Theosophical History Conference 2003

The Many Lives of Mabel Collins

Kim Farnell

Theosophy

    The Theosophical Society reached England in 1878. Its early meetings were held at the Great Russell Street home of the British National Association of Spiritualists, from which many of its early members were claimed. It’s likely that it was through this connection that Mabel first came into contact with theosophy. By February 1885 Mabel had moved out of the marital home and was living in Clarendon Road. Mabel had been introduced to theosophy in 1881, when Robert was lent a copy of Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled by Isabelle de Steiger, who at that time lived opposite the couple.

On Tuesday afternoons A.P. Sinnett and his wife, convinced theosophists, were “at home” to visitors. The hours were crowded with friends wanting to talk about theosophy. Mabel was one of many. Although there were numerous people passing through the doors, there was only a small number of regular visitors, Mabel amongst them.

Mabel described to Sinnett her experiences of the Egyptian priests who crossed her room as she was working. When Idyll was completed she sent her work to Banner of Light, a New York spiritualist magazine, which published it. Gerard Finch, then President of the Theosophical Society in England arranged for it to be published as a book. Col. Olcott saw the work at this time.

In April of 1884 year Blavatsky came to London just before a meeting to replace Anna Kingsford as president with Finch at Sinnett’s behest was to take place. This meeting had been called for April 7th by Col. Olcott to elect new officers and resolve the dispute between the Kingsford and Sinnett factions. Blavatsky had been invited to attend and previously refused. However, she felt that she had been directed to attend by a message from the Master. She arrived to find that the elections had already taken place but her presence there caused a major stir. She went home with the Sinnetts and floods of eager visitors followed her to their door. Things were not running smoothly with the Theosophical Society. Sinnett had numerous rows with Blavatsky as he mentions in his autobiography (2) although Sinnett later claimed not to remember the details of the rows. But Blavatsky had arrived, the light was turned away from other theosophists and in the midst of all this excitement Mabel was to produce what was to be as classic theosophical work.

Mabel was in every way a foil for Madame. Described as tall and graceful with auburn hair and a delicate colouring she looked much younger than her thirty-five years. During the summer of 1884 Archibald and Bertram Keightley met Blavatsky. They both became very close to Mabel. Exactly how close that was is open to conjecture. The relationship between Mabel and both Archie and Bert was described as intimate – certainly from Bert’s point of view. Rumours were later to fly around that Mabel had become engaged to Bert. It seems plausible that “engaged” was used as a euphemism.

Light on the Path was written in 1884. On 8th November 1884, Mabel met Blavatsky shortly before she returned to India. Blavatsky herself was late to say that they met on two or three occasions during the autumn of 1884, always in the presence of others. Theosophists were thick on the ground in London during that autumn, and great numbers of them enthusiastically met Blavatsky. It would have been strange if Mabel hadn’t been amongst them.

Mabel called on Blavatsky and showed her a couple of pages of the working manuscript of Light. As far as Blavatsky was concerned the Master Hilarion had again appeared to Mabel Collins in 1884 and had dictated to her the conclusion of The Idyll of the White Lotus and the whole of Light on the Path. Until now Blavatsky hadn’t taken Mabel any more seriously than any of the other theosophists. But Mabel’s work was gaining a lot of attention. Blavatsky was quick to ensure that credit was given to the Masters before Mabel could attribute it elsewhere.
 
    It was to immediately become a theosophical classic. Before being published however, Light was read in draft form to Sinnett’s group. So although Blavatsky’s claims that she did not see Light until some time after it was published bear a ring of truth, the material contained within Light was available and talked about some months before its publication. Untangling the story of how Light was written is rather like trying to knit with spaghetti.

    Writing inspirational texts couldn’t possibly take up all of Mabel’s time. She was one of the signatories to a letter from the London Lodge requesting that an inner group be set up for esoteric studies. Robert’s sister, Louisa Cook accompanied her to theosophical meetings. Though theosophy and theosophical socialising took up much of Mabel’s time, she continued to write her novels. However well known she was to become on the theosophical scene, to most of the world Mabel was a romantic novelist. He books were published in the USA as well as Britain and she was gaining a reputation of her own, rather than having to try and hold onto her dead father’s coattails.

While Blavatsky was out of England, Mabel had continued her theosophical involvement. When it became apparent that someone was needed to host Blavatsky during her next stay in England Mabel was delighted to have the honour of being able to do this. The Keightleys come into the picture here as they had joined the Theosophical Society in 1884, around the same time as Mabel. Bert had spent much of 1884 following Blavatsky around Europe. They were instrumental in bringing Blavatsky to England and arranged for her to stay at “Maycot”, a little college in Norwood owned by Mabel who was honoured to be sharing her home with Blavatsky.

    In May 1887 Blavatsky arrived at Mabel’s home. The day after her arrival she was at work on The Secret Doctrine at 7 a.m. Maycot, on Crown Hill in Upper Norwood, was described as small, pretty and charming. The house lay near the glass nave and twin towers of the Crystal Palace. Upper Norwood was a fashionable area, gradually being filled with new housing.

    Mabel was waiting and ready to welcome Madame and the dining room was hastily turned into Blavatsky’s room. Blavatsky would rise before 7 am. She would work until called for her midday meal, which could be asked for any time between twelve and four, a constant annoyance to Mabel’s cook. After that people would call to see Blavatsky, and she would agree or not to see them depending on her mood. At 6 30 pm Mabel and the Keightleys, who were also now staying at Maycot, would join Blavatsky for dinner with other theosophists. After dinner there were discussions while Blavatsky played her endless games of patience.

Mabel Collins couldn’t have predicted just how difficult Blavatsky was to be. Blavatsky hated Maycot, and didn’t trust Mabel. "I am in the enemy's camp, and this says all…This house is a hole where we are like herrings in a barrel - so small, so uncomfortable, and when there are three people in my two rooms we tread uninterruptedly on each others corns. When there are four we sit on each other’s heads. Then there is no quiet here, for the slightest noise is heard all over the house." Matters weren’t helped by the fact that visitors overwhelmed the small cottage. Visitors arriving at West Norwood station could hear Blavatsky yelling abuse at Mabel as they walked up the road. Blavatsky had taken a strong dislike to everyone in Mabel’s household.  

    Mabel and her housemates needed something to do. Blavatsky set them with Thomas Harbottle the task of helping her to finish The Secret Doctrine. Archibald Keightley, Bertrand Keightley and Mabel Collins read every line of Blavatsky’s writings, screwed up their courage and told her it was “a confused muddle and jumble”. Blavatsky was furious. She asked Mabel if she agreed with the Keightleys. As soon as she found out that Mabel did, they were all told to go to hell. Her resentment and bad temper worsened. Not all visitors were made welcome and there were plenty of fights.

    Three weeks after Blavatsky’s arrival a new Theosophical Lodge was born. With Sinnett’s lodge sleeping, London theosophists wanted to be part of a more active group that could publicise theosophy. The story oft quoted is that seven signatures were needed to establish a new lodge but as Blavatsky said, there were only six of them. It took Mabel to point out that Blavatsky herself could sign the application and be the seventh signatory. A.P. Sinnett was furious. He announced that anyone who wished to be part of the new lodge was no longer welcome at his. Half of his membership immediately defected.

    At its second meeting on 25th May 1887 Blavatsky Lodge decided that a new magazine was in order. Blavatsky had had problems for a while getting Olcott to publish her work in the main theosophical magazine, The Theosophist.  After long discussions it was decided to call it Lucifer.  Some vehemently objected to the name, unconvinced by Blavatsky’s arguments that the name Lucifer means light bringer. They decided to start a publishing house to issue not only the magazine but also The Secret Doctrine. Mabel was appointed as co-editor of the new magazine and suggested that the new venture be called The Theosophical Publishing Company.

    Blavatsky was becoming an expensive guest making no contribution towards her room or board. Mabel covered all Blavatsky’s living expenses. Maycot could no longer bear the number of visitors arriving. It was also too far out of London to be convenient. So the Keightleys located a house in Notting Hill at 17 Landsdowne Road for Blavatsky to move into and become the new centre of theosophy. After three days of packing the household was moved to Notting Hill. Apart from Mabel – she was left alone at Maycot.

With Lucifer beginning to take off, much of Mabel’s writing was directed towards this magazine. The Blossom and the Fruit appeared there in serial form throughout 1887 and 1888. She still had to find a way of making a living and however worthy, Lucifer was not going to help her there. Even in 1889 it was struggling financially. From July 1887 Mabel was writing for The World, a paper owned by Frances Yates, who had been a friend of her fathers. Her weekly column Tea table Talk written under the name of Flower o’the May considered clothes, cosmetics, recommended a spa for pet dogs, discussed how often a pair of gloves ought to be worn, (once only according to Mabel), and described the latest fashions at great length. She would recommend sun creams, advise on hemlines and spend many column inches waxing lyrical about hats.

    For the next two years Mabel was to remain the co-editor of Lucifer. And theosophical life continued much as it had at Maycot. Blavatsky stayed firmly planted at Landsdowne Road, writing throughout the day, much of her outpouring being edited by Mabel for Lucifer. As one of her more intimate friends, Mabel would often be there later into the evening, chatting with the theosophists who lived in the household, and occasional visitors such as Sinnett.

    Theosophy was becoming highly fashionable. Scores of people poured into the new headquarters to meet the famous Madame. For much of early 1888 Blavatsky was working on The Secret Doctrine with the help of the Keightleys and the Blavatsky Lodge continued to meet on Thursday evenings.    Mabel was living at Clarendon Road at this time, and her garden backed onto that of Lansdowne Road. So although she was not part of the household the two women developed the habit of signalling one another across the gardens when they wanted to talk.

The formation of the Esoteric Section was announced by Olcott in the October and November 1888 issues of Lucifer. The Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society was a group solely under Blavatsky’s direction, separate and distinct from the Society proper. Members of the section were not taught practical occultism or how to perform psychic phenomena. But as all its activities were carried out under a strict pledge of secrecy, it wasn’t clear to many what was being taught there.  

When on February 15th 1889, Mabel’s name suddenly disappeared from Lucifer it was inevitable that everyone would want to know why. The scandal went like this: The American Vittoria Cremers had in 1886 come across a copy of Light on the Path, which prompted her to immediately join the Theosophical Society. In 1888 she went to Britain and met Blavatsky. As she had been previously involved with publishing Blavatsky asked her to take over the business side of Lucifer. Vittoria moved into the household at Lansdowne Road and after a short time was introduced to Mabel by the Keightleys. She became firm friends with Mabel and began to spend time at her home.

It was alleged that The Blossom and the Fruit contained an ending that endorsed black magic. Blavatsky said she had to intervene before it was published and rewrite the final chapters. In any event Vittoria was called to see Blavatsky one day. She was told that Mabel was being asked to leave the society because of her conduct with the Keightleys. Blavatsky related how Mabel had been engaged to Arch and the two had taken part in Tantric worship and black magic. The trouble they got themselves into apparently meant that Blavatsky had to intervene to rescue them. Vittoria refused to break her friendship with Mabel and had to leave the Society herself. Mabel was furious when she heard what was being said about her.

The accusations of tantrism were particularly stinging. There was a strong association between black magic and tantrism.  Mabel had also begun a friendship with Michael Angelo Lane. Lane was a newspaper reporter from St. Louis and had come to London after hearing about the esoteric section and stayed several weeks. As a member of the esoteric section he went from Lodge to Lodge revelling in spreading tales of what was happening in the inner sanctum,

Mabel herself had not initially been allowed to join the esoteric section. After pleading with Blavatsky she was allowed to join as a probationer but within four days was dismissed for her “treachery and disloyalty”. Part of that treachery was to flirt with Lane. She was also accused of unseemly conduct with the Keightleys. It was then that Blavatsky said to her “I cannot permit you more than one.” To top it all Vittoria also claimed an intimate relationship with Mabel. She certainly played a part in bringing the scandal to everyone’s attention.

Whatever the facts, it appears that Blavatsky had seized an opportunity to be rid of her. Why? It cannot be a coincidence that in late March Blavatsky met Annie Besant for the first time. The story of their meeting has been told many times and has no place here. Annie joined the Theosophical Society in May 1888. Blavatsky sent Bert over to America, where he remained until late 1890.
    
Right from the first of Blavatsky’s accusations Mabel had talked about taking legal action against her. And this turned to be no idle threat. An action for libel was lodged in July 1889, although it didn’t reach court until July 1890. The case was very short lived. Blavatsky asked that a letter written by Mabel be produced. This letter was shown to counsel who went into court and asked the judge to take the case off the list. The action was halted immediately although the contents of that letter have never been disclosed.

The stress of the scandal could not fail to get to Mabel. She developed eczema and started to suffer from incessant headaches. She could only bear to be in subdued lighting, stopped eating and sank into a deep depression. Finally, she had a complete nervous breakdown and spent four months being cared for by her sister, Ellen Hopkins, incapable of the simplest of tasks.

As far as people in general were concerned, whatever had been going on behind the scenes was destined to stay there for a while. While Mabel was seething with resentment a whole new theosophical crisis took wing. On 11th May 1889, there appeared a letter in the Religio-Philosophical Journal from Elliott Coues, including a letter to him from Mabel Collins. Coues had already argued with Blavatsky and was marked as a traitor to the cause. In what appears to be a fit of pique with Blavatsky, Coues hit on the idea of joining forces with other dissatisfied theosophists. It had become common knowledge that Mabel was embroiled in a major row with Blavatsky, and she was unceremoniously ousted from the Society in April.

Sometime in 1885, Coues wrote to Mabel praising Light on the Path and asking about its real source. This was because it was supposedly dictated by one of the theosophical Masters.  Mabel promptly replied to his letter saying that Light “was inspired or dictated from the source above indicated”. In other words she agreed with the view that the work was inspired by one of the Masters, specifically the Master Hilarion.

    At the beginning of May 1889 he received a letter from Mabel dated April 18th 1889, immediately after she had been ejected from the Theosophical Society. She claimed that the original letter had been written under Blavatksy’s dictation but in reality was inspired by no one and she had seen the text in her vision. Mabel was saying that Blavatsky had persuaded her to lie about the source of her work for the benefit of the Theosophical Society.

Mistakes Coues had made in his writing were pointed out again and again. His calling her “Mrs Collins”, her penname, instead of Cook, her legal name, was taken to be a sign that he was lying. Coues knew that he had a bomb in his hand and wrote in the Religio-Philosophical Journal in glee. In England the spiritualist journal Light repeated the material published in America. On the 12th of June, Mabel’s sister, Ellen Hopkins, wrote a letter to Light a letter published in June 1889 saying that Mabel was too ill to respond. As no comment was ever received Light refused to discuss it further.  

Archibald and Bertrand Keightley were dragged into the furore to make statements. They had little choice; to ally themselves with Mabel at this stage would have risked their own status, certainly their involvement in theosophy. Coues was expelled from the Society. Mabel’s illness was called into question. If she was so ill what was she doing cabling Coues about his mistakes with dates?

Claims that Mabel had no close contact with Blavatsky until September of 1887 conveniently ignored the few months Blavatsky had spent at Maycot. The story of the Coues attack and Mabel’s role in it has gone into theosophical history. Endless letters were written and published and every small error pounced on and analysed. The culmination of the whole affair was a full page expose of Blavatsky in the New York Sun on July 20th 1890. This prompted Blavatsky to take legal action against Coues and the Sun. Blavatsky's death in 1891 terminated the suit but on September 26, 1892, The Sun published a biographical sketch of her by Judge with their apologies.

The episode has passed into theosophical history, termed the Coues-Collins affair. Mabel is given credit, along with Coues, for attempting to bring down Blavatsky’s downfall. In legend Mabel withdrew from the public eye, perhaps in shame for what she had done. It wasn’t until 1910 that she would talk about the breakdown she had suffered.

While theosophists everywhere were arguing between themselves of the rights and wrongs of Coues actions and pouring torrents of indignation into the press, Mabel was visiting W.H. Edwards for magnetic healing. At the time Mabel was reputedly instrumental in attempting to bring about the downfall of Blavatsky she was suffering from depression and spending time with her healer.

Mabel’s interests had always been a little wider than theosophy alone. She had been part of the esoteric section of the Theosophical Society and was rumoured to have been a member of the Golden Dawn.

Footnotes

(2) Autobiography of Albert Percy Sinnett Theosophical History Centre 1986 London]