Book Review

The Letters of H. P. Blavatsky: Volume 1, 1861-1879, ed. John Algeo, Quest Books, Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton, IL, 2003; 634 pages, ISBN 0835608360, hardcover, $29.95

Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891) is the chief figure in the modern theosophical movement, cofounder of the Theosophical Society and author of much theosophical source literature, including The Secret Doctrine (1888) and The Voice of the Silence (1889). The fourteen volumes of her Collected Writings contain articles and letters she wrote for publication as well as documents written for her students and items from her Scrapbooks. Now Theosophical Publishing House adds to this series her collected personal correspondence, beginning with 136 letters written between 1861 and January 1879, immediately before she and H. S. Olcott arrived in India from America, via Europe. The period includes Blavatsky's stay in America, the founding of the Theosophical Society, and the writing of her first book, Isis Unveiled. The majority of the letters are to her relatives, Olcott, and a few early theosophists; to those interested in Spiritualism such as A. N. Aksakoff, Professor Hiram Corson, and General F. J. Lippitt; and to two Hindus involved with the Arya Samaj founded by Dayanand Sarasvati, with which organization the Theosophical Society was briefly allied.

All the letters in this handsome volume have been carefully read against original autographs, where available, or against the most authoritative print versions. Most are introduced with a headnote, and additional information about subject matter and sources appears in endnotes to each letter. Variant readings from different sources and questions of authenticity are also noted. Despite such scholarly apparatus, the book has a friendly feel. Fourteen informative short essays give background on subjects central to the letters, including a brief sketch of the first thirty years of Blavatsky's life. These essays give necessary context for the letters rather than rehashing scholarly controversies or going into too much detail. Helpfully, foreign and unusual words and phrases are translated or defined where they appear in the text, and a valuable Glossary-Index covers people, organizations, and terms that occur in several places. A bibliography is also included.

The editor and assistant editors have approached this task with a great respect for their subject, and their careful work has produced a valuable reference for those interested in H. P. Blavatsky and in early theosophical history. Sarah Belle Dougherty


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