A Search for Meaning in Victorian Religion (new biography)

For a chapter about Henry Steel Olcott in a forthcoming collection, I examined his friendship with Charles Carleton Massey, and became impressed by the generally admiring remarks from many sources about Massey’s honesty. Following his earlier book on the relationship between Spiritualism and Theosophy, Jeffrey Lavoie pursues that link further through a biography of one man who served as a “connecting rod” between the two movements.  Below is a review of the biography I posted on Amazon:

Until this book, Charles Carleton Massey has been a footnote in the lives of other more celebrated figures in the Victorian worlds of Spiritualism, the occult revival, and psychical research. Jeffrey Lavoie has honored him with a thoroughly researched and documented study that places Massey in a pivotal position as a “connecting rod” linking many better known contemporaries.

Each chapter of A Search for Meaning in Victorian Religion examines a different facet of Massey’s many related interests. Lavoie delves into Spiritualism and psychical research, explores the rise of esotericism in the late 19th century, relates Massey’s significance as a student and translator of German mystical and esoteric literature, and gives an intriguing account of his acceptance of anti-Masonic conspiracy theories and fantasies about Satanism. His final chapter provides well chosen excerpts from Massey’s writings that reveal him as increasingly focused on an esoteric interpretation of Christianity in his later years.

Of special interest to Theosophical history is Lavoie’s treatment of Massey’s progressive alienation from Madame Blavatsky, juxtaposed with his lifelong friendship with Colonel Olcott. No previous author in the field has appreciated all the cross-currents swirling around Massey as one of the original founders of the Theosophical Society who later had a similar role in the beginnings of the Society for Psychical Research.

There is less information available about Massey’s personal life than his intellectual life, but Lavoie provides as full a portrait of the private man as possible. The greatest strengths of the book are its excellent introduction and conclusion, which places Massey the public figure in context of intellectual history. Here Lavoie’s expertise as a religious historian and his deep personal sympathy for Massey combine to give an interpretative framework for the chapters about various phases of his subject’s life.

Recommended especially for scholars interested in Religious Studies and Victorian England, but accessible and interesting for general readers interested in Spiritualism, parapsychology, and esotericism.

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