incarnation of Buddha. Krishnamurti rejected these claims in 1929” (BBC).  She finished her life living in India as the president of the Indian National Congress.  She died on September 20, 1933 and her ashes were scattered on the Indian seashore.

            Besant considered herself a product of her time.  She was seen as a crusader for the rights of women and for colonized people.  Yet, she is still not included as a canonized writer.  This may be partially a response to her Theosophical views and her activism.


Primary Sources 

Besant, Annie. Evolution and Occultism,

Bedant, Annie. Reincarnation. The Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar: 1963.

Besant, Annie. Autobiographical Sketches. Freethought Publishing Company, London: 1885.

Besant, Annie. An Autobiography The Theosophical Press, Adyar: 1939.

Besant, Annie. "The Political Status of Women" (1874)

Besant, Annie. "Marriage, As It Was, As It Is, And As It Should Be: A Plea For Reform" (1878)

Besant, Annie. "The Law Of Population' (1877)

Besant, Annie. "Why I became a Theosophist" (1889)

Besant, Annie. "The Ancient Wisdom" (1898)

Besant, Annie. "Bhagavad Gita" (Translation) (1905)

Besant, Annie. "Introduction to Yoga" (1908)

Besant, Annie. "Occult Chemistry (with Leadbeater)" (1919)

Besant, Annie. "The Doctrine of the Heart" (1920)

Secondary Sources

Bevir, Mark. Annie Besant's Quest for Truth: Christianity, Secularism and New Age Thought.  Journal of Ecclesiastical History. 50.1 (1999):     62-94. 

de Ataìde Malafaia, Teresea "The Canon Reconsidered and Annie Besant's Marginality" The Victorian Web.

de Ataìde Malafaia, Teresea "Annie Besant's Shifting Identity and Fin-de-Siècle Culture (3): Besant and Transgression" The Victorian Web.

de Ataìde Malafaia, Teresea "Annie Besant's Shifting Identity and Fin-de-Siècle Culture (2): In Search of an Identity." The Victorian Web.

de Ataìde Malafaia, Teresea "Annie Besant's Shifting Identity and Fin-de-Siècle Culture (4): Identity as Resistance." The Victorian Web.

Eckley, Grace "The Fruits of Theosophy: The Friendship of Stead and Annie Besant" NewsStead, 19 (2001): 4-5.

Summers, Anne. "Annie Besant and the occult mother."  TLS. 4655 (1992): 8.

Mitchell, Sally "Amy Dillwyn/Annie Besant/Woman Against Women in Victorian England." Victorian Studies. 32.1 (1988): 138-141.

Mortimer, Joanne Stafford. Annie Besant and India 1913-1917. Journal of Contemporary History. 18.1. (1983): 61-78.

Oppenheim, Janet. "The Odyssey of Annie Besant." History Today. 39.9 (1989), 12-19.

Wessinger, Catherine. "Annie Besant's Millenial Movement: Its History, Impant and Implications Concerning Authority."  Syzygy: Journal of Alternative Religion and Culture. 2 (1993): 55-70. 

Paxton, Nancy L. "Feminism under the Raj: Complicity and Resistance in the Writings of Flora Annie Steel and Annie Besant." Women's Studies International Forum 13.4 (1990): 333-346. 

"BBC – History – Annie Besant (1847 – 1933)". British Broadcasting Corporation.

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Prepared by Jim Kindratiuk (2004).

Nipissing University
Contact:  Professor Ann-Barbara Graff
Department of English Studies
Last modified: October 12, 2004