Lilian Edger and Theosophy

Last year in the Special Collections reading room I came across a slim volume titled Religion and theosophy, a lecture delivered on Sunday afternoon in the City Hall, Auckland, New Zealand on Sunday afternoon, March 26th, 1893 by Lilian Edger, M.A.

Intrigued by the title I wondered about who the woman was who had given this lecture. After a little digging I found Lilian Edger was a scholar, lecturer, author, educator and prominent Theosophist.

More well-known is her older sister Kate who was the first woman in New Zealand to gain a university degree. Lilian was also an outstanding scholar, obtaining her B.A. at 18 and her M.A. with double first-class honours a year later from Canterbury College.

Edger lived in India for about forty years before returning to New Zealand two and half years before passing away. During her time in India she was the Principal of the Theosophical Girls’ School at Varanasi. She also was in charge of the education of the two sons of the Maharaja of Darbhanga.

Looking in our catalogue Lilian Edger appears twice more.

Lilian along with her sister Kate edited their father, Rev. Samuel Edger’s Autobiographical notes and lectures. Included in this volume are a collection of in-depth lectures on the famous mystic and philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg who Rev. Edger describes as “the greatest and most influential religious thinker of these later centuries, if not the whole of our Christian era (p.143).” This book also includes ‘One religion’ the last lecture he preached at the Lorne Street Hall on his last three Sunday mornings in Auckland. In this lecture he says, “I have been endeavouring to show that religion in its essential elements is one and indivisible, the same among all people and in all ages, when rightly understood (p.32).”

In light of this passage it is not hard to see the influence of her father on Lilian’s questioning mind and subsequent interest in Theosophy. Edger also wrote The elements of Theosophy which “intended to serve as an introduction to the study of Mrs Besant’s Ancient Wisdom.’ Our copy was presented to the Library by the HPB Lodge of Auckland in 1936.

The Theosophical Society was founded in New York in 1875 by Helena Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott. In 1886 the headquarters of the Theosophical Society moved to Adyar, a suburb of Chennai.

In his recent book Webs of Empire Tony Ballantyne writes that, “Theosophy thrived in New Zealand at the end of the nineteenth century, attracting many freethinkers, feminists, and social reformers (p.41).”

In the beginning of her lecture of 1893 Edger writes that the motto of Theosophical Society is that ‘there is no religion higher than truth’ and that “Theosophy is that Secret Doctrine, that inner or esoteric truth which underlies all religions, being far above all outward forms or ceremonies (p.3).”

Theosophy must have been intellectually appealing to Edger so too the association with charismatic speakers and thinkers like Madame Blavatsky, Colonel Olcott and Annie Besant.

In 1897 Edger was Secretary of the New Zealand Section of the Theosophical Society. That year Colonel Olcott visited Australia & New Zealand on a speaking tour with Edger accompanying him as a lecturer.  Edger’s oratory obviously made an impression because at the conclusion of this tour he then invited her to go back to India and lecture there. This was to be the beginning of the best part of forty years Edger spent in India. After some time lecturing at Adyar Annie Besant then invited Edger to Varanasi where she taught at the girls school there.

It also must have been an intellectually attractive place for Edger to be as Theosophy drew other progressive thinkers on education. Maria Montessori spent 8 years living at Adyar, and Rudolph Steiner was heavily involved in Theosophy at this time.

Edger was interviewed about her work in India by the Auckland Star on the release of Elements of Theosophy in 1903.

The subtitle of her obituary in the Auckland Star was “interesting life ends” and describes Edger as one of the “first and most brilliant women students in the University of New Zealand.”

She taught at Nelson College for Girls when it opened, where her sister Kate was appointed Principal.  They both heavily feature in L.C. Voller’s account of the first seven years of the school.

Upon returning to Auckland Edger opened a private girls’ school called Ponsonby College. Lilian’s niece Geraldine Hemus describes the school in Theosophy in New Zealand:

“She decided to open a Secondary School for Girls and had the upper storey beautifully fitted up for school rooms. Fine craftsmen were available and the ceilings of these rooms were truly works of art, with beautiful mouldings in the wood, skilfully panelled and artistically decorated; the doors, too, and other woodwork were beautifully finished to match (p.50).” 

Ref: Theosophy in New Zealand, New Series v.7:no.2, April-June 1946, page 50, Auckland Libraries, SERIAL 212 T39.

Edger’s teaching and lecturing career then continued on in India for many more decades.

It seems Edger was earnest and analytical rather than relying on the charisma that many gurus in spiritual movements do. Perhaps her father’s academic approach to religion and theology and her settler upbringing in New Zealand were influences here. In Islands of the dawn  Robert S. Ellwood perceives in Edger “a personality more serious and steady than dramatic or charismatic (p.106).”

Her lectures were still very popular. As much as we may complain about getting around the city now, getting to the Sunday lectures in Auckland a century and quarter ago was quite the ordeal. Geraldine Hemus writes about the early days of the Theosophical Society in Auckland:

“In those days Aucklanders were strict Sabbatarians and on Sundays there was no transport of any kind. The best hall available for Sunday evening lectures was situated in Lower Symonds Street. Nearly all the members of the Branch lived two or three miles from the hall, so attendance at the meetings meant about an hour’s walk each way up and down several long hills. Nevertheless, the hall, which was large and barn-like, with accommodation for 500 or 600 people, was often well filled (p.49).”

Lilian Edger was part of an intelligent, achieving and questioning family. In addition to her well-known father and sister her brother and niece also are noteworthy.

Herbert Edger, Lilian’s brother, a lawyer, was a Native Land Court Judge from 1894 to 1909.

Geraldine Hemus, also a lawyer, was the fourth women admitted to the bar in NZ, one of the founders of the Vasanta Garden School and later the president of the National Council of Women.

Lilian deserves to be remembered alongside other pioneering New Zealand women of her time, like Ellen Melville and her sister Kate.

As Richard Boast writes in his article on the Native Land Court a full study of this remarkable family and of its contributions to national life would be very worthwhile.

Happily, it looks as though historian Diana Morrow has taken up this challenge, I’m looking forward to seeing what comes of this award.

Author: Andrew Henry