By W. T. S. Thackara
[Reprinted from Theosophic History (6:8), October 1997, pp. 309-15, with additional material.]
Madame Blavatsky's Baboon: Theosophy and the Emergence of the Western Guru, by Peter Washington, London: Secker & Warburg, 1993; ISBN 0-436-56418-1, notes, bibliography, index, cloth, 480 pages. (1995 American edition subtitled: A History of the Mystics, Mediums, and Misfits Who Brought Spiritualism to America)

PETER WASHINGTON is the General Editor of the Everyman Library and the author of several books including Fraud: Literary Theory and the End of English. He is a professor of English and European Literature at Middlesex University and a reviewer and critic for The London Evening Standard and The Independent.

Editor's Comments (Theosophical History, October 1997, pp. 272-3):

W. T. S. Thackara's "Notes on Madame Blavatsky's Baboon" by Peter Washington is not so much a book review as a remedial essay. When Madame Blavatsky's Baboon first appeared in the U.K. in 1993, many were dismayed at the number of inaccuracies in the author's treatment of the Theosophical content of the book. It was hoped that when Schocken Books published it in the U.S., the necessary corrections would have been made. Such was not the case, however. As a result, Mr. Thackara of the Theosophical University Press (Theosophical Society, Pasadena) undertook the task of itemizing and correcting some of the more significant errors. Given the popularity of the book (there are numerous references on the Internet), it is important that readers be aware that although the book is entertaining (Robert Boyd in TH VI/6 wrote a more sympathetic review, highlighting the scope and ideas contained therein), it is important that readers -- especially scholars -- be made aware of the oversights and sometimes inexcusable errors that are scattered in Mr. Washington's book. Of course, the question arises, "If the book has this many errors in reference only to Theosophy, how many more exist in the author's treatment of the other movements?" Perhaps others will respond to this question.
. . . All too often, this subject [Theosophy and its offshoots], when it is discussed in scholarly circles, is presented in a most unscholarly fashion. Falsehoods are perpetuated and original research is not actively pursued. A renewed interest in Theosophy is appearing, however.
. . . It is my hope that [a dispassionate historian of religion giving HPB her due] will take place sooner rather than later. One way of doing so is for scholars to reevaluate -- or perhaps read for the first time -- Blavatsky's principal writings in the light of nineteenth century scholarship. Readers will be surprised, in my opinion, at the depth and eclecticism that exist especially in her masterworks Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine. -- James Santucci


Written in a witty and engaging style, the book contains sufficient facts and insights, some quite good, to make it appealing to a wide readership -- beguilingly so, perhaps, for it has been cited as a source reference in magazines such as the Smithsonian (May 1995), and Peter Washington has been interviewed on British television as an "authority" on theosophic history.

On superficial examination the book appears to be well-researched and objective. But a more careful inspection -- especially of the theosophic section, to which these remarks are limited -- discloses serious errors and omissions. Aside from fairly obvious use of innuendo and half-truths to bolster his negative conclusions about H. P. Blavatsky and Katherine Tingley, the author is frequently inaccurate, misrepresents theosophic teaching, relies on uncorroborated assertion (often from unfriendly secondary and tertiary sources), omits rebuttal evidence, garbles dates, events, and attributions, downgrades, trivializes, and generally gives a one-sided account. Whatever merit the book may have is defeated by its unreliability and prejudice.

One would expect any author who writes on historical subjects to use primary sources as far as possible. We have no record of Peter Washington contacting the Theosophical Society (Pasadena) and its considerable historical resources, either to verify facts or to interview staff members and living witnesses who are perhaps better informed about Blavatsky, Tingley, Purucker, and theosophical history. Washington's scholarly competence and objectivity may be deduced from the following list of errors and omissions. It is not exhaustive, but representative.

ERRORS AND OMISSIONS (sequentially listed):

Judging only by this relatively small sampling, Peter Washington's treatment of theosophical history is seen to be heavily biased as well as dependent on faulty sources, raising legitimate doubts about his accuracy and objectivity in the rest of the book. Vernon Harrison's criticisms of the Hodgson Report (Note 10 above) could justifiably be applied to Mr. Washington's Baboon.


Will Thackara served on the UCLA Committee on Religious Studies 1970-72 as an Assistant Dean of Students and, since 1972, has worked full time at the international headquarters of the Theosophical Society (Pasadena). He is currently Manager of Theosophical University Press and occasionally writes and lectures on theosophic and related subjects

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* Even Solovioff's translator, Walter Leaf, admitted that Solovioff used HPB's letters selectively: "the letters are not entire; they are selected by a bitter personal enemy with the purpose of damaging their writer, . . ." Leaf points to one letter in particular which implies "a real inconsistency with Mr. Solovyoff's narrative; it implies that he has not correctly represented the mental attitude in which he found himself after the Würzburg conversations. I confess that I am not satisfied with his own explanation . . ." (Solovioff, xv). (return to text)

** According to John Gilbert Winant in his Letters from Grosvenor Square: An Account of a Stewardship, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1947, p. 135. Winant was Governor of New Hampshire and, during WW2, US Ambassador to Great Britain. (return to text)