Marian Quartly reflects upon historian Jill Roe’s book Searching for the Spirit: Theosophy in Australia, 1879-1939, upon its recent republication.
Jill Roe, described on her death as ‘one of Australia’s greatest historians’, is best remembered for her internationally acclaimed biography of Miles Franklin – but she was a woman of many interests. Wakefield Press has just published a revised version of her second book, Searching for the Spirit: Theosophy in Australia, 1879–1939, recently described as ‘Jill Roe’s masterpiece’. It was originally published, in 1986, as Beyond Belief: Theosophy in Australia, 1879-1939, printed in a very small run by the fledgling UNSW Press.
‘The book had an interesting fringe market when it was first published and I was always intrigued by the number of enquiries it generated over the years,’ says historian Beverley Kingston, Roe’s partner, who wrote the 2020 edition’s preface. ‘It might now move closer to the mainstream.’
Raised as a ‘God-fearing’ Methodist, Roe was very religious as an adolescent, then ‘very rebellious against it’. But she remained interested in religion as a writer and historian. ‘I think that one of the problems in Australian history is a failure to take religious behaviour and ideas seriously enough, no matter what you think of that,’ she recalled in a 2004 interview with the Australian Humanities Review:
People have had deeper lives than you would think. With regard to religious history, it’s only the way-out and zany ones that I’m interested in writing about … I’m interested in people who take a critical or an innovative view. People trying something new.
The Theosophical Society was founded in New York in 1875 by the mystic Helena Blavatsky. The society spoke in the language of liberalism and secularism. It dissociated itself from all existing religions whilst claiming to embrace them all, and offered membership to all genuine truth-seekers. At heart the movement has been primarily mystical and occult. Since the 1890s it has aimed to create a universal brotherhood regardless of distinctions of caste, class, colour, creed or sex.
In Australia, the Theosophical Society influenced a wide range of ‘modern’ thinkers, from Prime Minister Alfred Deakin to the feminist Bessie Rischbieth and the architects of Canberra Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin. In nearby Asia, theosophy was a catalyst for nationalist movements in India and Indonesia; President Sukarno’s father was a lifelong theosophist.
‘The people attracted to theosophy in Australia were thoughtful, questing refugees from orthodox Christianity,’ writes Kingston in her 2020 preface. ‘Many were women attracted to a female mystic in Madame Blavatsky and the preaching of Annie Besant, who had already made her mark as a supporter of women’s rights in her battles for contraception and better conditions for women workers in England’.
After a brief flowering in the 1920s and early 1930s, theosophy in Australia fell away. By the 1960s, though Theosophical Bookshops survived in Melbourne and Sydney, the Society itself was barely known. The discovery of alternative lifestyles, alternative religions, the hippie trail, and flower power changed that. Jill’s book came in time to contribute to a growing interest in alternative cultural movements in Western history. This new edition is even more relevant today.
More information about the book and ordering details can be found here at the Wakefield Press website.
Marian Quartly is Professor Emerita of Australian history in the Monash School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies. Her long and distinguished research career has ranged across diverse topics in gender and Australian history, covering issues such as nationalism, the family, religion, and the construction of male and female sexualities. Her most recent book, Respectable Radicals: A History of the National Council of Women of Australia 1896-2006, was co-authored with Judith Smart. Marian was also a Chief Investigator on the ARC funded History of Adoption Project.
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