Theosophy is pretty much forgotten nowadays, but in the early decades of the twentieth century it occupied the same position as, say, Scientology does in our own time: a slightly loopy pseudo-religion with a following of celebrity A-listers, mainly in the arts. Founded in New York in 1875, the Theosophical Society was an amalgam of western spiritualism and eastern mysticism. Internationally the movement was associated with the Russian expatriate Helena Blavatsky, promulgator of “The Secret Doctrine” of ancient wisdom, and her successor Annie Besant. Here in Canada it was centred in Toronto and led by Albert Smythe, journalist, poet and father of the sportsman Conn Smythe. So central was Smythe’s role that Gillian McCann’s book Vanguard of the New Age: the Toronto Theosophical Society, 1891−1945 (McGill- Queen’s University Press) serves almost as his biography.
In a movement full of cranks and charlatans, Smythe comes across as a level-headed administrator trying, not always successfully, to keep the organization that he led from falling prey to its lunatic fringe. Even in its so-called “golden age” in the 1920s, the movement never attracted more than a few hundred members in the whole of Canada, but it can be argued that Theosophy punched above its weight because of the high profile of so many of its sympathizers. A partial list includes the painters Lawren Harris and Arthur Lismer, the theatre pioneer Roy Mitchell, the writer and Group of Seven publicist Fred Housser, the political activist Phillips Thompson, the suffragist Dr. Emily Stowe, and the arts maven Flora Mac- Donald Dennison. History writing has been famously characterized (by Herbert Butterfield) as either “study” or “story”: the former analyzes, the latter dramatizes. Gillian McCann is firmly in the study camp. Her book is an earnest attempt to argue for the important influence of Theosophy on mainstream intellectual and artistic movements.
I cannot help feeling, however, that what Canadian Theosophy really requires is someone to tell its bizarre story, replete as it is with suspected pederasty, messianic delusions, seances and reincarnation, the emergence of a bizarre spiritualist from the US known as the Purple Mother and, closer to home, the attempt by the religious con artist Edward Arthur Wilson, better known as Brother XII, to hijack the movement. Theosophy was a mansion with many rooms; McCann’s book does not penetrate much beyond the front parlour.