Madame Blavatsky– cheers for a long-awaited biography

I have long hoped for a new biography of Madame Blavatsky, but often wondered who might take on a subject that has become so controversial. Five Blavatsky bios appeared from 1975 through 1993: Howard Murphet’s When Daylight Comes, Marion Meade’s Madame Blavatsky: The Woman Behind the Myth, Jean Overton Fuller’s Blavatsky and her Teachers, Noel Richard-Nafarre’s Helena P. Blavatsky ou la Reponse du Sphinx, and Sylvia Cranston’s HPB. Each had strengths and weaknesses, but none contributed very much to scholarly research. Nonetheless, a new biography every three to four years seemed to augur future improvement in the quality of Blavatsky studies. And indeed, beginning in late 1994 with Joscelyn Godwin’s The Theosophical Enlightenment, we have seen a steadily growing interest in Blavatsky on the part of academic scholars. However, conditions have not seemed auspicious for any popular biography of HPB, and no author has taken on the difficult task of trying to explain her anew, until now. The result is well worth the long wait.

My research on Blavatsky was largely complete by 1990 although the resulting books appeared in 1994 and 1995. Seeing “Theosophical historian” and “controversial author” applied to me in a 2012 publication evokes an eerie Rip Van Winkle feeling. Anything I write about Gary Lachman’s new book could reignite such controversy, so I will not comment about its implications for Theosophists. But my career as a librarian involved thirty years of responsibility for selecting books that would be most useful for patrons in small rural and suburban communities. I can highly recommend this book solely on the basis of that expertise: if a public library were to own just one book about Blavatsky, this is the one must-have item. Lachman answers better than any previous author the question of why any non-Theosophist would or should care about HPB. This suggests that her significance as an author can become more firmly established even as the ranks of her followers diminish. The 21st century market for 19th century occultism may be shrinking, but HPB deserves readers beyond those in search of a wonder-working spiritual authority figure. While this new biography is the best available for general readers, its non-propagandistic approach will also appeal to the more specialized interests of Spiritualists and Church of Light members, who are inclined to see value in Blavatsky’s writings without accepting all the claims made on her behalf. Lachman’s sympathetic approach to the paranormal is a strength of the book, in that he neither endorses HPB’s psychic phenomena uncritically nor dismisses the possibility that some at least were genuine.

Lachman’s is the best written, best researched biography of HPB by a wide margin, and the only one to adopt what we might call a multiperspectival approach. The cases for the defense and prosecution – heroine/villain, saint/fraud– have been restated in many biographies over the years. None approaches Lachman’s in objectivity, accuracy, balance, or interest. Now we can celebrate the end of a long wait, knowing that finally HPB has received her due from a writer already distinguished for insightful explanations of other figures in the field of modern esotericism.

(published in the October issue of Psypioneer Journal, fully accessible here on the journal’s archive website)

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