An Autobiography/Chapter X

An Autobiography by Annie Wood Besant

Coming back to my work after my long and dangerous illness, I took up again its thread, heartsick, but with courage unshaken, and I find myself in the National Reformer for September 15, 1878, saying in a brief note of thanks that "neither the illness nor the trouble which produced it has in any fashion lessened my determination to work for the cause." In truth, I plunged into work with added vigour, for only in that did I find any solace, but the pamphlets written at this time against Christianity were marked with considerable bitterness, for it was Christianity that had robbed me of my child, and I struck mercilessly at it in return. In the political struggles of that time, when the Beaconsfield Government was in full swing, with its policy of annexation and aggression, I played my part with tongue and pen, and my articles in defence of an honest and liberty-loving policy in India, against the invasion of Afghanistan and other outrages, laid in many an Indian heart a foundation of affection for me, and seem to me now as a preparation for the work among Indians to which much of my time and thought to-day are given. In November of this same year (1878) I wrote a little book on "England, India, and Afghanistan" that has brought me many a warm letter of thanks, and with this, the carrying on of the suit against Mr. Besant before alluded to, two and often three lectures every Sunday, to say nothing of the editorial work on the National Reformer, the secretarial work on the Malthusian League, and stray lectures during the week, my time was fairly well filled. But I found that in my reading I developed a tendency to let my thoughts wander from the subject in hand, and that they would drift after my lost little one, so I resolved to fill up the gaps in my scientific education, and to amuse myself by reading up for some examinations; I thought it would serve as an absorbing form of recreation from my other work, and would at the same time, by making my knowledge exact, render me more useful as a speaker on behalf of the causes to which my life was given.

At the opening of the new year (1879) I met for the first time a man to whom I subsequently owed much in this department of work—Edward B. Aveling, a D.Sc. of London University, and a marvellously able teacher of scientific subjects, the very ablest, in fact, that I have ever met. Clear and accurate in his knowledge, with a singular gift for lucid exposition, enthusiastic in his love of science, and taking vivid pleasure in imparting his knowledge to others, he was an ideal teacher. This young man, in January, 1879, began writing under initials for the National Reformer, and in February I became his pupil, with the view of matriculating in June at the London University, an object which was duly accomplished. And here let me say to any one in mental trouble, that they might find an immense relief in taking up some intellectual recreation of this kind; during that spring, in addition to my ordinary work of writing, lecturing, and editing—and the lecturing meant travelling from one end of England to the other—I translated a fair-sized French volume, and had the wear-and-tear of pleading my case for the custody of my daughter in the Court of Appeal, as well as the case before the Master of the Rolls; and I found it the very greatest relief to turn to algebra, geometry, and physics, and forget the harassing legal struggles in wrestling with formulae and problems. The full access I gained to my children marked a step in the long battle of Freethinkers against disabilities, for, as noted in the National Reformer by Mr. Bradlaugh, it was "won with a pleading unequalled in any case on record for the boldness of its affirmation of Freethought," a pleading of which he generously said that it deserved well of the party as "the most powerful pleading for freedom of opinion to which it has ever been our good fortune to listen."

In the London Daily News some powerful letters of protest appeared, one from Lord Harberton, in which he declared that "the Inquisition acted on no other principle" than that applied to me; and a second from Mr. Band, in which he sarcastically observed that "this Christian community has for some time had the pleasure of seeing her Majesty's courts repeatedly springing engines of torture upon a young mother—a clergyman's wife who dared to disagree with his creed—and her evident anguish, her long and expensive struggles to save her child, have proved that so far as heretical mothers are concerned modern defenders of the faith need not envy the past those persuasive instruments which so long secured the unity of the Church. In making Mrs. Besant an example, the Master of the Rolls and Lord Justice James have been careful not to allow any of the effect to be lost by confusion of the main point—the intellectual heresy—with side questions. There was a Malthusian matter in the case, but the judges were very clear in stating that without any reference whatever to that, they would simply, on the ground of Mrs. Besant's 'religious, or anti-religious, opinions,' take her child from her." The great provincial papers took a similar tone, the Manchester Examiner going so far as to say of the ruling of the judges: "We do not say they have done so wrongly. We only say that the effect of their judgment is cruel, and it shows that the holding of unpopular opinions is, in the eye of the law, an offence which, despite all we had thought to the contrary, may be visited with the severest punishment a woman and a mother can be possibly called on to bear." The outcome of all this long struggle and of another case of sore injustice—in which Mrs. Agar-Ellis, a Roman Catholic, was separated from her children by a judicial decision obtained against her by her husband, a Protestant—was a change in the law which had vested all power over the children in the hands of the father, and from thenceforth the rights of the married mother were recognised to a limited extent. A small side-fight was with the National Sunday League, the president of which, Lord Thurlow, strongly objected to me as one of the vice-presidents. Mr. P.A. Taylor and others at once resigned their offices, and, on the calling of a general meeting, Lord Thurlow was rejected as president. Mr. P.A. Taylor was requested to assume the presidency, and the vice-presidents who had resigned were, with myself, re-elected. Little battles of this sort were a running accompaniment of graver struggles during all these battling years.

And through all the struggles the organised strength of the Freethought party grew, 650 new members being enrolled in the National Secular Society in the year 1878-79, and in July, 1879, the public adhesion of Dr. Edward B. Aveling brought into the ranks a pen of rare force and power, and gave a strong impulse to the educational side of our movement. I presided for him at his first lecture at the Hall of Science on August 10, 1879, and he soon paid the penalty of his boldness, finding himself, a few months later, dismissed from the Chair of Comparative Anatomy at the London Hospital, though the Board admitted that all his duties were discharged with punctuality and ability. One of the first results of his adhesion was the establishment of two classes under the Science and Art Department at South Kensington, and these grew year after year, attended by numbers of young men and women, till in 1883 we had thirteen classes in full swing, as well as Latin, and London University Matriculation classes; all these were taught by Dr. Aveling and pupils that he had trained. I took advanced certificates, one in honours, and so became qualified as a science teacher in eight different sciences, and Alice and Hypatia Bradlaugh followed a similar course, so that winter after winter we kept these classes going from September to the following May, from 1879 until the year 1888. In addition to these Miss Bradlaugh carried on a choral union.

Personally I found that this study and teaching together with attendance at classes held for teachers at South Kensington, the study for passing the First B.Sc. and Prel. Sc. Examinations at London University, and the study for the B.Sc. degree at London, at which I failed in practical chemistry three times—a thing that puzzled me not a little at the time, as I had passed a far more difficult practical chemical examination for teachers at South Kensington—all this gave me a knowledge of science that has stood me in good stead in my public work. But even here theological and social hatred pursued me.

When Miss Bradlaugh and myself applied for permission to attend the botany class at University College, we were refused, I for my sins, and she only for being her father's daughter; when I had qualified as teacher, I stood back from claiming recognition from the Department for a year in order not to prejudice the claims of Mr. Bradlaugh's daughters, and later, when I had been recognised, Sir Henry Tyler in the House of Commons attacked the Education Department for accepting me, and actually tried to prevent the Government grant being paid to the Hall of Science Schools because Dr. Aveling, the Misses Bradlaugh, and myself were unbelievers in Christianity. When I asked permission to go to the Botanical Gardens in Regent's Park the curator refused it, on the ground that his daughters studied there. On every side repulse and insult, hard to struggle against, bitter to bear. It was against difficulties of this kind on every side that we had to make our way, handicapped in every effort by our heresy. Let our work be as good as it might—and our Science School was exceptionally successful—the subtle fragrance of heresy was everywhere distinguishable, and when Mr. Bradlaugh and myself are blamed for bitterness in our anti-Christian advocacy, this constant gnawing annoyance and petty persecution should be taken into account. For him it was especially trying, for he saw his daughters—girls of ability and of high character, whose only crime was that they were his—insulted, sneered at, slandered, continually put at a disadvantage, because they were his children and loved and honoured him beyond all others.

It was in October, 1879, that I first met Herbert Burrows, though I did not become intimately acquainted with him till the Socialist troubles of the autumn of 1887 drew us into a common stream of work. He came as a delegate from the Tower Hamlets Radical Association to a preliminary conference, called by Mr. Bradlaugh, at the Hall of Science, on October 11th, to consider the advisability of holding a great London Convention on Land Law Reform, to be attended by delegates from all parts of the kingdom. He was appointed on the Executive Committee with Mr. Bradlaugh, Mr. Mottershead, Mr. Nieass, and others. The Convention was successfully held, and an advanced platform of Land Law Reform adopted, used later by Mr. Bradlaugh as a basis for some of the proposals he laid before Parliament.