MADAME BLAVATSKY, Medium and Magician. By John Symonds.
Odhams Press Limited, London, 1959. 254 pp. 21 s.


            It seems that about every ten years another author must sally forth with a biography of Madame Blavatsky. No one appears to profit as much from this except the book trade and the generally uninformed who may be mildly stimulated by the repetition of strange stories and who, if inclined to curiosity, may be made a little more inquisitive about all of it. For the student of Psychical Research however, the career of Madame Blavatsky deserves something more than a periodic re-hashing of half-told tales spiced only with the addition of new error.

            Certainly the case is not without importance even now, for, coming so soon after the formation of the Society for Psychical Research, its culmination marked an important point of development in the methodology of modern psychical research. As Mrs. Sidgwick has put it, “I think it had a great effect on our understanding of the difficulty of our work and the care required not to arrive at conclusions prematurely,” (Jubilee Address, Proceedings S.P.R., xli, p. 9)

            The publisher’s recommendation specifies that the book, “throws new light on this astonishing woman”; but it is difficult to see in what respect this promise has been fulfilled by the author, John Symonds, who was also biographer, literary executor and friend of the notorious Aleister Crowley, poet, fantaisiste and self-styled “Black Magician.” He describes his present subject as “the founder of modern occultism, The Messenger of the White Brotherhood” (p. 253). This ought to please theosophists, but, from what insight the author has given of his own motives—as in the incident of the theosophical hostess whose library he was using and from which he confessedly did not want to be parted—, one is tempted to suspect that Mr. Symonds here as elsewhere in his book expresses not conviction but merely indicates a reluctance to hurt “feelings” by appearing too “skeptical of anything... about the Master Koot Hoomi, and the Great White Brotherhood of Adepts” (p. 13).

            He begins his survey with a period in Madame Blavatsky’s life that may be new to anyone who supposes that she swept onto the scene as “the Messenger of the White Brotherhood” in full bloom. The better part of three chapters are given to recitation of the marvels of the Eddy brother and Holmes mediumships (straight out of Col. Olcott’s Old Diary Leaves). At this stage, before founding of the Theosophical Society and departure for India, H.P.B. (as she referred) figured privately and publicly as a chief witness for these mediums whose physical phenomena brought fiasco and condemnation in the spiritualist press. While Col. Olcott took charge of the defence in both of these debacles, publishing a book for the Eddys and organizing a “committee” to “investigate” the Holmes controversy, it is noteworthy that when H.P.B.’s own phenomena[1] came under attack in 1884 he neither published a book nor headed a committee for her defence. In fact, keeping more or less silent, he then actually threw his weight as President of her society against any legal or public determination. Why? Mr. Symonds doesn’t help us to answer.

            The biographer describes H.P.B as “a medium”, a “very powerful one” (p. 29) “of unrivalled ability” (p. 64); but it does not appear that she professed to put sitters in contact with departed relatives. On the contrary, from the time of her arrival in America she seems to have put off any such requests, and only privately (as with Olcott, after their initial meeting at a Vermont seance) introduced her friends to a fantastic “spirit” (latter dubbed, in theosophical terms, an “elemental”) called John King the Buccaneer. Mr. Symonds fails to tell us whether or how this evolved into Koot Hoomi a bit later. But, from the start (and in her case the record of these phenomena under one guise or another goes back to a childhood of tantrums, hallucinations and hysteria), John King and the procession which followed after were accompanied by a variety of mysterious physical disturbances, the “astral bells” being one of the more common, whether heard in the New York “Lamasery”, at A.P. Sinnett’s in Simla, or in a London drawing room.

            Here, Symonds, in preferring Solovyoff’s explanation (“Astral bells had sounded... something dropped on to the floor. Solov’yov hurriedly bent down to pick it up and found in his hands a pretty little silver thing, of fine work and strange form—the magic bell!”—p. 219), ignores that of Richard Hodgson (“a small musical box”... or “two”—Proceedings, S.P.R., iii, p. 263), who, previously, chose to ignore the original explanation of the erstwhile Blavatsky-confidant, Madame Coulomb (“a bell” pulled by “a string” suspended in a “vacuum” between brick walls behind the “Shrine” in H.P.B.’s quarters at Adyar, India—see her pamphlet, Some Accounts of My Intercourse with Madame Blavatsky from 1872 to 1884). In reply to those who think all the answers are in hand, it is discrepancies like these which much incline one to agree with Mr. Frank Podmore’s not unweighty contribution to this problem. It was his view that not all the phenomena of either D.D. Home nor Madame Blavatsky could be adequately explained by any theory of simple conspiracy, conjuring or physical fraud, but that both of these unique mediums possessed, as he terms it, “some power” capable of causing persons to “see visions and dream dreams” (Modern Spiritualism, ii, p. 268). Mr. Podmore specifically cites the positive testimony of Solovyoff who, despite his final adverse stand, was unable to shake off an impression made upon him by an “astral visitation” from the Mahatma Morya.

            For his part, Symonds is so impressed by this reported incident that he thinks it “suggests that Mahatmas do really live and have their being, can read the thoughts of men, walk through locked hotel doors, travel enormous distances in a flash...” And he “should have thought this conclusive, and would have capitulated to Madame Blavatsky at once...” (p. 195). Apparently Mr. Symonds’ imagination lacks the range and vitality of that of Mr. Podmore. At any rate, when it comes to the negative testimony, he accuses Solovyoff of “prejudice”, asserting that the “two things in his favor” were simply his skill as a master of the pen, and the bias of “the ordinary reader” against even the possibility of psychic phenomena. He evidently thinks his readers can dismiss the negative testimony of Solovyoff (A Modern Priestess of Isis, published on behalf of the S.P.R.) because it is now said, “There is only his word for it” (p. 220). But this will not do, for the biographer has simply shut his eyes to the important problem of the numerous contemporaneous letters addressed by H.P.B. to Solovyoff and in print adduced as evidence by her erstwhile correspondent and prospective chela.

            Mr. Symonds’ whimsical assessments are in the forefront when he comes to deal with the S.P.R. Committee’s investigation of the Blavatsky phenomena. He offers the view that H.P.B. hoped to “magnetize” the “psychists” (p. 181). Be that as it may, one would expect from someone today “well-known... as a writer on occult subjects” (as the publisher puts it) a better understanding of the methods of the S.P.R. He writes that the “aim of the Society for Psychical Research was to sift genuine ghosts and previsions from the chaff of coincidence and hallucination” (p. 176). This, of course, makes one think that the founders were not at all on the lookout for fraud, whereas they were for a fact as keenly aware of that danger as any. But the “aim” is more seriously misconstrued, for even today the purpose must be to first determine if there are such things as “genuine ghosts” before pretending to sift them from chaff. And here again we come upon the undocumented allegation that “Myers was also a member of the Theosophical Society” (p. 176). But see Journal S.P.R. xxvii, p. 167, where, after personal inquiry, Mr. Salter concluded that the same claim put forward by another Blavatsky biographer, Bechofer-Roberts, was false.

            Mr. Symonds writes, “Madame Blavatsky could have thrown the Report into the fire and turned a defiant back on such a stupid and superficial Report, but its summary of herself did not, in its perverse way, underestimate her stature. ‘For our own part,’ wrote Richard Hodgson, ‘we regard her neither as the mouthpiece of hidden seers, nor as a mere vulgar adventuress; we think that she has achieved a title to permanent remembrance as one of the most accomplished, ingenious, and interesting imposters of [sic] history’” (p. 222). By this, Mr. Symonds prompts the natural question, how “stupid and superficial” in turn may be his own understanding of the S.P.R. Committee, its methods, investigation and Report? For one very simple thing, he has gotten the number and names of the Committee members wrong: they numbered seven not five, for unaccountably he has omitted the Chairman, Professor Sidgwick, as well as Mrs. Sidgwick (p. 181). One might think he had read the Committee Report, but his solitary quotation therefrom (see above) was certainly not written by Richard Hodgson, and is not from Hodgson’s “Account” but from the Statement and Conclusions of the Committee (Proceedings, S.P.R., iii, p. 207). And Mr. Symonds appears ignorant of the fact (set forward on the first page of the Report) that the theosophists did not have to wait “with grace misgivings”, from April to December (as he alleges, p. 221) for these conclusions, because the Committee’s conclusions had been read by Prof. Sidgwick at a public meeting in June!

            “Is the Report fair?”, asked Symonds. “Theosophists say no, blame Hodgson’s inexperience” (p. 223). But how experienced were the witnesses for the “defence”? He tells us nothing of their blunders and lapses. Compared to Hodgson, how competent, how accurate have been his critics on the theosophical side? What comprehension of the rules of Psychical Research have they shown, superior or equal to that of Hodgson even at his beginning? Where can his critics point to a record matching that lifelong record of Dr. Hodgson which proved for all time his innate right to the title of expert. The writer tells us nothing of that brilliant record. Mr. Symonds’ own understanding of the methodology is amply exposed in his primary reliance on the objection by Dr. A.B. Kuhn (a theosophical apologist) that when he gave his report, Hodgson “had not witnessed any phenomena nor examined any” (p. 223). This is false, for Hodgson was a firsthand witness, though his critics nowhere acknowledge it (Ibid., p. 262); and so far as phenomena can be “examined” without being witnessed by the examiner, he did so examine—even to the extent of analyzing physical objects said to be psychically produced or modified (Ibid., p. 377, negative evidence re “Professor Smith’s Letter Sewn with Silk”, an example of Hodgson’s testimony not yet approached in print by his critics).

            It seems to be held improper that, “He questioned witnesses to several of the wonders a full year after the latter had taken place” (“only several years afterward”, according to the book-jacket statement). That may be unfortunate, but how else was Hodgson to gain required information? The theosophists had obviously failed to register proper testimony at the time and on the spot. Was this Hodgson’s fault? After this kind of criticism—in lieu of any objection that the Report mis-stated even a single fact—, it is surprising to find that Mr. Symonds elevates the testimony of Madame Blavatsky’s cousin, Count Witte, as coming from an “unimpeachable” source. So far as it related to H.P.B. this testimony (in his Memoirs) was what Witte could recollect from unaided memory fifty or sixty years after the events concerned, most of the information having only reached him by hearsay in the first instance![2]

            Although admitting that Madame Coulomb’s “words breathe the harsh spirit of truth” (p. 199), Mr. Symonds repeats the objection that Hodgson “accepted the words of the Coulombs, whose conduct had already put them under suspicion” (p. 223). This ignores the investigator’s explicit declaration that, “of course, I have not, in coming to this conclusion, trust to any unverified statements of the Coulombs” (Ibid., p. 210). And here, as in the case of Solovyoff, Symonds again ignores the mass of documentary evidence (the Blavatsky-Coulomb letters, many of which bore frank reference to fraud and conspiracy) which the Coulombs adduced in support of their “words”. Nowhere does he permit his reader to know that a selection of these was sent by Hodgson to England and was judged by “the best expert in handwriting” to have been “undoubtedly wrote by Madame Blavatsky (204). The biographer’s inconsistency is no better illustrated than here, for while offering no criticism against these documents being genuine, he fails to see that, as Myers so sagaciously put it for the Committee, “the field covered by the Blavatsky-Coulomb letters was surely wide enough” (Journal, S.P.R., i, p. 451)—wide enough, we may say, to found the basis of their Report and verdict.

            It seems to be Mr. Symonds’ view that “her answer to Hodgson and the S.P.R.” was H.P.B.’s writing of her magnum opus, The Secret Doctrine; that it was “her vindication, a book which no imposter could write” (p. 238). While it must be admitted that anything of this magnitude (some 1600 pages given to a “Synthesis of Science, Religion, and Philosophy”) would not be what one would expect of a “Russian spy”, Symonds, for some strange reason, here feels free to ignore the report of Mr. William Emmette Coleman (“The Secrete Doctrine, published in 1888, is of a piece with Isis. It is permeated with plagiarisms, and is in all its parts a rehash of other books... wholesale plagiarisms... copied from nineteenth-century books, and in the usual blundering manner of Madame Blavatsky”—see “The Sources of Madame Blavatsky’s Writings”, appendix to A Modern Priestess of Isis, pp. 358, 359).

            How far Mr. Symonds may be trusted in his details—and he seems not to understand that details are always a major interest when dealing with testimony to “miracles”—is open to question. On checking against source references, one finds numerous errors in his book. For example, the author makes us of Dr. E.R. Corson’s Some Unpublished Letters of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, describing occurrence when, on a visit to his parents home at Ithaca, New York, H.P.B. decides to “try her magic arts on the Corsons a little”. Mr. Symonds tells of the mysterious production of a “photograph” of the Professor’s deceased daughter. It was, he says, most “astonishing” that “the photograph was printed” on a certain kind of paper (p. 82). But despite this repeated use of the special term, “photograph”, Corson having referred to it as nothing more than a “portrait” or “picture” (produced evidently by the same process used in other instances of Mahatmic “precipitation” (see Hodgson explanation, report, pp. 273, 372).

            Again, apparently only to add “color” to his book, Symonds in describing H.P.B.’s appearance “from her photograph, which she had taken in Ithaca” (but which he does not reproduce), refers to “the fifteen or so rings on her fingers” (p. 80). This is apparently the basis for ihs repeated reference to her “hands... sparkling with diamonds, rubies and emeralds” (p. 172), “many large jewelled rings” (p. 170), “hands... loaded with diamonds, rubies and emeralds” (p. 184). But the photograph in question (used by Corson as a front-piece to his book) shows altogether no more than two or three inconspicuous rings on both hands!

            The present biography is of little use to the serious student of Psychical Research who is looking for the closest approach to the known facts in this case. Its saving merits is perhaps that the author does not put it forward as an irretrievable judgment. He leaves the final verdict to his readers, which is fair enough when one considers that in this instance there have been too many biographies and judgments of a “final” order already. Dr. Hodgson in 1885 had not much doubt that “her real object has been the furtherance of Russian interests.” (Ibid., p. 317), but in the light of additional evidence and subsequent events that opinion simply looks silly. Mr. Symonds only contributes the quaint notion that, “Madame Blavatsky” strikes me again as one of the world’s great jokers” (p. 242). But this cannot be for there would be too much to be dismissed as tomfoolery. He also alludes to her “hashish-en-chanted imagination” and her belief “that she alone, out of the millions of the human race, had been selected by the Masters to reveal forgotten wisdom” (p. 91). This seems to describe an inspired zealot, whatever the origin of the “inspiration”; and we know that Messrs. Gurney, Myers, and Podmore even than did not accept Hodgson’s spy theory, for in 1836, in his Introduction to there book Phantasms of the Living, Myers treated the case as “the rise of one religion... of which Madame Blavatsky was the prophetess...” We now know that her “miracles” examined by Hodgson were no part of a later or passing role, but the focus of a lifelong obsession; and if we are to explain it at all in commonplace terms it would have to be in those of paranoia (perhaps taking its rise at the age of four, when, Sinnett, her first biographer, tells us, a peasant lad in attendance apparently frightened to his death by being set upon by her faithful roussalka or goblin—a tragedy for which she even then boldly claimed credit). But H.P.B.’s psychological make-up should be not the first but the last thing to consider, and Mr. Symonds, like Dr. Hodgson before him, has done well to rank this a very minor problem compared with the question of physical evidence respecting her claims to psychic power. But even here Symonds does not furnish the facts upon which a reader may draw for any fair verdict. (Nor does his omission of India and  [text faded] help the reader any). To the general reader or new student of Psychical Research his book offers a fascinating first introduction to one of history’s most colorful, controversial figures, and it provides something of a look at both sides of the evidence in Parapsychology’s most celebrated case.


Walter A. Carrithers, Jr.


[1] In her day, much was heard of Mahatmic miracles and Koot Hoomi's marvels. But upon getting the results of Dr. Hodgson’s investigations in India, H.P.B. privately confessed responsibility as we now see: “I am dubbed the greatest imposter of the age, and a Russian spy into the bargain... O cursed phenomena, which I only produced to please private friends and instruct those around me” (p. 222).

[2] [text faded]