State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 50 Spring 1992

20

This World And The Next:
Annie Bright's Progress as Writer and Editor

The first part of the title of this article is taken from two examples of spiritualist literature published in Melbourne during the latter part of the nineteenth century. One is an anonymous dramatic poem1 and the other a periodical,2 but the major concern of the writers in each case is the exploration of related aspects of life in the temporal and spiritual worlds, whether known or anticipated. The matters they discussed and the questions they asked were not necessarily confined to spiritualists and other seekers after enlightenment, dissatisfied with current religious practices and perplexed by the seemingly irresolvable dichotomy between religion and science. Believers in conservative religions also looked forward to an afterlife that promised to be a better one and tailored their worldly existence accordingly. However, the spiritualists went further and were more vocal, especially those who were converts to the higher form of spiritualism, involving personal experience of direct spiritual communication rather than attendance at seances and demonstrations of sensational psychic phenomena. Those who made the most earnest enquiries were often members of the literati, accustomed to researching their topics and making the results known through the lecture platform, the bookshops and the press. Most of them attempted to keep a footing in both worlds, applying a similar diligence to their secular duties, even though the spiritual world sometimes encroached upon the present one and might eventually take over.
It is within this context that I wish to place literary journalist Annie Bright, described by Barry Smith as a ‘formidable spiritualist, feminist and editress’.3 Annie Bright was all of those things. She is now chiefly remembered for her work as editor of two important colonial periodicals: Cosmos Magazine, a literary miscellany published in Sydney from 1894 to 1899, and the Melbourne spiritualist journal Harbinger of Light, which was first published in 1870. She also contributed to other colonial newspapers and periodicals and was the author of the novel A Soul's Pilgrimage, published in Melbourne by George Robertson in 1907.
W.T. Stead, editor-in-chief of the English monthly Review of Reviews, and himself a profound believer in spiritualism, wrote the foreword to A Soul's Pilgrimage, claiming that although Annie Bright had based the novel on her own life experience, it was not autobiographical. Either Stead was unaware of the corresponding details or he had perhaps been encouraged to believe that the book would have more appeal if presented as a work of fiction. Whatever his reason, his words are misleading. The main events in Annie Bright's life in England and Australia as presented in the novel can be confirmed through other sources, including the occasional personal
21
references that appear in her articles. Her ideas and attitudes on specific topics are also illustrated through her articles for Cosmos and the Harbinger of Light, which allows the building-up of a more rounded picture of her life and work than that conveyed by the novel alone.
Annie Bright was born at Nottingham in 1843, the daughter of local merchant and alderman William Wright and his wife Charlotte.4 From an early age Annie felt herself to be a materialist, not so much because of the luxurious circumstances of her upbringing, but through her scepticism at the possibility of any future existence. Her parents were staunchly Unitarian, supporting their church in its belief in the unity of God, as opposed to conventional Christian dogma invoking the Holy Trinity. Annie accompanied them to church services with her sisters and other members of their family. She also taught in Sunday School and visited the factory girls from her classes when they were ill, administering material comforts but unable to offer the consolation of a better life hereafter. In the novel she describes herself (in the person of Stella, her heroine) as a rationalist, not believing in miracles or in anything else that could not be found in her own experience.5
A new preacher came to the church when Annie was in her early twenties. James Pillars was a young Unitarian minister who had combined his theological training with an Arts degree and who now held what some of his older colleagues considered to be views of advanced liberalism. Though still ambivalent in her acceptance of religious belief, Annie was attracted to James as much by what she later described as his ‘rare spiritual insight’,6 as by his commanding physical presence. When he told her that he had been invited to Sydney as minister of a new Unitarian church and asked her to accompany him as his wife, she accepted the proposal. There was to be family opposition because Annie's parents did not want her to marry a poor man, however worthy, let alone go with him to unknown circumstances on the other side of the world. There was also another suitor whom they thought a better contender, an older man who was a member of the local church and well able to provide for their daughter. But Annie chose to go to Australia with James Pillars. She was uncertain on more than one count: her feelings for her future husband were still tentative and she had some misgivings about the reality of her role as minister's wife at a freethought church in a new country. She was convinced, however, that this might somehow be her destiny.
On arrival in Sydney, Annie found herself in the sort of situation that her parents had feared for her. The church was housed in a few miserable rooms in which the vestry, the community area and the living quarters were combined. She and James Pillars were poor indeed in worldly terms, sustained only by the support of a small congregation and occasional monetary gifts from Annie's parents. James trusted in the success of his work and an improvement in their circumstances through divine beneficence, but he found it difficult to overcome the orthodoxy of some of his church members. In an attempt to find alternative opportunities for the presentation of freethought views, he began giving evening lectures, a move that attracted interest among some of the laymen who attended, but provoked accusations of heresy by those who disagreed with him. Church attendances declined and, with fewer loyal members in support, James was forced to take a drop in his already meagre salary.
They had by this time begun a young family which would increase until the couple had five children, two girls and three boys. Annie managed as best she could, shopping carefully
22
and making over all clothes for the children. She found colonial life a great change from that which she had previously enjoyed and, while she admired her husband's spiritual conviction and his dedication to his work against all obstacles, she still felt herself to be a pronounced materialist. Turning to work for solace, she took pleasure in providing the music for church services. She also gave needlework classes to the young daughters of church members. The wife of one of the few enthusiasts who had attended James's lectures then asked if Annie could give school lessons to her daughter. This was something she felt able to do, although she had no experience in employment of any kind. But she had had a good education, and was soon taking a small group of children for lessons in English, French and music. The money that their parents paid her was the first she had ever earned. She used most of it to pay a nurse-girl to look after her own children while she was teaching and at church services.
James encouraged her, looking out for good English grammars and other text-books and helping with instruction in mathematics. He was also involved in a project of his own, the publication of a monthly magazine for the further dissemination of liberal religious ideas, entitled in the novel More Light. This brought him congratulations on the one hand, but criticism on the other. The continued opposition of the anti-progressive party among church members was a further disappointment, preventing the finalisation of plans for a new and more suitable building while he remained their minister, even though a building fund had been established by one or two generous donors. James, supported by conviction, tried to see the struggle and the hardships that they had to bear as a means of triumph through self-development. Annie, tired and run-down through overwork, was often discouraged. She had also to contend with personal sadness. One of their children, a boy, had become ill and died. Her parents in England had died also, leaving her with an intensified feeling of isolation from her former home.
Further sadness was in store for Annie: James was drowned after falling off the rocks at South Head while taking a group of Sunday School scholars on a fishing excursion.7 Although this was naturally a matter of great sorrow, Annie felt strongly that her husband's life work was then complete. As for herself, she wished to remain in the church no longer, even though some of its members tried to heal the breach that had been made. Instead, she extended her school until she had thirty pupils, working long hours to fill in her days as well as to help her survive financially. It was a lonely life and she missed her husband more than she could have imagined, wishing that there was some way in which she could feel the former comfort of his presence. A friend who had become interested in spiritualism suggested that Annie try to contact James through the use of the planchette, a small board supported by castors and a vertical pencil which was supposed to form letters, then words and sentences, in response to light finger-pressure on the board. Annie, still sceptical, was disinclined to try. James, she knew, would have been against most attempts at the display of spiritual phenomena. At the same time, he had believed in the potent influence of the unseen world and, eventually, Annie was persuaded to use the planchette. At first there was no communication. Then, with the encouragement of one of her pupils who showed an aptitude as a trance-medium, Annie began receiving messages that she believed had come from James.
The doubters among us will say that all that was really demonstrated was wish-fulfilment, prompted by Annie's loneliness and her longing for guidance and reassurance. For her, it was the revelation of a lifetime. From then onwards,
23
she was a firm believer in the validity of spiritual communication, reading all she could find about the higher spiritualism and attending lectures on the subject. James had told her through the planchette that she should take off her mourning clothes and, even though she now preferred to listen to messages that were direct and personal, she should make her peace with his former church members. He also told her that another man would come to take her hand, and this was so.
Annie met Charles Bright at one of a series of lectures that the former Melbourne journalist was giving in Sydney. In the novel, there named Christopher, Annie describes him as being a ‘highly cultured man of the world and a splendid speaker’.8 He was ‘amusing, too, a born wit and humorist’. That is an opinion that seems likely to have been shared by many of his Melbourne friends, especially in earlier days before his conversion to spiritualism. Charles Bright had worked as a journalist on the Argus and the Melbourne Morning Herald. He was also at different times editor of My Note Book, the Examiner and Melbourne Punch. A gregarious fellow, he was one of the group of talented immigrants who gathered at a round table in the Argus Hotel and he later became a founding member of the Athenaeum and Yorick Clubs. Charles diversified his occupation by obtaining employment as an insurance secretary while continuing to act as a freelance journalist. When, in 1869, the Argus asked for a series of articles based on an investigation of the spiritualist movement in Melbourne, he approached the project from the point of view of a sceptical freethinker. But his investigations resulted in personal conversion and he became a full-time lecturer on freethought and spiritualist topics both in Australia and the United States, Divorced from his first wife, he was married to Annie Pillars at a civil ceremony in Sydney in 1883.
Annie believed that her spiritual experience made her ‘a more ardent secular worker’,9 and, no doubt with Charles's encouragement, she began to concentrate on the further development of the skills that had been her standby during the years when she kept her school going. With a newly-realised talent for writing, she became an occasional contributor to local periodicals, including the Liberal, a journal produced by the Liberal Association, of which she and Charles were leading members. Annie Bright rose to literary prominence with her appointment as editor of Cosmos Magazine in 1894. That she was prepared to take up this position indicates both personal determination and the sharing of the optimistic belief of the proprietors, the Cosmos Publishing Company, that the new periodical would be a success, despite the poor record of most of its colonial predecessors. Other literary periodicals had been founded with equal enthusiasm, but few had lasted for very long. There were several reasons why this should have been so, most of which were peculiar to the colonial situation.10 By the early 1890s, there were no serious literary magazines or reviews in production in Australia.
Annie Bright was not the founding editor of Cosmos. She was, however, a contributor to the first issue, using the pseudonym ‘Thyra Gebinn’, an anagrammatic version of her own name, except for the substitution of one letter. She used it again in the second issue but, in the third and from then on, she signed herself either as ‘Mrs. Charles Bright’ or with the initials ‘A.B.’. There is no announcement of her having taken over as editor, although with each issue her presence becomes more overt and, by the end of the first volume, she is writing the editorial notes that mark the completion of a
24
full year's publication. She gives the main reason for the healthy state of the magazine as its being ‘something purely Australian … that could not be obtained elsewhere’.11 This claim is made in the context of competition with English and American periodicals, but it might also be taken for dismissal of the Bulletin as a serious rival. Although Cosmos and the Bulletin shared some of the nationalist characteristics of the time, their differing approaches to the demonstration of Australianism, added to the fact that one was a literary monthly and the other a more varied weekly, helped to ensure a temporary place for both of them on the market.
While it is not possible to ascertain the extent of Annie Bright's editorial control of the Cosmos Magazine, the regularity of the layout and the choice of content suggest a consistently firm hand. She wrote the leading feature each month as part of a series of biographical articles on prominent figures in the professions and the arts, some from Sydney and others linked to Australia though better-known world-wide. She also wrote book reviews and occasional notes on the theatre. The rest of the magazine was made up of contributed articles on general and literary topics, fiction in the form of serial and short stories, and verse. Charles Bright was a contributor. Ernest Favenc, ‘Price Waning’ [William Astley], Louise Mack, Ethel Turner and Percy Spence were also included amongst a group of writers and artists, most of whom gave their services without charge in order to support the journal. Annie Bright was obviously aware that Cosmos had to be promoted as a predominantly literary periodical if it was to have a wide enough appeal. Her confirmed spiritualist views are equally obvious, especially in articles such as the record of her interview with Annie Besant, world leader of the theosophist movement then visiting Sydney, as well as the inclusion among other more general material of articles on spiritualist topics. However, her major preoccupation appears to have been the use of Cosmos as a means for the further development of her literary skills. As she exults through the voice of Stella in A Soul's Pilgrimage, ‘I would rather be a literary woman than anything in the world. A queen is nothing to it’.12
Annie's articles for Cosmos are carefully researched and well-written. They are also a useful source of biographical information on their subjects. Perhaps most importantly for a researcher interested in Annie Bright's own character, they sometimes include the expression of strongly-held points of view as well as personal references. For instance, her attitude towards feminism is demonstrated in an article on the Sydney Women's College, where she deplores the term ‘new woman’, saying that it was just as reasonable to talk about the ‘new man’, since both were the product of the present age.13 In a short piece on contemporary periodicals, she refers to Louisa Lawson, editor of the Dawn, as having shown by her own example and that of her staff just what women could do. Annie Bright goes on to declare, ‘A practical demonstration of women's capacity is more useful than oceans of talk, and it is the writer's opinion that each woman who makes herself independent is a solid factor in raising the status of her sex socially and politically’.14 On the question of female suffrage, although Annie believed that women were entitled to vote, she preferred to urge them, as she did in the article ‘Politics and Parliament’, to equip themselves for the higher positions that should be the result, rather than ‘imagine that the suffrage [would] be a panacea for all the difficulties at present endured’.15
Annie Bright's ideas and attitudes were firmly based on experience, both of personal growth and the changing environment of the world in which she lived and worked. That she
25
could be uncompromising if her standards were not met is confirmed by her departure from Cosmos when to all outward appearances the magazine was running to its successful formula. In A Soul's Pilgrimage she refers to her heroine receiving advice through spiritualist means to sever her connection with the magazine she was editing because of the unsatisfactory conduct of its affairs. As it turned out, the Cosmos Publishing Company was in trouble and, in July 1896, W.R. McLardy and Company took over as proprietors. Alexander Montgomery, an early contributor to Cosmos, became the new editor, continuing the magazine along much the same lines until its incorporation in the Southern Cross in 1899. It was not the literary pattern of Cosmos that caused its decline but, rather, the inevitable failure of almost all colonial periodicals burdened by high costs of production and the difficulty of sustaining an adequate readership. Cosmos was more fortunate than most in that, from the beginning, it had attracted a substantial amount of advertising. Arthur Jose in The Romantic Nineties explains why it was able to continue for longer than it may have done otherwise. He wrote that ‘Cosmos had persuaded its clients to pay for permanent advertisements a year or two in advance; when it faded away long before the payments were exhausted, it ruined the publicity market for all successors’.16
Charles Bright suffered a serious if illness during the late 1890s, leaving Annie with less time for literary work because of his need for nursing attendance. But she continued writing occasional articles for publication until, in 1900, she received a spiritual message advising her to give up ordinary press work and concentrate on doing good for the benefit of people's souls.17 Two years later she was invited to Melbourne to address a spiritualist meeting. There she found the scope for her energies that she wanted, gladly accepting the invitation of W.H. Terry, the President of the Victorian Association of Spiritualists, to make an extended visit. After Charles Bright's death in 1903, she settled in Melbourne permanently.
Annie's first and most important Task was the promotion of knowledge about spiritualism. She arranged a series of weekly meetings under the sponsorship of the Association where she and her helpers answered enquiries and gave addresses and readings from the latest spiritualist literature. She was also prepared to help women use the right to vote that they had now acquired, arguing that, while this was not a directly spiritual matter, it was important as a means of achieving equal status.18 by the beginning of 1904, Annie Bright was acting as Honorary Secretary of the Association and, in September 1905, she took over from W.H. Terry as editor of the Association's journal, the Harbinger of Light. She was Terry's own choice, surely an important one, since he had owned and edited the journal since its foundation. With Annie Bright available to succeed him, Terry was ready to give up his work, apart from the provision of an occasional article, and retire to the then rural district of Fern Tree Gully. A new issue of the journal marked the new arrangements. Annie Bright was to remain its proprietor and editor until her death in 1913.
The control of a specifically spiritualist journal was different from that of a literary periodical mainly in scope. Cosmos Magazine was intended, as its title suggests, to be a harmonious whole, a literary miscellany created by the careful selection of its parts. But, although some of those parts were spiritually inclined, Cosmos belonged to the world; or world order. Under Terry, the Harbinger had been made up of leading and other articles on
26
spiritualist topics, reports of Association meetings, local and overseas news, notes and comments, and occasional verse. All of its contents had a spiritualist focus, following Association objectives of ‘the investment and advancement of spiritual truths and purposes’.19 There was little reason for Annie Bright to change the pattern through which the journal's readers and supporters were encouraged in their belief in the next world. She continued to produce the Harbinger in the familiar style and format, only impressing her personality upon the features and other articles that she wrote herself.
During the early months of Annie's editorship, she made it clear that she disliked being categorised as a spiritualist if this meant that her message would be confined to one small group. Claiming that she had long since ceased to label herself as anything at all, she asserted that all those who had ‘ranged themselves on the spiritual, ideal side of life’ were ‘marching under the same banner’.20 Her earnest objective was to reach the widest circle possible, though not solely through her own efforts. She had regular contributors to help her, including the Melbourne journalist and spiritual enthusiast James Smith, whose articles and reviews were a feature of most issues up until his death in 1910. Annie also depended upon the direction of those whom she called her ‘Unseen Helpers’,21 or workers in the Great Beyond',22 from whom she derived her inspiration, making the paper ‘an outward and visible sign of her own consciousness in the matter’. At the same time, she advised her readers to ‘accept no messages from the Unseen unless it satisfies their own reason and judgment’.23
In 1907, with the publication of A Soul's Pilgrimage, Annie Bright considered that she had completed the most important work of her life. There was, however, one more important task in store. She had been in regular correspondence with W.T. Stead, both on general spiritualist matters and, more particularly, the trance-speaker named ‘Julia’, whom he claimed to have invoked through a medium. After Stead's death in the sinking of the Titanic in 1911, Annie began receiving messages from him that she transcribed by means of automatic writing, that is, when the writer is so inspired that the pen seems to move by its own volition. This material, descriptive of life in the spirit world, appeared first in the Harbinger and then, as the messages continued, it was published as a series of pamphlets by E.W. Cole.24 Stead had been a leading figure in literary and spiritualist circles and the views thus received from what spiritualists often termed ‘life beyond the veil’ appear to have stirred considerable interest, favourably affecting the circulation of the Harbinger.
But continued growth could not be sustained without unflagging effort and despite her determination to do all that she felt called upon for the provision of further insight into the spiritual world, Annie's physical strength was failing. Apart from a short holiday on the Gippsland Lakes towards the end of 1911, she had worked on the Harbinger for six years without a break. In June 1913, aged 70, she was confined to bed with a severe attack of influenza. Her heart weakened, she died at her home in East Melbourne after a week's illness and was buried in Brighton Cemetery.
Lurline Stuart
27
28

1

This World and the Next: A Dramatic Poem, Melbourne, 1872.

2

This World and the Next: an Australian spiritualist journal, 1, 1-26, July 1894 - August 1896.

3

Australian Dictionary of Biography, (ed.) Bede Nairn el at., 12 volumes, Melbourne, 1966-90, 3, p.232.

4

See Annie Bright's death certificate, entry no.6409, 1913, Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, Melbourne, Victoria.

5

A Soul's Pilgrimage, Melbourne, 1872, p.6.

6

The Emancipating Influence of Spiritualism: a lecture delivered by Mrs. Charles Bright at the Lyceum Hall, Dunedin, on the evening of Sunday, 8th June 1884, as reported in ‘Public Opinion’, [Collingwood, “Reform” Office, 1884].

7

A Soul's Pilgrimage, p.157.

8

Ibid, pp.196, 198.

9

‘The Emancipating Influence of Spiritualism’, p.8.

10

For further information on the viability of colonial periodicals see my Nineteenth Century Australian Periodicals: an annotated bibliography, Sydney, 1979.

11

‘Our First Year’, Cosmos Magazine, 1,12, August 1895, p.616.

12

A Soul's Pilgrimage, p.265.

13

‘The Sydney Women's College and Its Principal’, Cosmos Magazine 1,10, June 1895, p.489.

14

‘Our Local Contemporaries’, Cosmos Magazine 1,9, May 1895, p.480.

15

‘Politics and Parliament’, Cosmos Magazine, 1,11, July 1895, p.542.

16

Arthur Jose, The Romantic Nineties, Sydney, 1933, p.5.

17

‘Annie Bright’, Harbinger of Light, 1 December 1907, p.9266.

18

‘Mrs. Charles Bright’, Harbinger of Light, 1 December 1903, p.8337.

19

As advised in regular advertisements for the Association placed in the Harbinger of Light.

20

‘Interviews with Prominent Spiritualists and Psychic Researcher’, Mrs. Charles Bright, No. VI, Mr. J.W. Hunt, Harbinger of Light, 1 November 1904, p.8549.

21

‘A Soul's Pilgrimage’, Harbinger of Light, 1 November 1907, p.9261.

22

‘Editorial Notes’, Harbinger of Light, 1 April 1906, p. [8945].

23

Ibid.

24

What Life in the Spirit World Really Is, by W.T. Stead, being messages received from beyond the veil by Annie Bright, [Melbourne, 1912].