The ferment of ideas that was colonial India is richly suggested in the latest from Hower (Queen of the Silver Dollar, 1997; etc.), who retells the story of Theosophical Society founders Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott in their 19th-century quest for a legitimate home for spiritualist beliefs.
After the Civil War; journalist and ex-Captain Blackburn (Olcott), a skeptic seeking peace from the haunting memory of his legal work on behalf of a hanged conspirator to the Lincoln assassination, attends a gathering of spiritualists where he meets the medium Madame Milanova (Blavatsky). Within months, the two have established the Lamasery, a salon for spiritualist activity in New York City. Riding a wave of publicity, they next establish the Alexandrian Society—with members Thomas Edison and Abner Doubleday—but when the hoopla fades and the treasury dwindles, they think of relocating to India, a place that gives Milanova inspiration in the form of spirit “Masters” who guide her every pronouncement. When Alexandrianism arrives in Bombay, however, it meets with less than spectacular success—until Blackburn begins to make an impression as a white man espousing the virtues of native beliefs. Under surveillance by the British, Milanova and Blackburn tour northern India, gathering influence with every issuance of fiery rhetoric from the Captain. When the fervor surrounding them is squelched by colonial power, they move south to Ceylon, where Blackburn works a series of miracle cures and is hailed as a great holy man . . . until the cures prove to be fakes. The pair settle on a donated estate in Madras, keep their society going, and continue to attract followers. But the skeptics, backed by colonial and Christian interests, won’t leave them alone, and Milanova’s Masters come under a scrutiny that threatens to destroy all they have accomplished.
The seething mood and weather of India are captured memorably, but Hower never quite gives his main characters enough inner fire to account for their remarkable success.