Autobiographical Sketches
  • Publication Date: July 13, 2009
  • ISBN: 9781551114484 / 1551114488
  • 376 pages; 8½" x 5½"

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Autobiographical Sketches

  • Publication Date: July 13, 2009
  • ISBN: 9781551114484 / 1551114488
  • 376 pages; 8½" x 5½"

Annie Wood Besant (1847-1933) was a problematic and notorious figure in Victorian England, questioning and then breaking from the Anglican Church to become an atheist, women’s rights advocate, and Freethinker. As editor of her own journal, Our Corner, she responded to inquiries about her life experiences by serializing her life story, which was published in 1885. After providing a vivid account of her trial, along with Charles Bradlaugh, for the right to publish birth control literature, Besant recounts her heartbreaking trial for custody of her daughter.

With a critical and historical introduction by Carol Hanbery MacKay, this Broadview Edition includes comparative passages from An Autobiography, written in 1893 after Besant’s conversion to Theosophy. Contemporary reviews, excerpts from publications about issues such as Socialism and trade unionism, and additional examples of Besant’s writing about secularism and labour reform are also included.


“This important edition brings Annie Besant’s first autobiographical work back into print. Written before her conversion to Theosophy, Autobiographical Sketches details Besant’s remarkable spiritual and political transformation from wife of a Christian clergyman to celebrated campaigner for Freethought, secularism, women’s rights, and birth control. Carol Hanbery MacKay’s splendid introduction and supplementary materials offer an illuminating context for students and scholars alike. Altogether, the volume is a major contribution to the literature of feminism, autobiography, religion, and radical politics.” — Elizabeth Miller, University of California Davis

“‘Naughty Annie’ (as the press called her) has been ill served by biographers and critics. This meticulous edition of her fascinating first foray into autobiography—before her extraordinary but quintessentially Victorian passage from secularism and Socialism to Theosophy and India—not only allows her to speak again for herself as a woman and a public figure, but, through the rich array of reviews, speeches, essays, and extended passages from her later Autobiography, also allows us to understand her against the full backdrop of her life and the times she helped to change.” — Joss Marsh, University of Indiana

Introduction: Annie Besant’s First Foray into Self-Writing
Annie Besant: A Brief Chronology
A Note on the Text

Autobiographical Sketches (1885)

Appendix A: Publication of Autobiographical Sketches (1884-85) and Aftermath

  1. Reviews of Autobiographical Sketches
    1. Unsigned review, “Contemporary Literature: History and Biography,” The Westminster Review (July 1886)
    2. G.W. Foote, “The Latest Apostle of Socialism,” Progress: A Monthly Magazine of Advanced Thought; Annie Besant, Rejoinder”; and Foote, “Reply to Mrs. Besant’s Rejoinder” (1886)
    3. “Foreword” of W.T. Stead, “Mrs. Annie Besant,” The Review of Reviews (October 1891)
  2. From Annie Besant, Why I Don’t Believe in God (1887)
  3. From Annie Besant, Why I Became a Theosophist (1889)
  4. From Annie Besant, 1875 to 1891: A Fragment of Autobiography (1891)

Appendix B: Publication of An Autobiography (1893) and Critical Response

  1. “Preface” to An Autobiography (1893)
  2. Selected parallel passages and entries from new sections
    1. Parallel passages (to Autobiographical Sketches)
    2. Entries from new sections in An Autobiography
  3. Reviews of An Autobiography
    1. Unsigned review, “Mrs. Besant’s Apologia,” The Westminster Budget (December 1893)
    2. “Calcar,” “Mrs. ‘Annie’ Besant’s Apology,” Vanity Fair (December 1893)
    3. Unsigned review, “Annie Besant,” Pall Mall Gazette (December 1893)
    4. Unsigned review, “Recent Biography,” The Athenaeum (February 1894)
  4. Review essay by W.E. Gladstone, Annie Besant’s reply, and letter from Gladstone to Digby Besant
    1. From Gladstone, “True and False Conceptions of the Atonement,” The Nineteenth Century (September 1894)
    2. From Annie Besant’s reply, The Nineteenth Century (June 1895)
    3. Letter from Gladstone to Digby Besant (October 1894)

Appendix C: Contemporary Issues

  1. Charles Knowlton, “Philosophical Proem,” The Fruits of Philosophy: An Essay on the Population Question (1832; rev. ed. 1877)
  2. From The Married Women’s Property Acts (1870; 1882) and Amendment Acts (1874; 1893)
    1. An Act to amend the Law relating to the Property of Married Women (1870)
    2. An Act to amend the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870 (1874)
    3. An Act to consolidate and amend the Married Women’s Property Act (1882)
    4. An Act to amend the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 (1893)
  3. Socialism: For and Against, A Written Debate between Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant, Our Corner (1887)
    1. Charles Bradlaugh, “Socialism: Its Fallacies and Dangers” (March 1887)
    2. Annie Besant, “Socialism: Its Truths and Its Hopes” (April 1887)
  4. Sidney and Beatrice Webb, “Preface,” The History of Trade Unionism (1894)

Appendix D: Concurrent Issues as Seen by Annie Besant

  1. Annie Besant, The Political Status of Women (1874)
  2. From The Secular Song and Hymn Book (1875) and from “Two Secular Burial Services” (1875)
    1. Annie Besant, “Preface,” The Secular Song and Hymn Book
    2. Lyrics attributed to Besant in The Secular Song and
      Hymn Book
    3. Annie Besant, “Burial Service”
  3. Annie Besant, “Landlords,Tenant Farmers, and Laborers,” National Reformer (1877)
  4. From Annie Besant, The Law of Population (1877) and Theosophy and the Law of Population (1896)
    1. Annie Besant, “Chapter I: The Law of Population,” The Law of Population
    2. Annie Besant, from the final two paragraphs of Theosophy and the Law of Population

Select Bibliography

Carol Hanbery MacKay is Distinguished Teaching Professor of English and Affiliate of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.