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Fri, Jul. 8th, 2005, 01:16 pm
sphinxie: The Monks of Thelema

The Monks of Thelema was written by Sir Walter Besant, brother-in-law of Annie Besant and a prominent Freemason, and was published in 1887. It is a romance in which aristocratic young Victorians establish an Abbey of Thelema in order to fulfill the curiousity of its abess concerning Rabelais' Abbey: "What came next?"

Alan Dunlop, young idealist just down from Oxford, returns to his family lands and sets about elevating the rustics of the village by various poorly conceived plans. Since he is actually living in the village among said rustics he arranges to let his family home, actually an old Abbey from before the dissolution of the monastaries, to his friend and neighbor the well-bred Miranda Dalmeny. Young men and women of Alan and Miranda's set are invited, and an actress retired from the London stage becomes a sort of den mother for them and helps conceive, costume, and direct the rituals of their Order.

The opening chapter describes the initiation ceremony of the Thelemites, with the details obviously drawn from the author's experience as a Freemason. Instead of the traditional vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience taken by Roman Catholic monks, they swear instead to marry, to seek riches, and to do their own wills! The chapters that follow reveal that their wills are typically Victorian, involving pouring out tea, playing the pianoforte, putting on costume balls, and the like. Although the Brothers and Sisters of the Abbey are all introduced, the story concentrates on the romantic difficulties of just a few of them. It ends as all good romances do with weddings all round, and the Abbey is dissolved, its purpose (having apparently been to get everybody married to best advantage) fulfilled.

As novels go, it's not a very good one. There are an interminable couple of chapters in the middle where the Thelemites enact a troubador-style "court of love". There are stereotypes of women and the lower classes which don't read very well today. The ending seems rushed, more like ideas sketched for an ending but not really written. The only ideas resembling modern Thelemic philosophy are put in the mouth of an unsympathetic character, Mr. Paul Rondelet, a Fellow of Oxford who is repeatedly described as a "prig". (Besant himself was a Cambridge man.) He gives a speech of particular interest on page 145 in which he sarcastically praises Alan Dunlop's social improvement efforts, saying that in the future people will worship Dunlop as a kind of solar myth! The character subscribes to the New Paganism fashionable with the Oxford intelligentsia; he is scorned by Miranda in his pursuit for her hand in favor of the (practially pre-destined) Alan Dunlop.

As a work, The Monks of Thelema is only really valuable as a curiousity. And the curiousity it arouses is this: "Did Crowley read it?" The book was published when he was 12 years old, about the age at which he says in Confessions that he would sneak novels into the watercloset because his mother had forbidden him to read them. The idea that his youthful mind could have been more influenced by this popular, widely-available work than by Rabelais seems compelling.

The book is rare and hard to get. contentlove had the great good fortune to find a copy at a yard sale. I have seen a very few copies for sale on abebooks.com and alibris.com, but I know some libraries have it--the UT library system has two copies actually, the three volume 1887 edition at the HRC and the one volume popular edition released in 1888 sitting on the shelf at the PCL where anybody can walk in and look at it. It's definitely in the public domain--if I had more time in Austin I would have liked to OCR the library's copy.

Fri, Jul. 8th, 2005 10:02 pm (UTC)

What a wonderful post. I rejoined the community just to be able to thank you for it. So, Thank you! :)

I'd be very surprised if AC didn't read this one; if not on publication (which I admit would surprise me), then following ca. 1898 EV (either as a tip from his Cambridge circle (my bet), or once in the Golden Dawn (the Besant connection)).

Anyway, superb catch. Thanks again! :D

Sat, Jul. 9th, 2005 05:34 pm (UTC)
sphinxie: you're welcome!

I joined the community just to be able to post it. ;)