Book Review: The Unlikely Occultist by Isabel Blackthorn
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Isobel Blackthorn’s fictionalised biography of Alice Anne Bailey brings to light a life, and life’s purpose, that has been denigrated, downplayed or completely ignored. She became a shadow in the background of the momentous events and changes that impacted the Western World from late 1800s to mid 1900s; from the pre-world war period to the establishment of the United Nations.
With The Unlikely Occultist, Alice is back in the light where she deserves to be.
Alice A Bailey was a leading theosophist in the first half of
the 20th century. She was born in England in 1880, into the La Trobe Bateman family (her uncle was Charles La Trobe – a name well known in Australia). The La Trobe Bateman family lived a life of privilege within the scope of the Moravian Church; a Christian sect that originated in the area of the Czech Republic. They (the family and the church) believed in following the teachings of Jesus Christ and that service to others, over adherence to doctrine, was the highest of values. This belief was ingrained throughout the family. As such, Alice grew up with a religious fervor that may have hindered her early social aspirations but formed a foundation for her life’s work, through Theosophy.
Theosophy is a movement, formed in 1875 to study and teach the “Wisdom-Religion” of the ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Indian cultures. Their purpose is to encourage a universal brotherhood, to learn, and to investigate esoteric knowledge. Alice’s belief in service to others and desire to learn made her an excellent candidate for the theosophical movement. Her view on what theosophy meant to the individual must have been far different to others in the movement, many of whom came from privileged backgrounds. They seemed to have been people who had rarely struggled, who hadn’t experienced poverty or violence. As Isobel Blackthorn relates, Alice, in her twenties worked in India, married against her family wishes by marrying a man below her station (and with no money), and moved to America where she lived in poverty. These experiences would have given Alice a broader lens through which to view the changing world around her. Yet her determination and focus seem narrow and driven; the standard to which she held her fellow theosophists and world thinkers fixed.
Isobel Blackthorn has rigorously researched the life and work of Alice Bailey. Bailey was a prolific writer and workaholic, ignoring ill-health to bring the words of divine mystery to the world through the setting up of a new age of reason and philosophy. A woman with so much to share doesn’t necessarily leave behind a detailed biography of her day to day life. Her time was short, and she knew it. Her work was urgent.
Blackthorn must have spent many hours reading about Bailey through the writings left behind by family and colleagues. She has, nevertheless, sewn together a biography that fits seamlessly into what is known about her subject.
The Unlikely Occultist, cleverly intertwines two story lines, that of Alice Anne Bailey, the dedicated, passionate believer in the urgent need to save souls on a global scale, and the fictional Heather Brown an Australian archivist at the State Library of Victoria who comes across Bailey’s story through the papers of the late Professor Samantha Foyle (also fictional). The deceased professor was working on a biography of Alice Bailey, and it is Heather’s job to check and record all of the Professor’s work that has been donated to the library. In so doing, she is drawn into the world of theosophical thought and the work of Alice Bailey, throughout the first half of the 19th century to unify spiritual belief and bring about peace.
Meanwhile, Heather Brown is dedicated to her work as an archivist, to books, and to the deep relationship she has with her Aunt. She is a character that can be understood: she was on the outside, starting her journey and is finding her way through the layers of Alice Bailey and theosophy. Through Heather’s unravelling of Alice Bailey’s life and teachings, we are able to connect with a driven ambitious woman working on levels of intellect and spiritual knowledge far above the ordinary person. Heather Brown is the bridge between ordinary and extra-ordinary.
I had the uncomfortable feeling that perhaps I’d missed some important aspect of the story, some aspect of Alice’s personality that made her harder to relate to. This disconnect was caused by Alice herself. As was pointed out by Heather Brown and Prof. Foyle, in all of Alice’s writing, and in her unpublished autobiography, she seems to have written about many things but her epiphany or sudden insight into the future course of her life was glossed over. We know (through Isobel Blackthorn) that she was introduced to theosophy through her desire to better her education, use her mind. She had a thirst for knowledge and chose to embark upon a learning journey starting with a series of lectures held by friends of a friend. It was these people that introduced her to Theosophy and started her on her way. And Isobel’s research and writing skills that enabled me to find a thread of connection with this enigmatic woman. Here was something I could grab onto: the thirst of knowledge after years of struggle and dedication to bringing up a family, and the passion to share her discoveries and work toward a better world.
Immersion into Alice Bailey’s world: her family, her friends, her enemies, her observation of superiority and self-aggrandisement within theosophical circles, and her failing health, helped join many dots in regard to Heather’s journey. Heather’s aunt, who she is very close to, has passed away and left her favourite niece her house, enabling her to finally break away from her tight-knit, over-bearing family. Heather’s reflection on her Aunt, and later her great-grandmother, help her to see that she is on a journey too. Through her work, Heather is able to move on from her Aunt Hilary’s death, while learning more about her past, and ultimately, her future.
Blackthorn’s novelised biography of Alice Bailey addresses the “bad-press” the woman received throughout her life and even more so after her death. Her enemies successfully tarnished Alice’s reputation and side-tracked her teachings to the point that she vanished from public view - almost. Alice Bailey saw her path clearly, knew that the knowledge she had to share was of utmost importance, and that for many people, some of whom professed to be members of the same school of thought, that knowledge would not go down well. She worked on regardless, certain and confident in the truth she was being shown.
I thoroughly enjoyed the way Isobel Blackthorn tied the story up at the end. Her observations, through Heather are razor sharp and her description of Alice, driven and ambitious in her pursuit of truth and world unity is insightful, thoroughly researched, and a great learning experience. We dive into Alice A. Bailey’s world alongside Heather as she obsessively follows every lead, every clue into this woman’s hidden, and unexpected, gifts to the world.