A rollicking biography of a classic 19th-century figure, featuring imperial adventure, high diplomacy, literary fame, and an eccentric cult focused on bizarrely sublimated sexuality.
Casey recounts the impossibly full life of Oliphant, a Scottish aristocrat born in 1829 during an era when his privileged caste ran the world. The son of the chief justice of Britain’s Ceylon colony, Oliphant gained fame with bestselling travelogues of Nepal, Russia, and Canada and worked as a foreign correspondent and British diplomat (sometimes both) in global hot spots: he stormed Chinese cities during the Opium Wars, parried sword attacks by anti-Western samurai in Tokyo, toured the corpse-strewn battlefields of the Franco-Prussian War, and witnessed the bloody destruction of the Paris Commune. Eventually, jaded by his life as a member of Parliament, satirical novelist, and London rake, he sought redemption with American spiritualist Thomas Lake Harris and his Brethren of the New Life group, which ran utopian communes in New York and California. Much of Casey’s book offers an entertaining account of Harris’ strange doctrines. Converts did manual labor cleaning stables and scrubbing laundry; the faithful “de-magnetized” each other of “lust currents” by counterintuitively having communal nude scrub-downs. They also practiced deep-breathing exercises that induced mystical visions; during these, disciples would join in orgasmic union with their opposite-sex “other half” in the celestial realm. (Earthly sex, however, was frowned upon: Harris separated families and forbade Oliphant and his wife, Alice, to have sex, explaining that they were not each other’s true celestial soulmates.) Breaking with Harris, but not all his teachings, after Harris announced the second coming and proclaimed himself king of the world, Oliphant went on to help establish Zionist colonies in Palestine. Casey relates this colorful saga with well-paced narrative aplomb, setting it against the cultural ferment of the 19th century. His version of Oliphant is as an appealing character, part dashing man of the world and part idealistic seeker, possessed of both ardent religiosity and droll humor. He and his associates emerge as embodiments of a time of boundless horizons and breathtaking ambitions, of spiritual yearning that chafed against expectations of mundane happiness and fulfillment, and of a hunger for charismatic figures who lent a cosmic glamour to technological and political upheavals of the era. The result is an energetic page-turner, a shrewd character study, and a rich social history.
An engrossing portrait of an emblematic Victorian.