Annie was a passionate social reformer who was declared 'an unfit mother" and looses custody of her children because of distributing information on birth control in 1875. After trials and depression, Annie becomes a passionate spiritual seeker, being mentored by the Russian psychic Madame Blavatsky, head of the Theosophical Society.
As Elizabeth struggles to write a screenplay of Annie's life she discovers the heartfelt and obsessive story of Annie's adopted son, the young mystic J. Krishnmurti. Elizabeth questions the role of fate and reincarnation in her own life by what she uncovers about her relationship with Annie who was born exactly 100 years earlier, in Victorian England in 1847.
Are you interested in synchronicities,
re-incarnation, issues of fate and destiny? This might be a book for you.
"Sweet Synchronicity: Finding Annie Besant, Discovering Krishnamurti" is the name of my new book to be released on amazon.com on January 1,2015.
Like the film, 'Julie/Julia" this book is based on the true story of two women who lived at different times and places but who had strangely intertwined lives. Elizabeth Spring, astrologer and aspiring writer, finds Annie Besant because of unusual similarities in their astrology charts.
Elizabeth Spring & Annie Besant
Excerpt from the book, "Sweet Synchronicity: Finding Annie Besant, Discovering Krishnamurti"
Chapter One: "Finding Annie"
It was a crisp October day in the upscale bucolic village of Litchfield, Connecticut. I was visiting my seventy year old mother, when on an ‘afternoon outing’ we stumbled upon the kind of bookstore that barely exists anymore. Wooden beams framed the small cluttered interior of the room overflowing with books and a woodstove warmed the chilled air. I felt excited; maybe there would be something here for me.
I would have checked out the astrology section first, but instead bumped into a table, over which hovered a curious sign: “People Forgotten in History,” and there she was—a woman staring from the cover of a book directly into my eyes. It was a slim book with the simple title of Annie Besant followed by the subtitle: Passionate campaigner for social and political rights, seeker after spiritual truth, and a woman of extraordinary personal courage. I looked at her face—young, earnest, intense, with dark eyes set between high cheekbones and framed with short curly brown hair. But it was her direct stare that defied any attempt to return her to the slush pile of books on the table.
So “Annie” came home with me that day, and after dinner, I returned to my childhood bedroom and began to read. It wasn’t until dawn that I finally put the book down; finished and mesmerized. Her story captured me, not just her struggles and defeats, but something about who she was—was so like me—although her life was so large and mine so small. Could this be just co-incidence and serendipity? It felt as if there was a sweet synchronicity resonating between us.
That next morning my words were a torrent of jagged emotion as I tried to tell my mother about Annie: “When Annie was young she was a minister’s wife in a poverty-stricken area of England where she anguished over the poverty and suffering she saw—and she came to feel that what women needed was to not have a life of continuous child-bearing—she felt they needed to know about birth control. So she found a booklet on contraception—in 1875—and gave it out to everyone—lots of people! She had it printed and distributed all over England—and it so enraged her husband that he brought her to trial where the courts declared her an unfit mother for corrupting the morals of the young. Can you believe it?” I caught my breath.
Mother was busily spreading butter on her toast. Without saying a word she got up and walked to the kitchen to get more coffee.
“They took her children away from her!” My voice hovered between a scream and a plea for understanding. I took a deep breath and lowered my voice to a rational level. “And after that she led the match girls in a strike in London that changed everything for them—they were being poisoned by match chemicals, working 10 hours a day for a pittance!”
No comment. I wrapped my hands, tightening my grip, around the chipped coffee mug I had long ago made for her. She poured me more coffee.
Mother sat down and raised her eyelids. “Life is cruel, but what can we do? Were you reading all night? That’s not good for you honey, and now you’ve got to go back and leave me here, again.” She sighed. I felt the usual twang of guilt, but this time it was layered with a hopeless anger that we would never connect. Mother always felt abandoned when I left her home in Connecticut for Rhode Island.
Returning home to Newport, I made straight away for the Redwood Library on Bellevue Avenue. Here in this private old library there must be some dusty volume on the life of Annie Besant. I inquired; there was indeed such a book; the librarian handed me a faded red tome called “The Passionate Pilgrim.”
Opening this hard-covered book I saw that it hadn’t been signed out of the library for over 15 years—but—there on the inside cover of the book was her full birth chart! I gasped. Annie was born on Oct. 1st 1847 at 5:39 pm, and I was born Oct 1st 1947, at 5:34 pm —the same day, exactly 100 years and 5 minutes apart. We were both Libras with Aries rising, and many aspects in our charts were similar. A shiver went through me.
As I read this second book I found out that Annie was ¾ Irish, same as me, but she was born in England whereas I was born in New England. Annie was born Annie Wood, and I was born Janet Fenn. In marriage she changed her name from Wood to Besant, and I changed from Fenn to Spring. When I was forty, I took my grandmother’s first name, Elizabeth. I never felt that I was a “Janet”, but I felt close to my grandmother and loved her name, so I changed it—but surely this wasn’t good daughterly etiquette.
I was a wife and mother like Annie—I was a woman with a strong Irish temperament that came out in passionate “Letters to the Editor” and in marches for Civil Rights and the Equal Rights Amendment. I was not too different from many people of my generation, but Annie was a much more outrageous public woman in her time—she was consistently on the front page of the London Times for her aggravating attacks on British society—how dare she challenge their sex lives with birth control information and their businesses with labor strikes for women? How dare she challenge the morality of the British hold on India, ultimately taking sides with the Indians till she became President of their National Congress? And most outrageous of all, how dare she adopt a sickly Indian boy, Krishnamurti, and raise him to become what the newspapers called him to be—a “Messiah.”
Why had I never heard of this woman who challenged history in England and India? Was her story simply too outrageous for people to follow past her early social reforming years in London? Annie’s life as a radical reformer was understandable, in fact, the British Broadcasting Corporation created a television series on her life that ended with those radical years in England—but they stopped telling the story of her life when she became forty years old! Was the second half of her life neglected or erased because it was too hard for most people to understand? I think so.
My life would change radically when I was around the age of forty, the same age as Annie was when she wrote her autobiography; something many people do towards the end of their life, not the middle. But there was a radical break in her life at that point, and in her autobiography she began with a reflection on her horoscope, and a small digression on the value of astrology.
Being an astrologer myself I knew two things: one, that even mentioning astrology was unusual for a woman who was born in 1847 and died in 1933—unusual because astrology wasn’t at all popular or accepted then, and two, that around the age of forty is the astrological time of what is called the “Uranus Opposition,” a time when most people make radical life changes. So it was not unusual for a change to occur in both of us then, but more interesting that we both became increasingly fascinated by astrology and spirituality at that same point.
I poured over Annie’s chart and my own. I’m a professional astrologer who accepts the influences of reincarnation on the chart and the theories of Carl Jung, particularly on synchronicity or “meaningful co-incidences.” As I looked at the charts I noticed there were differences, but many similarities, aside from the fact that we were both Libras. My astrological “niche” is about the North and South Nodes in the birth chart—these are the places where the re-incarnational life story and life lessons interact and this is where I caught my breath again—Annie’s North Node pierced through my Sun like an arrow.
Let me explain a little to those who may be interested in astrology: I recently wrote a book called: “North Node Astrology; Rediscovering Your Life Direction and Soul Purpose. The North Node, like a North Star, guides us to where the Soul wants to go in this life, and the experiences it wants to have or move towards, while the South Node represents what we want to move away from: our old karmic patterns best left behind.
What was most compelling about comparing our charts was that we appeared to have a soul connection regardless of the time we each lived in and regardless of the outer facts of our lives. Annie’s North Node, the direction where the Soul wants to move towards, conjoined or pierced my Libra Sun sign, meaning that something about who I am might echo a soul-wish of hers. It could be as simple as having a simpler more peaceful life, because I have my North Node in the Sign that longs for serenity: Taurus. Her South Node, reflective of the past and past lives, lodged itself right on my Aries Rising Sign, pointing to problems we both may have faced, including indignation at social injustices. With Aries Rising there’s a tendency to be a “spiritual warrior.”
And if we want to think bizarre, my Moon, representing something of my maternal and emotional experience, aligns perfectly with Annie’s Pluto, the Lord of the Underworld. Pluto is the planet representing death, rebirth, and “life on the other side.” Maybe it’s not that strange then that I’m trying to reach a woman who’s “on the other side?”
So it was the Nodal aspects of the charts that pointed to something unusual: if I were talking to a client about the comparison of these two charts with these particular aspects, I would tell them that there was a very good chance these two people had some kind of connection via reincarnation. But what that connection was, wasn’t exactly clear. Were these similar life lessons, or was there a previous life connection, or had one Soul actually been born again in the other?
Also in comparing the two charts, I saw that Annie and I had some of the usual heart-aching problems with mothers—the Moon representing the Mother in a chart. Annie had her Moon in the maternal sign of Cancer in a tense square to unpredictable Uranus, and I had my Moon in Aries in a tense square to aggressive Mars. Annie’s life with her mother was unpredictable and disruptive, while my maternal relationship was abusive at times. We both had a T-square in our birth charts from the 4th house of home, involving the Moon, Mercury, Uranus and Mars. A T-square is like having an irritant in the psyche that demands that one never stops trying to heal —or as I’ve often said, “It’s like the grain of sand in the oyster around which the oyster must continually secrete its juices to create a pearl.” All of this was interesting to contemplate at the time, but what was I to do with it? This isn’t an astrology book, but in the very last chapter I’ll share more thoughts with the reader about the charts.
I finished the last page of the old red book and sat staring out the bay window. Harry walked in the back door from the pottery studio. “What’s happening, Sweetie?”
I attempted a smile. He walked over and ruffled my dis-shelved hair which I tried to keep up in a proper bun on top of my head. My dark blond hair was getting too long and yet I loved that old fashioned look, it seemed to fit me. I must have looked very serious. “Come have a glass of wine, honey, you’ve got to put those books away.”
He pulled up a chair and poured two glasses while I stared out the window. “So? Out with it, my dear—what’s wrong?” After fourteen years of marriage he knew when I was in a mood. The blood rushed to my cheeks. I gave his hand a squeeze then picked up the little book I’d bought that first day I found Annie and handed it to him.
He took it out of my hands and with a mocking grand gesture read a section of the back cover: “Annie Besant grew into becoming what George Bernard Shaw called ‘the greatest orator of the century’ as well as his financial supporter and mentor. When she traveled across America in 1922 she often spoke to packed theatre houses and auditoriums six nights a week and was frequently paid a thousand dollars a night.”
“Wow, she was quite a superstar back then.” Harry’s eyebrows lifted.
“Keep reading” I whispered.
“In 1889, at the age of 41, she shocked the world when she became a devoted supporter of the Russian psychic, Madame Helena Blavatsky—and on Blavatsky’s death two years later Annie became president of the world’s largest occult religion, Theosophy. Although Annie was always committed to social betterment, it was the search for life’s meaning and spiritual Truth which was the most consistent thread running through her life. At the age of sixty her political activism resurfaced, and after years of inciting the Indians for home rule for India, Annie became, at the age of seventy, the President of India’s National Congress, just before Gandhi.”
“Can you believe this? One woman….?” he said, looking up at me surprised. My eyes must have looked like shiny dark pools. I had lost so much sleep. “But still, why are you in this…state? Was your mother--?”
I shook my head and grabbed the book again: “Listen to this: her most outrageous act was when she presented to the world, her adopted son, J. Krishnamurti, as a Spiritual Teacher—a young Indian boy the newspapers called The Young Messiah.” I threw the book down. “These wealthy British Theosophists groomed him to be the second coming of Christ!” I picked up the book again and opened it to newspaper photos of Annie with Krishnamurti on her arm: Young Messiah to come to America. “Look here—this was in 1927. She must have really seen something—extraordinary—in him!”
I took a sip of wine and went on: “So Annie, and thousands of people, actually believed that this very quiet boy, whom they had raised like an English Brahmin to be a Star—to be a Guru— would be the Avatar for the New Age, the one Madame Blavatsky predicted would come….and you know what he did?”
Harry leaned toward me, looking on the edge of confusion. “No—this is unbelievable. This is true?”
“All true.” I gulped down some wine and continued: “Well—first this boy just about had a nervous breakdown—no, he did have a nervous breakdown around the age of thirty-three, and then he stood up one day in Holland, on the grounds of a castle one of his wealthy supporters had given him, and gave the most astounding speech to thousands of people who were expecting him to announce his Coming as a….messiah. He said No, I’m not who you are expecting. I can only teach you one thing; and that is how to be totally and unconditionally free.”
“Unbelievable.” Harry gasped.
“Yes! So this young Indian boy started speaking about trying to live in the moment--fresh—without the baggage of our past conditioning, and that we didn’t need to have organized religions to find God. He was so charismatic and his message so new that Annie simply said: He has come. “And yet he wouldn’t be a Theosophist—he was the most anti-guru Guru they’d ever heard speak—and full of passion and conviction.”
Harry nodded. I sensed right then that this was going to change something, but I didn’t know what. Harry stared at me with his tired blue eyes. He was finishing a full day in the pottery shop and his pants were covered with clay dust. He probably was ready for us to make dinner.
I stroked the cover of the red book. I couldn’t stay quiet: “…but you know what is really sad, is that she never knew that her adopted son, Krishnamurti, really did grow into being just what she had proclaimed him to be—one of the world’s great spiritual leaders. The prediction became true.”
“Oh I remember him now. He was very popular in the 1960’s and ‘70’s when everyone got on board with the idea that God was within us and we could follow our own path to God. We could create our own lives and reality. Right?”
“Exactly.” Harry got it. I smiled back, glad that he remembered. “Honey, there’s one other thing. I don’t know why I have to do this, but I must…and then we’ll make dinner.” I paused.
“What?” He looked a little unnerved now.
“I have to find out what this means for me. There’s something strange happening here—look! Our astrology charts are so similar—look—we were born 100 years and 5 minutes apart! I opened my notebook to our charts. I don’t get this! And I don’t understand about these ‘invisible worlds’ she talks about so much….” I paused, and Harry’s face twitched. “And look at this—I pointed to a quote on a page I had ripped out of a journal I had kept years ago. It read: “No soul that aspires can ever fail to rise; no heart that loves can ever be abandoned. Difficulties exist that in overcoming them we may grow strong, and only those who have suffered are able to save.”
“You know who wrote that?” I asked. “Annie Besant. I just found it. I don’t remember where or when I found it.” I paused and looked out the window again, wondering how my ever-patient Harry would take to my next piece of news.
“Anyway, that’s not important, what is important is that I’ve decided that I’m going to see this woman tomorrow. She’s a psychic—a really respected one. She’s supposed to be great.” I paused. “And I’m going to pray for Annie to come through her to me, to see why I’m so drawn to her life. Then I’ll know.”
“Know what?” His lips tightened.
“I don’t know.” My head dropped as I touched my chest and inhaled. “I guess I want to know why she’s come into my life like this, at this time, with these astrological synchronicities, and why I feel such a heart connection to her.”
It was quiet for a moment. When I looked up I could have sworn that the light outside the window had darkened into a luminous yellow. It looked as if a storm was approaching and the wind was whipping up the undersides of the leaves on the trees by our house. A branch snapped a harsh whack against the house. “You know, Harry, this could change my life; our lives.”
“Elizabeth, you’re going to make some kind of life decision based on a psychic?!”
“I don’t know. Maybe I’ll just find out if synchronicities like these really matter. They could, couldn’t they? I mean astrology is based on the synchronicity of your birth time and place—Carl Jung said our birth time was the most important synchronistic moment of our life.”
Harry looked like he was going to launch into a crusade of reasonableness when I interrupted him.
“It’s all ‘flapdoodle’ right?” I grinned and narrowed my eyes at him, knowing that that one word had more meaning than he’d ever guess. It was the favorite expression of Annie’s Russian mentor, Madame Blavatsky, whenever she got annoyed.
“Elizabeth, I can accept the psychological astrology you practice...but psychics and all this Krishnamurti stuff; it’s so….dense…so occult. It almost gives me the creeps, like this weather now.”
I saw our dog dash inside for cover as the sky opened up and dropped its rain. My voice became a whisper: “Why hasn’t anyone told her story from her point of view, Harry? Even this book has got an attitude. Why has she been overlooked in history—erased? Because people thought she was crazy? People criticize what they don’t understand—but nobody knows this story; her story; the true story! Not the dribble the newspapers of her time wrote about—they just mocked her and the historians simply wrote her out of history. Now she’s collecting dust on the shelves.
“So maybe you’re the one to tell her story.” Harry stated.
The next morning I went to see the psychic. And I prayed. I drove over to a wood-shingled colonial house in downtown Newport, parked my car and walked over to the address on my paper. I checked the number again: she was on the third floor. On every step of the way up I repeated Annie’s name like a mantra as if to give me courage. I tried not to think of the fact that I didn’t really like psychic mediums, that I was afraid of knowing too much, and that I’d never wanted to know more of the future than what an astrology chart could show me. Astrology honored free will, and the ability to change one’s fate. I didn’t know if most psychics have that point of view; but it was too late to think of that now. I knocked.
Candace was a little older than I expected, and she wore a long skirt, peasant blouse, with even longer earrings and graying ringlets framing a delicate face. She had a sincere smile that beamed at me, as she led me to a small round table on which was a lit candle, tarot cards, and assorted books. There was a faint herbal smell coming from the kitchen. “Would you like some tea?” she asked. I took her raspberry blended tea and sipped it with my skepticism growing at the same rate as my hope. I found it hard to drink the tea.
Candace looked down at my hands. “Do you wear that bracelet a lot?” she asked me. I nodded yes. “Could I hold it?” I handed it to her, and she closed her eyes. I waited for what seemed to be almost too long.
The first words out of her mouth were: “I hear the name Ann…Annie. She’s saying something about the two of you collaborating on a project…?” She looked up at me. I stopped breathing and just nodded my head, yes. Another even longer pause. “Ah…does she live in New York City or somewhere close?” I shook my head no, but smiled. I had heard what I needed to hear in her first sentence. The rest was a blur. As I retraced my way downstairs I knew, with every ounce of my being, that I needed to write the story of Annie’s life—and I needed to begin it now. ~
"Of Match Girls, George Bernard Shaw, and Eleanor Marx"
At this point in her life, Annie could have succumbed to one of those mysterious illnesses which confined nineteenth-century ladies to sofas and darkened rooms. The loss of her children would have broken the spirit of many women.
With the birth control pamphlets Annie had made a permanent contribution to the progress of women. But she also began to feel a growing sense of dissatisfaction and an inner emptiness that both scared and depressed her. But it was then that she found the drug of her choice—something that for the rest of her life she could not do without: work.
In the beginning, Annie survived by taking the money from her lectures and writing and plunging herself into studying science at the University. She studied botany and physics, as well as earning certificates to teach classes in these subjects. She said at that time: “Let me say to anyone in mental trouble, that they might find an immense relief in taking up some intellectual recreation of this kind.” Without a family and children, and no direction, working and learning seemed reasonable.
Annie came out of the ordeal of the trials at first feeling closer to Charles Bradlaugh. Annie once admitted that she loved Bradlaugh more than any other man in her life. She deeply admired him, he touched her heart, and he had been such an inspiration—but that was not to last—Charles allowed his political life to take precedence over everything.
And they were moving in different directions; Annie’s struggle for the poor was leading her into Socialism, whereas Bradlaugh had a fierce individualism that didn’t mix well with that group. The feeling of loss was mutual, yet Annie felt that his “secularism” seemed to go only so far, and then stop. She was beginning to see it as being only so much rhetoric. Parliament appealed to Bradlaugh, but Annie thought it was too slow. She wanted action and as she said: Who was really doing anything for the poor and the oppressed anyway?
Her answer came in the person of Eleanor Marx, Karl Marx’s daughter, a woman who was equal to Annie in intellect and out-spokenness, and who had an almost proprietary interest in Socialism. She denounced the Secularists as being bourgeois intellectuals, and claimed it was the Socialists who were actually throwing the potatoes into the plates of the poor. Or at least they were trying to…
Annie was intrigued. Eleanor was a hard-drinking, cigarette-smoking, raven-haired beauty, who also irritated Annie beyond all reason. First she had a way with men, and then the scathing attacks she wrote on Secularism in the newspapers rattled Annie’s reasoning.
The problem was that the Socialists were calling attention to the real social issues of the day: the inadequacy of the school system, the problems of child labor, and the conditions of the factories. Annie had been trying to deal with these issues through charity work, benevolent leagues, and lectures. But it wasn’t enough. She wanted to get out there and do something.
Inwardly she was in constant turmoil—and then the infamous straw that broke the camel’s back appeared. For months the Socialists had campaigned for free lunches for the London public schools, arguing that it made no sense to buy books and pay teachers when the children couldn’t concentrate because of hunger. London at this time was in the midst of a severe economic depression, and a large majority of families ate only one decent meal a day; in the evening. The children were being sent to school on empty stomachs. Aggravating the situation even more was that it was a cold, frigid winter—the poor were having a real battle just trying to keep warm.
Annie weighed the issues closely for weeks. Bradlaugh’s staunch brand of individualism, in which the workingman pulled himself up by his bootstraps, had no room for “welfare” lunches. He wanted to convince government that they needed to provide jobs, not hand-outs. She knew she had to stand against Bradlaugh on this one; so in her Christmas column in the National Reformer she came out in favor of free lunches and she was fiercely pounced upon for her Socialist sentimentalism. She had taken the first step towards a new cause, a new life.
It was a slow and sad parting of ways between Annie and Charles, with his eye on Parliament, and Annie wanting to dig her feet in the trenches. Annie was not having an easy time making the transition from Secularism to Socialism, and even that wasn’t a great fit. She was frequently ill with congestion of the lungs and having fits of losing her voice altogether. Bradlaugh was of no help to talk to, for he found the Socialists to be: “a few poets, a few idiots and some others of whom I could not use such kindly words.”
Annie managed to get herself elected to the London School board and was starting to make some changes for the poor there, despite the fact that she was fighting off a depression. She could have continued to rise in political power while on the London School board—she was the first woman in British history to get elected to public office by being on the school board—and she had the connection with Charles in Parliament if she wanted to go in that direction. But it was not power Annie wanted—as she wrote:
“I finally convinced myself that there was some hidden thing, some hidden power, and resolved to seek until I found it, and by the early spring of 1889 I had grown desperately determined to find what I sought. At last, sitting alone in deep thought as I had become accustomed to do after the sun had set, filled with an intense but nearly hopeless longing to solve the riddle of life and mind, I heard a Voice that was later to become to me the holiest sound on earth, bidding me to take courage for the light was near.”
Annie did not know who or what that “Voice” might be at this time, but astrologically this was the time of Annie beginning to enter her “Uranus opposition” a time that brings radical change into our lives—a life passage that happens to everyone between the ages of thirty nine and forty-two. It often starts with depression and restlessness that leads to change, rebirth and renewal. Annie was reinventing herself yet again—an excellent choice for anyone at their Uranus Opposition. And she was writing her autobiography.
It took all the Irish charm and keen mind of George Bernard Shaw to outwit and win over Annie from her growing and uneasy depression. As Annie writes:
“At this time I met George Bernard Shaw, one of the most brilliant of Socialist writers, and most provoking of men; a man with a perfect genius for aggravating the enthusiastically earnest, and with a passion for representing himself as a scoundrel. On my first experience of him on the platform at South Place he described himself as a ‘loafer’ and I gave an angry snarl at him in the National Reformer, for a loafer was my detestation, and behold! I found that he was a writer with principles, and preferred starving his body to starving his conscience; that he gave time and earnest work to the spreading of Socialism, spending night after night in workmen’s clubs; and that a ‘loafer’ was only his amiable way of describing himself.”
Shaw made an interesting comment about Annie at this time: “I attracted and amused Mrs. Besant for a time; but in the end the apparently heartless levity with which I spoke, made it very hard for her to work with me. She therefore became a sort of expeditionary force, always to the front when there was trouble and danger, leaving the routine to the rest of us, and taking the fighting on herself. An attempt to keep pace with her on the part of a mere man generally wrecked the man.”
What many don’t know is that Shaw was very poor at this time, and Annie supplemented his meager income out of her own pocket by paying him to write articles for a new little magazine she created called Our Corner.
Between 1885 and 1887 Annie and Shaw were very close. How close they were is debatable; some people believe they were lovers, others do not. We do know that besides their love of debate, they spent many hours playing piano duets as well—Shaw had an easy mastery over the music whereas Annie struggled to keep up with him on the piano, and felt uneasy in the parlor parties he loved to attend.
She must have had high expectations of him which he didn’t chose to live up to—in many ways they were not compatible spirits and it is a mystery why she loved this man who enjoyed lazily deriding almost everything Annie did. He had a definite distaste for commitment, and as he said to her: “When the Revolution comes, you’ll find me under the bed,” and it seemed to be true in the affairs of the heart as well.
They must have been quite an odd pair, Shaw with his red hair and pointed sandy beard, mocking eyes, and snappy humor. And Annie; impulsive, intense, half puzzled, half annoyed by his refusal to be serious. At this time she had abandoned her Victorian clothes and dressed the part of ‘the worker.’ She often wore heavy lace-up boots, a short skirt, and a red scarf. Her short curly hair gave her a look of boyishness and her straightforward expressiveness gave her a provocative air.
This provocative air of hers made for lively meetings of the Fabians, as her Socialist group was called. These meetings were sometimes held at Annie’s house on Avenue Road, with much “sherry and brandy inspired” discussions which often ended with Shaw and Annie playing piano together. However although Annie loved Shaw and loved many of the ideals of the Socialists, she didn’t see herself as being an intellectual gentlewoman or a political dilettante, nor did she see herself as being a woman like Eleanor Marx.
Eleanor was a ‘femme fatale’, a woman who inspired jealousy in women and lust in men. She had an almost proprietary interest in socialism because of her father, Karl, and although active in the Society when Annie was involved, she later became a romantic tragedy—she committed suicide over the love of a science professor.
But it’s true that Annie and Shaw loved each other, and the story goes that he asked her to marry him, but since Frank Besant wouldn’t give her a divorce, she drew up a marriage ‘contract’ instead. The commitment unnerved him, and he withdrew. However Shaw was always fascinated by Annie, wrote about her in some of his plays, such as Arms and the Man and summed up his feelings for her by saying: “Love me lightly love me long. That is how I loved and will always love, Annie Besant.”
Neither Bradlaugh nor Shaw accompanied Annie into her next public battle. Both men broke her heart; both men were emotionally detached and Annie wouldn’t settle for circling the orbits of either of them. She was committed to following Truth, and what broke her heart the most at this time was the plight of the match girls of London. The girls working in the match factories were the most down-trodden oppressed group of workers in London and they were not protected by the British Trades Union, which confined its activities to the organizing of men only.
This crusade, which caught Annie’s attention, was the strike of the Match-girls in 1888 when Annie was forty-one years old. It began with William Stead, a pioneer of modern journalism, asking Annie’s help in starting a “Law and Liberty League” which would defend all workers. Stead was the editor of a large newspaper, the Pall Mall Gazette and Annie was more than eager to help him in this, and she suggested that they also start a weekly paper to be the mouthpiece for this organization. Stead and Annie were of similar minds and temperament and they soon had a smaller newspaper, The Link, off the press, and out on the streets. The paper was sub-titled: “A Journal for the Servants of Man.”
One of the first articles Annie wrote for this paper was titled, “White Slavery in London,” and was the result of her investigation into the working conditions at Bryant and May’s match factory. Annie had heard of the deplorable working conditions at the factory and so discreetly questioned a few unsuspecting girls. She discovered that not only were the girls being paid the lowest wages of any working group in London, but they were being poisoned as well—their hair and teeth were falling out because of the constant inhaling of toxic chemicals.
In her most eloquent style Annie shocked all of London with the intensity of the misery she discovered. She then cleverly appealed to the shareholders of the company, pretending to assume that they were unaware of the problem: “Did they know that these girls worked fourteen hours a day for wages of four shillings ten pence a week? While the stockholders dividends were increasing?”
The expose aroused the anger and sympathy of everyone and the feeble excuses from the factory management were impotent. They tried to fire the girls who had talked, and in protest, a small band of girls gathered together and marched across town to Annie’s office to beg for her help.
Annie organized the girls into a sustaining strike that lasted three weeks, and called them together in weekly meetings where she inspired and encouraged them to hold out and not return to work. She moved among them like a fairy god-mother and put into each girls hand the money necessary for her to live on for that week.
During their weeks with no pay Annie had to raise money from other individuals to carry them over; even Shaw himself threw in money that he had scraped together from the pockets of his friends. The factory finally declared defeat. The strike was an enormous success because not only were the working conditions improved, the pay raised, and hours lowered, but the factory became exemplified as a model factory for others to emulate.
Annie had given the girls just what they needed; all her strength, passion and ingenuity. They worshipped her, and crowded around her to touch her skirt and kiss her hand. She was their heroine, and beloved mother. ~