Mabel Collins was born in 1851, the daughter of a minor literary figure, Mortimer Collins, from whom she inherited a loquacity (she wrote nearly 50 books) and a penchant for the eccentric in a time when respectable ladies led fairly constrained lives, as well as a less enviable incompetence when it came to managing her finances. Mabel's itch for a more rewarding existence led her to abandon her first marriage (to a failed writer) and to take up a series of causes: spiritualism, theosophy and anti-vivisectionism, for which she campaigned vigorously, as well as a collection of lovers that included a possible candidate for Jack the Ripper, a black magician, and another woman.
Along the way Mabel was also a journalist, a traveller - she once made a then-daunting 43-mile journey from Tangier to Tutuan in a day in order to see the Sultan of Morocco - and a fashion columnist, with insight into the real use of lap dogs among upper-class ladies. She packed a lot into her 76 years, and although her biographer could have used a better proof-reader - there's quite a bit of repetition and the writing is not always as felicitous as one would like - Kim Farnell has done devotees of gaslight and mediums a service in bringing Mabel's world back to life.
Mabel earned the opprobrium of her fellow theosophists when she entered into a lawsuit for libel against Madame Blavatsky, the rotund co-founder of the Theosophical Society. Mabel's litigation was sparked by her expulsion from the society for less than explicit reasons; the real cause of the rift, however, was Blavatsky's revulsion at Mabel's flirtatious ways with some of her promising male acolytes. Mabel was apparently running a double affair with two theosophical hopefuls, and, as Blavatsky herself was a staunch celibate (sex, for her, was "beastly"), she couldn't condone such low appetites. W B Yeats, who was for a time a fervent theosophist, records in his autobiography that Blavatsky's disapproval, however, was spiked with humour. Informing Mabel that, in order to achieve initiation, it was "necessary to crush the animal nature" and to "live in chastity in act and thought", she then added, while the novelist stood repentant, that "I cannot permit you more than one." Mabel's crime was to have engaged in "tantric worship and black magic", but it's difficult to know exactly what Blavatsky meant by this, as in those days tantra could mean anything other than the missionary position - which, for Blavatsky, was bad enough.
Yet Mabel's reprehensible behaviour won her the accolades of another occult celebrity, Aleister Crowley, who praised her mystical novel The Blossom and the Fruit, as well as her assiduous attempts to usher in the Age of Woman - by taking one to bed. There's speculation that Blavatsky may have practiced lesbian ways herself, and that a clandestine affair with Mabel - Blavatsky was her houseguest in Norwood for several months - ended with the arrival of the more socially prominent Annie Besant, who threw off her Fabian wrappings to take on the theosophical cause.
Mabel was at the centre of another theosophical tempest when she retracted an earlier statement to the effect that her spiritual classic, Light on the Path (still in print 120 years after publication), wasn't the work of the mystic Masters that guided Blavatsky after all. When it first appeared, Blavatsky had apparently cajoled Mabel into crediting one of the astral Mahatmas with the popular work, in order to help theosophy's cause. After her rough treatment by the Madame - who called her a "mystical vampire" - Mabel understandably wanted some of her own back. Farnell's book probably won't spark a revival, but it's nice to know that Mabel is finally getting some of the credit she's due.