Burton the Adept

Part II of Ghost Land, provocatively titled “The Adept,” opens twenty years after the close of Part I with “autobiographical sketches of the Chevalier de B___ continued”:

To traverse many lands, sound the heart-throbs, listen to the inner revealings, and learn the life mysteries of many a strange people…I have something that has followed me, or rather infilled my soul, through every changing scene, in every wild mutation of fortune—on the battle-field, in the dungeon, in the cabinet of princes, in the hut of the charcoal-burner, in the deep crypts of Central India, and amidst the awful rites of Oriental mysticism, in the paradises of love, and the shipwreck of every hope—something which has never forsaken or left me alone; something which stands by me now, as I write in my sea-girst island dwelling, on the shores of the blue Mediterranean (pp.; 233-234)

This passage describes neither Emma Hardinge Britten, Prince Salm-Salm, the Baron de Palm, the Duc de Pomar, the Countess of Caithness, Ernest de Bunsen, nor Emil Wittgenstein. But it perfectly describes an early member of the Theosophical Society with apparent links to both Britten and Mme. Blavatsky.

Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890) had been deeply involved in occult circles during his time at Oxford in the early 1840s– the same circles in which Emma Floyd was moving at the time, in which the central figure was Edward Bulwer-Lytton. By 1860 he had become the most celebrated British explorer of the mid-19th century. Burton first met Helena Blavatsky in Cairo in 1853 as he was preparing for his great trip to Mecca; this at least is the claim made by Albert Rawson in a colorful memoir written on the occasion of Burton’s death. In his youth, Burton was a soldier renowned for his mastery of languages, 29 according to one count. In the 1850s his expeditions to Mecca and the source of the Nile produced popular books about his adventures, and he continued to produce vivid travel narratives for the rest of his life, while a British diplomat serving in Asia, Africa, South America, and Europe. More relevantly to Chevalier Louis, Burton was a lifelong enthusiast of astrology and occult lore. Burton, like Emil Wittgenstein, was an honorary founding member of the British Spiritualist Association in 1873, and joined the Theosophical Society later in the decade. Both had provided testimony to the 1869 London Dialectical Society, which also recorded Lady Caithness and Bulwer-Lytton as witnesses. While there is no evidence of collaboration between Britten and Burton, Blavatsky’s connection with the explorer was documented by one of her closest associates. Albert Rawson, who introduced Burton to Blavatsky, claimed to have made four extensive journeys to the Middle East.

Ghost Land appears to consist of three authorial voices each with a different relationship to Emma Hardinge Britten. Louis in Part One is a continental male version of Emma and the narrative rests on her own extensive experience in the occult milieu. Here Britten loses control of her narrative by sometimes forgetting whether she is herself or Louis. Louis in Part Two has matured into a much more masculine character, whose adventures and traits reflect those of Richard Francis Burton. In this section, Emma reveals herself to have only secondhand and vague ideas about India, and writes with the same combination of enthusiasm and misinformation that characterizes Blavatsky on India before 1878. It is therefore unlikely that either was directly assisted by anyone as well-informed as Burton; yet they were both acquainted with him and no other mutual acquaintance emerges as an inspiration for the Indian Louis. Blavatsky, however, is clearly implicated in the character Madame Helene Laval, a dangerous sorceress who attempts to seduce Louis and later becomes involved with a new sect in India.

next month: thoughts on adepts and pseudonyms