What makes a good biography? An interesting subject and an insightful biographer, perhaps. Well, the life of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky was sufficiently amazing to keep anyone turning the pages, but what does Howard Murphet bring to the table? He faithfully details anecdotes and incidents, some documented some not, to leave us in no doubt that Helena was a very special person, but I am not sure that he brings insight to his subject. The anecdotes and incidents have already been recorded by Kingsland (The Real Blavatsky) - and Murphet, by showing his own bias, leaves us wondering as to the reliability of his 'evidence'.
For those new to the subject, the choice is this: was Blavatsky a charlatan and a fraud, or was she a gifted psychic in contact with other beings (The Masters) who helped her write books covering an incredibly wide range of subjects – from science to metaphysics; from religion to mythology. Murphet describes Blavatsky (HPB, as she liked to be known) and her co-workers as wise and compassionate, flawed only by stubbornness and passion. Her enemies are shallow and greedy.
I confess to my own bias. I think that psychic abilities offer a more likely explanation for the writing of the books than an eidetic memory, or some kind of chicanery. I think HPB's apparent obsession with demonstrations of psychic phenomena was misguided. Certainly, such demonstrations and their consequences occupy a great deal of this book, and yet there is very little on the content of Isis Unveiled or The Secret Doctrine; nothing to tell us of their significance. For example, how could an uneducated Russian princess write in the nineteenth century of the phenomenon of multiple big bangs, a theory of creation that was not studied by science until the latter part of the twentieth century?
The Secret Doctrine draws on the ancient Book of Dzyan to tell the story of the universe and humanity; to integrate religion, myth and evolution. Isn't that worth a mention?
After a lifetime of struggle to give to the world knowledge that was previously almost inaccessible HPB wrote The Voice of the Silence. Her final message. Murphet records the fact but doesn't speculate. But this book is a simple (yet beautifully written) instruction on how to live a life of service. What does this tell us? That HPB realised The Theosophical Society she helped found and run had become too concerned with knowledge for its own sake? Was she trying to put her followers in touch with their hearts as well as their heads? Such speculation would have made an interesting last chapter.
Bottom line: if you have time to read a book like this, I suggest you read instead the abridged version of The Secret Doctrine, or O Lanoo! - The Secret Doctrine Unveiled. The messenger is fascinating but the message is mind-blowing!
HPB (Helena Petrovna Blavatsky) was one of the most fascinating characters of the nineteenth, or indeed of any century: a woman of immense character who turned her back on the married life in the Russian aristocracy that her family had planned, in order to travel the world, explore eastern religions and eventually co-found the Theosophical Society. As a (female) person who had very clear ideas, a total absence of fear and no scruples about attacking what she felt to be unjust or corrupt (including the Christian Church), it is inevitable that she should be the object of attack by many. Such was the case during her lifetime, and has been since. It is thus very difficult for anyone to get a balanced view of where this lady was coming from. This is where Murphet's biography plays a role and why it is essential reading in the area despite its limitations. This biography is a Quest - i.e. Theosophical Society - publication and as such it is "pro-Blavatsky". Its sources are invariably Theosophical Society sources (Blavatsky's letters, the Mahatama letters to Sinnett etc.) and the reader is required to at least suspend judgment regarding HPB's psychic powers and the existence of the Mahatmas. But I don't think this is, in itself, a weakness. In seeking to defend Blavatsky's name against her detractors, Murphet gives us some interesting accounts: the events (from the TS point of view of course) leading up to the damning report of the Society for Psychical Research, for example, are well-detailed and the description of HPB's character and temperament in this connection is more satisfyingly described than elsewhere in the book. My principal criticism of the book is that it lacks both depth and detail. Events, both physical and occult, are catalogued, but there is little "inside action" and when the author does attempt to ascribe motives and analyse psychology, his depth of analysis (and even writing style) is reminiscent of Enid Blyton. The characters are wooden and even the characterisation of HPB is simplistic. The omission of detail is frequently glaring. For example, in her mid-30s HPB fought as a soldier in Garibaldi's army and was seriously wounded. I'm quite sure that if this happened in the life of any other woman (or indeed man) this would merit at least a chapter. Murphet gives it a short paragraph of 7 lines and zero explanation. In sum then, we could regard this book as an introduction to the biography of HPB (rather than a biography in itself) which also gives us the Theosophical Society angle on events. These factors, in the absence (at this point in time) of a definitive biography, make this book essential reading. As such, four stars, though the writing and research barely merit two.