Published by Blavatsky Study Center. Online Edition copyright 2004.

Madame Blavatsky: 
A Personal Reminiscence

by Scrutator
[Walter R. Old]

[Reprinted from The Occult Review (London),
March 1914, pp. 137-147.]

It is generally admitted that a certain degree of eccentricity is to be expected where there is a marked degree of genius. Undoubtedly, Madame Blavatsky was the embodiment of eccentricity. Nothing in or about her ever took place normally. From infancy she was accepted as an anomaly, and she appears from records of her early history to have gone off at a tangent and pursued an eccentric orbit of her own under an impelling law known imperfectly even to herself and to others quite bewildering.

Let us put aside for the time being the controversial ground of Theosophy itself, and consider the unique personality who so ingeniously made use of the Neo-Platonism of Ammonius Saccas as a vantage-ground from which to hurl a torch upon a sleeping world. For there can be no doubt in the minds of those who knew her intimately, that Madame Blavatsky had an unfeigned contempt for orthodox theology and an equally fervent belief in her mission to do all that was humanly possible towards curing it of the sleeping sickness by an injection of the true virus. And in this connection it is well to observe that from first to last she never on any occasion took credit to herself for initiating or directing the movement.

I first came in touch with Madame Blavatsky at a time when I was saturating myself with the study of comparative theology, and intent upon getting at the truths fundamental to all religious systems as a basis for a constructive system of thought. By some one of the threads of destiny that extend in all directions from one’s armchair to the world outside, H. P. B. got into communication with me. It happened among other favouring circumstances that the Blacksmith Adept was well known to me, and close readers of her biography will find some cryptic references to a mysterious visit of H. P. B. to this man. He used to spend his days at the forge and as I first saw him standing there in his leather apron, his brawny arms bared to the elbows, the sweat upon his great forehead, and his eyes, bright and deep-set, peering from beneath abnormally long eyebrows, he reminded me of Tolstoy acting the role of Vulcan. His evenings were spent with astrolabes, crucibles, and books such as never were found in such close proximity to a forge before, and in the midst of all this medley of uncommon things the Adept made common lodging, for in the single room over the forge he pursued his studies, took his meals, and slept. It did not strike me as unhealthy, peculiar, or incongruous. That he was intellectually big enough to engage the attention of so masterly a mind as that of H. P. B. is all in his favour.

So there were links which in 1887 led to a definite proposal that I should go to London and throw in my lot with the new movement. Madame was sorely perplexed about several matters which her peculiar position thrust upon her. There were students about her who were clamouring for instruction of a recondite and intimate nature, and there were dangers and difficulties in conducting a species of conventicle wherein occult training and domestic affairs elbowed one another in a quite uncomfortable manner. She could not build a house or even an annexe, but would I be the Vice-President of her Lodge? she inquired of me with characteristic inconsequence.

It was in April, 1898 [1889?], that I permanently took up my abode at what may be considered the headquarters of the Theosophical Society in those days. True, the official headquarters were at Adyar, in India, but the head itself was quartered at Lansdowne Road, Holland Park, London, and as in the case of Peter who was beheaded at Rome but whose head fell in Athens - the guides will point you the exact spot - the ancient dispute over the dead body of Moses was in danger of finding a parallel, the situation being somewhat complicated by the fact that Mr. Sinnett had already founded a Lodge of the Theosophical Society over the way. Certainly one can say that so long as Madame Blavatsky was alive, nobody ever disputed the fact that she was the head, heart and soul of the Theosophical Society the world over.

It would not be possible to convey a correct pen portrait of H. P. B. as she was in the midst of her work. You could seize her portrait at one moment and find it falsified an instant later. She was playing her usual game of "Patience" when I came upon her first of all one evening. This was her custom. She looked up and arrested your attention by the steady gaze of her large, pale blue eyes. Most people regarded them as the redeeming feature of an otherwise excessively plain face. They were set to advantage in a somewhat wide angle on either side of what did duty for a nose but which she playfully described as "no nose at all, but a button." Her mouth was wide with lips that were close-set, thin, and mobile, and when she laughed she opened her mouth and eyes wide with the abandon of a child. I have never seen a woman of mature years laugh with such child-like naturalness as she. Her complexion may be described as coffee-coloured, a yellowish brown, and the face had no square inch that was not scored by a thousand wrinkles. This and the whites of her eyes, which were not white at all but yellow, gave one the impression of "liver" or the tropics, and either would have been a safe guess. The size and shape of her head was very remarkable. No study of phrenology would convict her of material tendencies or attribute to her anything but a highly spiritual and intellectual nature, for the vault of the head from the bore of the ear upwards was exceptionally high, as was also the forward development, and these were sustained by an adequately broad base, while the lateral development was comparatively insignificant. Her iron-grey crinkly hair ran in fascinating little ripples to where it was gathered in the most unconventional of knots on the nape of the neck, as if it were something to be got out of the way merely, and stuck through with a broad comb. The inevitable cigarette called immediate attention to her hands. They were really beautiful hands, but uncanny; so like a child’s with their dimples and soft cushions, and every phalange of her lithe, tapering fingers was double-jointed. They seemed to be endowed with a life of their own. They were seldom still for more than a few seconds together. Later on she gave some sort of a reason for this. Holding her hands perfectly still over a table, the palms curved so as to form a sort of inverted cup, she remained so for perhaps two minutes or more, when suddenly there was a loud explosion like the crack of a rifle and one expected to see that the table itself had split from end to end. I have heard what are called "Spirit raps" on various occasions, but none voluntarily produced in full gaslight like this.

How far she had control over the psychic forces with which she was undoubtedly invested by nature it is impossible to say, but from what I have seen and heard I am fully convinced that the forces at work were more under control than controlling. Thus it happened on one occasion when she was on a visit to a friend in Yorkshire that the musical bells were heard in cadence through the dining-room, and the gaseliers rang in sympathy. Later, when saying adieu to her friend, she said she would think of her, and "if you hear the little bells again, you will know." About three days later when the family were at dinner, they heard the gaseliers ring again, and a peal of fairy bells echoed from end to end of the room. These bells used sometimes to ring in her own bedroom, which led off from the study in which she worked, and on all such occasions she immediately rose and went to her bedroom and locked the door. Sometimes I heard voices talking together in her room, just as I have heard them since her death in places that were frequented by her, when I have been absolutely certain that nobody was present. If I am correctly informed, Sir William Crookes had personal evidence of this bell-ringing faculty of hers when Madame was living in London.

That she was clairvoyant appears certain from more than one incident which came under my personal observation. I remember on one occasion we fellows of the staff were disporting ourselves in what was called "the workshop" upstairs after the day’s work was over, when suddenly Madame called out vociferously for her secretary, Mr. Bertram Keightley, and on his arrival sent him back quickly for pencil and paper, so that he might take down something that she had "seen." In effect it turned out to be one of those scurrilous attacks upon her - a rechauffe of the Hodgson report, I believe - which she said had been published in Bombay. The extract was given verbatim, but we had to wait until the next Indian mail came in to get corroboration of the fact. Among the delivery was a copy of the Bombay Gazette, containing exactly the original of what she had dictated, the old libel in a new guise. In strange contrast to her deeply philosophical mind, she appeared to possess a nature that was extremely sensitive to criticism, and I often wondered at the amount of energy and the glorious breadth of the vocabulary she lavished upon people whom I regarded as so many puppies barking at the heels of a Hercules. But so it was. Any character more protean it would be difficult to imagine. Leaving her in a playful mood you would return with some sprig with which to garnish your merriment, and would be met with a look of thunderous astonishment which seemed to question your identity if not indeed your right to existence. These kaleidoscopic changes were sometimes not a little disconcerting, and some even went so far as to advance the theory that there was no "H. P. B." at all, except what you saw of her, and that was considerable, but that her body was long ago abandoned, and was now only maintained as a sort of instrument through which a variety of intelligences could manifest as opportunity afforded. The elaboration of the theory of multiple personality among psychic researchers served to support the view of those who first of all applied it to the problem of Madame Blavatsky’s many-sided character, but in her case it most certainly did not apply.

The hypothesis of clairvoyance may be used to cover a certain number of incidents in which Madame Blavatsky showed unusual powers, but it cannot be applied in the case of phenomena of a physical nature which may be described as either "apportements" or what looked like direct integration.

But these phenomena, which are interesting enough in themselves, pale into insignificance when compared with the work which she made the main purpose of her life. Doubtless at times this work was interrupted and her purpose obscured, but in the main she held to it with a steadfastness and patience that of itself constituted the greatest phenomenon of all. The conditions under which this remarkable woman used to work may well prove of interest, and they go a long way, not only to establish her own sincerity, but also to refute the aspersions of those whose chief object appears to have been to belittle and discredit her.

She was ever an early riser, frequently commencing work before daylight. Indeed one would suspect her of sometimes having worked the whole night through, for I have myself often enough put in an appearance at seven o’clock, to find, to my astonishment, that she was hard at work and still adding to the pile of manuscript which appeared to have risen during the night. Except in some few instances, where technical words of modern scientific use were employed, I have never seen her refer to any other author or use any book of reference whatever. Nevertheless, her volumes are full of lengthy quotations, not always literally accurate, but always essentially so.

Her writings usually occupied her until six in the evening, with a brief interval for lunch, two or three books engaging her powers at one and the same time, in addition to the writing of her articles for the Journal, and a large mass of correspondence which she always had on hand. After dinner, or some nondescript meal which took its place - and which often enough was none at all - for her appetite, voracious at times, was extremely uncertain, - she would sit down to her table in company with her staff and a variety of callers, playing the perennial game of "Patience," laying out her cards with those deft fingers which seemed to have a language of their own, playing with a care which suggested that the destinies of an empire rested upon the solution to the problem in hand; but often enough she would break away to answer the unspoken question of some waiting student, to intercept a statement between people in conversation, employing - for it was a mixed audience that usually gathered about her on these occasions - every language but her own.

She was a charming conversationalist and had a spontaneity of manner which was exceedingly attractive. Indeed, I have heard it said that the most beautiful woman in England was like a faded wallflower in the presence of this remarkable personality.

Perhaps her attractions were largely enhanced by the great disparity which existed between her uncouth personality and her brilliance of intellect, readiness of wit and perfect abandon. She was no respecter of persons, and particularly of those who were sensitive upon points of social etiquette. Far from commanding her esteem, social qualifications did not appear to weigh with her, and she was more often accessible to those of low degree than to many whose social distinctions seemed to warrant her attention. Tested by the ordinary standards of human ambition and endeavour, it cannot truly be said that she answered directly to any one of them. Neither gold nor fame nor power appeared to be incentives to her. She was always poor in a worldly sense, and but for the liberal support given to her by those who were impressed by the magnitude and importance of her work, it is certain that a very large and important body of teachings, which in themselves practically constituted a new statement of the "Old World" philosophy, would never have seen publication. Such fame as she enjoyed among the then limited body of her followers was more than off-set by the criticism, abuse and slander through which her enemies - and they were many - made her notorious.

Power she undoubtedly had. It was in every line of her face, in her every action, and sat enthroned in the steady glow of her remarkable eyes; but it was not a power which, on any occasion, she was known to use tyrannously, either by way of mental suasion or direct command, and such services as those who were in her immediate environment gave to her, were given willingly and under no sense of compulsion. This remarkable being, man in everything but physical form, powerful in utterance, strong in pose and gesture, who could on occasion fulminate like a volcano in eruption, had ever kind words and a caressing touch of the hand for those who were in any trouble or distress of mind or body.

Throughout her public career Madame Blavatsky had an abiding consciousness of and belief in the living personality of her Master, and his continual guardianship of her. At times it is true the agony of her solitude weighed heavily upon her. In such moments the favoured few who came into direct relations with her could never have any doubt as to her sincerity and transparent genuineness. I, who have heard her call upon her Master in sheer distress of soul, know full well that she had the fullest faith in his powers. Nay, more, she believed in his benevolence and fidelity. Neither can it be said that he failed her, and she at least was sustained by that knowledge through all the darkest hours of her turbulent and storm-beaten career. Let us see what evidence there is for this inspirer of her strange destiny.

It is obvious from her sister, Madame Jelihovsky’s narrative (Personal and Family Reminiscences) that H. P. Blavatsky never disguised the fact that from childhood up to the age of twenty-five she was a pronounced "medium." But it is also clear that after that age she came directly under the mental influence of her Master M., a Rajput and attache of one of the Indian princes. It was in the year 1857 that she first came into the personal presence of the man whose image had haunted her young imagination and later had found substantiality in her dream-life. Until then she had been a mere experimentalist in all occult and psychic matters, allowing herself to follow the bent of her inborn nature. But from that day she learned that she was marked out for a destiny for which she would have rigorously to prepare herself. As stated in a recently published biography -

We have no written record of the impression this interview made upon the mind of our young heroine, but it is not difficult to realize that the meeting in the physical body with that Guardian whom she already knew in an interior way, and the counsel which she then received, must have had far-reaching consequences in her life. (1)

The testimony of Mr. A. P. Sinnett will be found in his striking work The Occult World. That of Colonel H. S. Olcott, President of the Theosophical Society, is given by him in these words -

I was seated alone in my room quietly reading when all at once . . . there came a gleam of something white in the right-hand corner of my right eye; I turned my head, dropped my book in astonishment and saw, towering above me in his great stature, an Oriental, clad in white garments and wearing a head-cloth or turban of amber-striped fabric . . . long raven hair hung from under his turban to the shoulders; . . . . he was so grand a man, so imbued with the majesty of moral strength, so luminously spiritual, so evidently above the average humanity, that I felt abashed in his presence, and bowed my head and bent my knee as one does before a god or a god-like personage. A hand was lightly placed on my head, a sweet, though strong voice bade me be seated, and when I raised my eyes, the Presence was seated in the other chair beyond the table. He told me he had come at a crisis when I needed him; that my actions had brought me to this point; that it lay with me alone whether he and I should meet again in this life as co-workers for the good of mankind; that a great work was to be done for humanity, and I had the right to share in it if I wished; that a mysterious tie, not now to be explained to me, had drawn my colleague and myself together a tie which could not be broken, however strained it might be at times. . . . How long he was there I cannot tell . . . but at last he rose, I wondered at his great height, and observing the sort of splendour in his countenance - not an external shining, but the soft gleam, as it were, of an inner light - that of the spirit, and . . . benignantly saluting me in farewell, he was gone.

So far as Madame Blavatsky was concerned, however, the knowledge of this "Presence" and guardianship had a very marked effect upon her career.

In Incidents in the Life we read -

Madame Blavatsky already knew she had a task before her, the task of introducing some knowledge concerning these mysteries to the world - but she was sorely puzzled to decide how she should begin it, but had to do the best she could in making the world acquainted with the idea that the latent potentialities in human nature - in connection with which Psychic Phenomena of various kinds were already attracting the attention of large classes in both hemispheres - were of a kind which, properly directed, would lead to the spiritual exaltation of their possessors, while wrongly directed, they were capable of leading downward towards disastrous results of almost commensurate extent. She alone, at the period I refer to, appreciated the magnitude of her mission, and if she did not adequately appreciate the difficulties in her way she had, at all events, no companion to share her sense of the fact that these difficulties were very great. Probably she would be among those most willing to recognize - looking back now upon the steps she took in the beginning - that she went to work the wrong way, but few people who have had a long and arduous battle to fight in life, especially when that fight has been generally waged against such moral antagonists as bigotry and ignorance, would be in a position at the close of their efforts to regard their earliest measures with satisfied complacency.

We find her accordingly skirmishing in all directions in search, not of phenomena of the kind above referred to but rather of suitable agents to assist her in carrying out the work which she had set her mind to do. Not that she neglected in any degree the accumulation of experience of all sorts which tended to increase her knowledge of these latent human powers, for we find her successively among the North American Indians, in New Orleans, studying the strange magical rites practised by a sect of West African Indians there known as the Voodoos; in Mexico, where she gathered much "Old World" material among the Mayas and Quitches; then off to India, back again to America, then to Egypt, where she studied the ancient ruins of the Temples at Karnak, Memphis, the Pyramids and obelisks and all that storehouse of masonic and sacerdotal lore with which that wonderful country is filled.

In connection with her special quest, that of getting into direct personal touch with the school of thought which her Master represented, we find her proceeding again eastward, while she essayed a journey into Tibet via Kashmir.

Here I may cite a curious incident from among her many experiences at that time. (2)

Like the Abbe Huc she was one of the earliest travellers to record recollections of these little known lands. Madame Blavatsky saw many strange things, and her interest in all forms of magic was amply justified. Her friend, the Shaman constantly carried a stone talisman under his arm which excited her curiosity, and in answer to her questions would only promise to explain when a convenient opportunity offered. One day when a ritual ceremony had called all the people of the village away, Madame Blavatsky repeated her question about the talisman. The Shaman agreed to explain, but first he fixed up a goat’s head at the entrance to the tent as a warning to the villagers that he was not to be disturbed. He then settled himself down and proceeded, as it seemed, to swallow the stone. Almost immediately he fell into a deep swoon and his body became cold and rigid. Here was a worthy situation for our adventurous-loving heroine. In mid-Mongolia, with the sun sinking rapidly in the west, and the profound silence enveloping all, her sole companion an apparently lifeless Shaman - is it any wonder that her thoughts turned to Russia and her friends?

Presently, however, a deep voice spoke through the closed lips of her companion, asking what she would have. Madame Blavatsky was fairly collected, having seen such trances before and knowing something of their nature and possibilities. She therefore demanded that the invisible questioner who spoke through the body before her should visit three of her friends. First she sent him to an old friend, a Roumanian lady of somewhat mystic temperament, who was described as sitting in her garden reading a letter, which was dictated slowly to Madame Blavatsky, who wrote it down. Then in a corner of the tent the mystic form of this old lady appeared for a few minutes. Months afterwards it was ascertained that on that very day and hour the old lady had been quietly sitting in the garden reading a letter from her brother. It was this letter which the Shaman dictated to Madame Blavatsky. Suddenly the old lady fainted and remembered dreaming that she "saw Helen lying in a deserted place, under a gipsy tent."

For two hours the astral body of the entranced Shaman travelled at Madame Blavatsky’s bidding, and reported to her as to far distant friends and places. In particular she directed him to a friend, possessed also of occult powers, asking for means to return to more civilized parts. A few hours later a party of twenty-five horsemen rode up and rescued her from the perilous situation in which she had involved herself.

With the controversy which arose in regard to the exhibition of some of her phenomenal powers I am not now concerned, but enough has been written and said under this heading to enable any impartial reader to come to a correct decision. In this connection I particularly recommend the impartial statements and convictions of Mr. A. P. Sinnett in Incidents in the Life, chap. x.

Coming down to the close of this remarkable career, we find Madame Blavatsky in 1891 established at the headquarters of the Theosophical Society in St. John’s Wood. There her work was carried out under the most favourable conditions, and a tranquillity altogether strange to a life of such vicissitude and strife enveloped her physically and mentally.

All through these long years which we have been reviewing there had been growing upon her a dread disease which I should perhaps rightly designate as Bright’s disease of the kidneys.

She suffered inordinately at times, and perhaps had grown used to suffering, for it was only at intervals that she ever complained of any intolerable pain. Nevertheless she had a constant apprehension of the devastation that was going on in her physical body, and at all times spoke of it as a hindrance and a burden.

Her physician was of opinion that she was mending under his treatment and only twenty-four hours before her demise spoke hopefully of her condition.

"The Old Lady," as she was called by her intimates, knew better. For a week past she had been busy collecting and docketing her papers and, on the eve of her departure, her desk and study generally were the neatest that I had ever known her to be associated with. She sat in her large armchair, rolled innumerable cigarettes which she lighted and threw away in succession. She was impatient and restless. Her staff, with the exception of two members and the nurse in personal attendance, were laid low with influenza. Mrs. Besant was returning from America, and was then in Ireland.

She spent the night sitting in her chair and the next day she did not leave her room, but had her armchair removed to her bedroom. It was clear that she intended to die fighting. Nature, however, had its way with her, and she finally passed away on May 8, at about 5:30 in the evening, and, in due course, was cremated at Woking, being one of the earliest to avail herself of this process in England.

The good men do lives after them as certainly as does the evil others may think of them, and the present widespread interest in occultism, psychic research, and allied subjects, and the existence of numerous societies for the study of these things, can be traced very largely to the leavening influence which Madame Blavatsky’s work has had upon the orthodox public mind. That work was carried out under enormous difficulties, and in the face of a persistent hostility which might well have stifled and crushed the life out of a less resolute soul than she. She lived her enemies down. Men and women assailants she forgave freely. Prejudice and Ignorance she overcame by Patience and Endurance, and from the wreck of everything that the world holds estimable she built up an imperishable Fane where man might worship in spirit and in truth.


(1)  H.P. Blavatsky:  An Outline of her Life.   By Herbert Whyte.

(2)  Outline of the Life of H.P. Blavatsky.  By Herbert Whyte.  T.P.S. London.