Chevalier Louis de B_: How Many Prototypes?

Ghost Land is foundational to the Theosophical literature, chronologically and thematically, introducing adept brotherhoods further elaborated in later writings. Presented as a translation by Emma Hardinge Britten of an original text by the pseudonymous Chevalier Louis de B_, the book has inspired multiple guesses about the Chevalier’s identity. A companion volume to Art Magic, Ghost Land was published the same year, 1876, in the form of a memoir. The book’s authorship spans the early period of the Theosophical Society, with its first sketches appearing in 1872 before Blavatsky’s arrival in New York and its final section published in 1892 after her death. Chevalier Louis has never inspired a personality cult, and no one has ever claimed to speak on behalf of his Berlin, Orphic, or Ellora brotherhoods. Nevertheless Ghost Land is clearly a historical prerequisite for the full blown Theosophical (and post-Theosophical) elaboration of the Masters. Despite the fact that Britten later was a critic and opponent of the TS, Art Magic and Ghost Land both relied upon a network of support that included many early Theosophists as well as Spiritualists. Several Theosophical Spiritualists in Europe contributed to the character of Chevalier Louis de B_, in my considered opinion.

Eight years after Ghost Land, in Nineteenth Century Miracles (1884) Britten expressed second thoughts about aristocratic Spiritualists asking her to write about them using pseudonyms.

Since then Spiritualism in Europe takes the deepest hold of those whose rank and station induces them to shrink from subjecting their personal experiences to public criticism, the author too frequently becomes the recipient of valuable testimony which cannot be made available, because the communicants insist on withholding their true names and addresses. “Miss E.” and “Mrs. D.;” “Captain A.” and “My Lord X.Y.Z.” are impersonals, whom no one places any confidence in. There is no satisfaction in offering such shadowy testimony to those who are asked to believe in occurrences of an unprecedented and often startling character. Resolving as we have done, not to demand credence for phenomenal incidents upon any testimony open to the charge of unreliability, we feel obliged to relegate an immense mass of interesting matter of this kind to the obscurity which unauthorized statements justly incur.

Her former enthusiasm for pseudonymous collaborators seems completely absent in this 1884 book, but in 1892 Britten is once again writing on behalf of Chevalier Louis in Book II of Ghost Land.

Shortly after Art Magic was published, Emma was accused of being its sole author. Incredulity at her descriptions of Louis was expressed publicly, although anonymously, by a fellow Founder of the Theosophical Society. Charles Sotheran, in a review for Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly, [July 6, 1876] called it “simply a rehash of books readily available…wretched compilation which is full of bad grammar and worse assumptions.” The judgment by a personal acquaintance, published so soon after publication, condemned Louis as a fictional mouthpiece for Emma herself.

Emma as sole author of Ghost Land was also the conclusion reached by Arthur Edward Waite, who discussed Louis in his memoir Shadows of Life and Thought:

Mrs. Britten has told us, in her preface to Ghostland (1) that its autobiographical sketches were “written originally in German”, but as she did now know that language, the Chevalier put them for her benefit into “rough English”; and (2) that they were written, like Art Magic, partly in French, and partly in English, for the same reason. In the dilemma of this lapsus memoriae I am content to leave the question whether the Chevalier lived only in the second-rate and typically feminine imagination of Emma Harding because, in the universe of evidential things, there was no room for him anywhere else.

Despite all the subsequent proposals, the conclusion that Ghost Land was predominantly written by Emma herself is inescapable in light of bibliographic evidence, and her authorship of its companion volume Art Magic. (Marc Demarest’s 2011 edition of Art Magic presents detailed analysis of the text leading to this conclusion.) The conflicting personal details about Louis noted by Waite confound any attempt to identify him solely with any one prototype. Nevertheless, rather than concluding that there were no real prototypes for Louis, I conclude that there were several, which accounts for the conflicting information provided by Britten. She first alleges that the manuscript was in German, which she had translated by an Americanized German, and a few pages later writes that Ghost Land and Art Magic were both written in French and English. In the 1876 manuscript Louis is the son of a Hungarian nobleman and his Italian wife, but in the 1872 sketches his father is English and his mother Austrian. Such inconsistencies suggest that Louis is an invention of his alleged editor, but if Louis is primarily Emma Hardinge Britten, the sole author of Art Magic and Ghost Land, the question remains of Chevalier Louis as a character related to figures in her past and then-present social networks.

Other than Emma, only one person was publicly suggested during her lifetime. The first suggestion of a Louis other than Britten came in the December 7, 1876 Spiritual Scientist, in which editor Gerry Brown’s review of Ghost Land included opening remarks suggesting “It is a singular coincidence that the circumstances therein narrated should correspond so closely to the historical facts concerning the Prince Salm-Salm, a person who has visited this country, is well known in England, and a profound occultist. If he is numbered among Mrs. Britten’s friends we name him as the author of `Ghost Land’ and `Art Magic.’” The Springfield Republican for December 19, 1876 repeated the Salm-Salm identification of Louis: “We suppose the editor, Ms. Emma Hardinge Britten, would object to having the book classed among works of fiction, but it certainly will not be received as a record of fact by the reading world…. Mrs. Britten describes the autobiographer as now living, and her personal friend, yet we have seen the late Prince Salm-Salm named as the original; he was a noted occultist.”

Felix Constantin Alexander Nepomuk, Prince de Salm-Salm (1828-1870) was a Prussian military officer who studied at a military school in Berlin before serving successively in the Prussian, Austrian, and United States armies. While in the United States he married a Vermonter, Agnes Joy, who accompanied him on the Civil War battlefields. After the war they returned to his estate in Germany. He was killed in battle in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian war. Nepomuk’s career in the Prussian military and later association with Austria fits some elements of Louis’s persona, but there is no evidence that he was an occultist. He could not have collaborated in the writing of Ghost Land because he died in 1870. His American wife Agnes had a connection to Cuba, and a recorded interest in Spiritualism, both of which are relevant to Louis. Salm-Salm left us a book, My Diary in Mexico in1867, Including the Last Days of the Emperor Maximilian; with Leaves from the Diary of the Princess Salm-Salm, etc., Agnes also left a memoir of her own, Ten Years of My Life, in which she describes the couple’s dabbling in Spiritualism in 1863:

Though I, as I said before, resisted this epidemic on the ground of religion and common sense, I could not help becoming interested in this strange aberration, and feeling tempted to witness some manifestations of spiritualism. The Prince, however, tried to dissuade me from such an attempt, as he was afraid that the excitement would act too strongly on my imagination. I therefore abstained from visiting some of those public exhibitions of professional spiritualists, but did not resist the entreaties of Mrs. Speirs to have some spiritual entertainment at home, against which good Salm had no objection…

10/16/2015– adding this segment about Edward Bulwer-Lytton as it fits better chronologically here than with the next several prototypes:

The second suggested male prototype for Louis came from G.R.S. Mead, prominent Theosophist and secretary to Blavatsky in her London years, who was quoted by A.E. Waite that Louis was the “inner life” of Edward Bulwer Lytton (1803-1873). The prolific novelist had attained great success by the early 1830s, and his Godolphin (1833) was translated into Russian by Helena Pavlovna Hahn, mother of Madame Blavatsky. Lytton wrote poetry and plays as well as dozens of novels, and was prominent in political and diplomatic life, serving as Secretary for the Colonies in the late 1850s. His obsession with occultism and Rosicrucian lore is most apparent in Zanoni (1842) and A Strange Story (1870), and Britten named him first among the participants in what she called the Orphic Circle. His interest in practical occult experimentation was unrivaled in Victorian England, which lends credibility to Britten’s late-in-life revelation of his name.

Waite gives no citation, but had aligned himself with Sotheran’s position that Britten herself was Louis.  In Old Diary Leaves, begun in 1895 while Emma was still alive, Col. Olcott hinted at agreement with both the Britten and Bulwer-Lytton theories., writing that Sotheran in Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly “Uses very severe language in regard to the reputed Author, whom he indentifies [sic], whether justly or unjustly, I cannot say, with Mrs. Britten…This is exaggerated censure, for the book does contain passages worthy of Bulwer-Lytton; in fact, one would say they were written by him”…[i Stylistically, Ghost Land echoes Bulwer-Lytton more than any other novelist. Bulwer-Lytton, among Emma’s claimed acquaintances, was well connected in continental occult milieu, and might have inspired her treatment of this aspect of her story. His influence on Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled is relevant to Ghost Land.

In a 1957 study, Sten Liljegren analyzed the influence of Bulwer-Lytton’s novels on Isis Unveiled, and more broadly on Blavatsky’s development of Theosophy. Without mentioning Britten, he notes a characteristic of Zanoni that also is found in Ghost Land, which is that after publication, the author “kept up the fiction that he was not the author of Zanoni but only the editor of papers which were left to him by a Rosicrucian, which formed the novel in question.” Disclaiming authorship of parts of one’s body of work became a theme for both of Bulwer-Lytton’s Theosophical disciples. In the 1870s, Britten took the strategy to greater extremes than Blavatsky, since Isis is portrayed as the latter’s work regardless of tales of adept collaborators, while Art Magic and Ghost Land are attributed entirely to Louis. Ghost Land and Isis Unveiled are equally indebted to Bulwer-Lytton’s portrayals of adeptship and initiation. In an 1877 letter to Stainton Moses Blavatsky wrote of Bulwer-Lytton that “He was an adept and kept it secret – first for fear [of] ridicule—for it seems that [is] the most dreaded weapon in your 19th century—and then because his vows would not allow him to express himself plainer than he did…”

(the above is a modified excerpt from an essay for a future new edition of Ghost Land)