Sunday, October 23, 2011

Blavatsky in Fiction

Over the next several months the Book Section of the site io9, a daily publication that covers science, science fiction, and the future, will be looking at the most noteworthy science fiction and fantasy works from 1885 to 1930. The writer of the piece, Jess Nevins, draws our attention to Rosa Campbell Praed’s 1885 novel Affinities that featured Theosophists as part of plot.

Like many Victorian women writers, Rosa Praed was prolific, skilled, successful, popular, and forgotten much more quickly than her male counterparts. Praed made her name with romances and stories of her native Australia, but became much better known in the 1880s as a writer of occult fantasies. Affinities was her first novel of the fantastic. It's a roman a clef-society novel-occult horror about the threat posed to a young womaby a decadent poet and black magician (who is clearly meant to be Oscar Wilde). Praed has an easy, readable style that has aged only a little, and the proselytizing on behalf of Madame Blavatsky and Theosophy is much less obvious in Affinities than in Praed's later work. Affinities isn’t as good as Praed’s The Brother of the Shadow (1886), but nonetheless it's entertaining, found many fans, and is well deserving of the Hugo nomination it would have undoubtedly received.

Praed (1851-1935) had met Mme. Blavatsky and Col. Olcott during their visit to England in 1884. According to the bibliography Theosophy in the Nineteenth Century, Blavatsky appears as Mme. Tamvaco in Affinities. The book is online in a number of editions, including an 1886 edition on the Yellowback site, which contains a list of all the women writers and their works in the Emory University Online Yellowbacks collection. (“yellowbacks are books that were sold in England during the late 19th-century at railway stations.”)

Andrew McCannin adds:

Rosa Campbell Praed left Australia for London in 1876. In the decade or so subsequent to her arrival in the metropolis she forged a successful career as a writer of occult-inspired novels that drew on both theosophical doctrine and a nineteenth-century tradition of popular fiction that included Edward Bulwer-Lytton and Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. A string of novels published in the 1880s and the early 1890s, including Nadine: the Study of a Woman (1882), Affinities: A Romance of Today (1885), The Brother of the Shadow: A Mystery of Today (1886), and The Soul of Countess Adrian: A Romance (1891), produced a sort of popular aestheticism that melded an interest in fashionable society, a market-oriented Gothicism, and speculations on the philosophy of art that were indicative of Praed’s relationship to a fin-de-si├Ęcle Bohemia and its literary circles.

—“Rosa Praed and the Vampire Aesthete,” Victorian Literature and Culture (2007), 35: 175-187.

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