n a male-dominated society some women critics were impelled to activity by means of their participation in periodicals, a situation confirmed by Josephine Butler who said that the conspiracy of silence of the press had forced women to create a literature of their own (Butler, 402). However, Besant's attitude, undoubtedly far from the mainstream Victorian sage discourse, gained a stronger expression when she decided to become not only an active member of the National Secular Society but also an outstanding orator in the Hall of Science. There she had the opportunity to meet Charles Bradlaugh, and for both of them, it was the beginning of a fruitful and challenging companionship:
As friends, not as strangers, we met — swift recognition, as it were, leaping from eye to eye; and I know now that the instinctive friendliness was in very truth an outgrowth of strong friendship in other lives, and that on that August day we took up again an ancient tie, we did not begin a new one. [Autobiographical Sketches, 116-17]
This episode represented her entrance in a masculine world in which she was able to fight for a very strong participation. Effectively, during all her quest for identity (and it is essential to bring back to one's mind that her Autobiography was written after she became a theosophist in 1891), she judges her ideological behaviour as a very independent one (Autobiographical Sketches, 114-115). As it had happened previously, namely when she believed in God, she kept on acting as an atheist with "the feature of her High Church faith" (Oppenheim, 15) and always strengthening her ethical behaviour.
One of the achievements was undoubtedly The Legalisation of Female Slavery in England (1876). Originally published in the National Reformer, 4 June 1876, this pamphlet was issued in January 1885 as a contribution to the campaign to repeal the Contagious Diseases Act, which was passed on April 1885. The pamphlet showed her self as a form of resistance and questioned the myth of feminine chastity as well as the duality of Victorian sexual values which forgot "the nobility of sexual morality on man and woman alike" (Saville, Section II, no 9, 4-8). At that time, there was an appropriation of Butler's activities and Besant's discourses which led to "social purity" campaigns and gave Victorians what Pat Thane has termed "their most enduring stereotype" (186). In this domain, Besant is also unique, as she dared to fight for sexual rights for women, with modern arguments, perhaps sometimes too autobiographical, as when she mentioned physical and mental incompatibilities. Thus, she requests we pay attention to a society, which had generated all sorts of preconceptions against all processes that create and express desire. Not only aware of social and political discrimination but also of masculine insecurity, fearsome of women's emancipation, she decided to include contraceptive information in the new editions of The Law Of Population (1877) that had not appeared earlier in the National Reformer (See Saville, Section II, no 10). Nevertheless, the Obscene Publication Act (1857) which had aimed at the elimination of pornographic publications was frequently used to forbid the circulation of information on contraception and physiology among working classes.
The same happened to Knowlton's Fruits of Philosophy, with a preface from Besant and Bradlaugh, a prohibition that led to the famous trial in 1877. The trial, whose proceedings can be consulted in Roger Manwell, The Trial of Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh (London: Elek/Pemberton, 1976) was essential in her quest. It is the best-studied moment of her life, though critics' several assertions have not yet been confronted. From the start, Besant and Bradlaugh had been fighting for the right of free publication and had explained how contemporary ideology, defending family and imperialism, was a social danger, namely due to male control over women's sexuality. During the nineteenth century there was still a great ambivalence concerning contraception. That is the reason why Besant's words were threatening to the apparent Victorian stability. Actually, at the beginning of the century, some radicals had tried to disseminate contraceptive information, but it was the Malthusian League, formed in 1877, that provided its framework. However, it was mainly the dissemination of contraceptive knowledge that followed the Besant-Bradlaugh trial that contributed to spread more effective methods, which, as usual, continued to be dependant on each social class appropriation. Although perhaps not appearing so, the relationship between both accused had always the unfavourable opinion of Bradlaugh's daughter, Hypathia. Their friendship still belongs to the non-canonical side of Victorian society, as is evident when he represented republicanism and atheism, and Besant symbolised transgression, attitudes incompatible with the dominant feelings of Victorian society.
Thus, at the time it was decided to establish classes for popular education in the Hall of Science and "the prosecution of Mrs Besant's own studies at the University of London and her tutoring by young Aveling formed a vital contribution to the ultimate success of her work" (Nethercot, 24). In spite of having been given honours on her botany examination, namely by Thomas Huxley, she was forbidden by the curator of the Royal Botanic Gardens to make use of them in order to improve her knowledge. His rejection was simply based "on the ground that his daughters often used the gardens and he did not dare let them be exposed to Mrs Besant's presence" (Nethercot, 189) though after having protested she could use the gardens for scientific purposes before the public visiting time.
She continuously stood against the use of tradition as a way to render hegemonic practices legitimate and this position made her life very hard to deal with. Her criticism against orthodox religion led the Birkbeck Institute to omit her name from the list of its successful students. In fact, according to one of her biographers, Arthur Nethercot, because the members of the committee needed funding they feared that their contributors would withdraw when knowing Annie Besant had attended its lectures (Nethercot, 189).
Meanwhile science was advancing, her studies too, though in an unfeminine field, and she never took her degree, as there "was one examiner in the University who told her beforehand that however brilliantely she might do the papers which were set, he would not pass her, because he had a strong anthipaty toward her atheism and to certain of her activities for the masses, which he considered immoral" (Nethercot<, 186).
Annie Besant's Shifting Identity and Fin-de-Siècle Culture
- The Canon Reconsidered and Annie Besant's Marginality
- In Search of an Identity
- Besant and Transgression
- Indentity as Resistance
Butler, Josephine. Personal Reminiscences of a Great Crusade (London: H. Marshall and Son, 1896.
Bradlaugh-Bonner, Hypathia. Charles Bradlaugh: A Record of his Life and Work. With an Account of his Parliamentary Struggle Politics and Teachings by John M. Robertson, M.P.. 2 vols. (1894) London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1908.
Nethercot, Arthur H. The First Five Lives of Annie Besant. London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1961.
Oppenheim, Janet. "The Odyssey of Annie Besant." History Today no 39 (September 1989.
Saville, John. ed. A Selection of the Social and Political Pamphlets of Annie Besant. New York: Augustus Kelley, 1970.
Thane, Pat. "Late Victorian Women", in T. R. Gourvish, Alan O'Day (eds.). Later Victorian Britain, 1867-1900. London: Macmillan, 1988.
Last modified 27 November 2006