Friday, August 10, 2018

The Double Life of Laurence Oliphant: Victorian Pilgrim and Prophet Hardcover – December 8, 2015 by Bart Casey (Post Hill Press)

Bart Casey’s biography of Laurence Oliphant, an unknown (to me, at least) Victorian renaissance man, is a fascinating portrait not only of the man but of the times. This was a world where possibilities abounded for those with the right background, a level of wealth and desirable social connections. Laurence Oliphant was such a man, born into a noble Scottish family, spending his early years abroad as his father took on postings in far-flung reaches of the British Empire, and making connections through his family, his father’s diplomatic service colleagues, and, perhaps most importantly for his future life, through serendipitous encounters wherever he travelled – even as a child and young man.

Laurence’s achievements as a reporter, chronicler, travel writer and novelist would be significant on their own, as he has left us with remarkable insights into a changing world with detailed reportage on some of the time’s most important diplomatic and martial events. In addition, he was, with his wife, Alice, an early Zionist who worked tirelessly to begin the drive to resettle Eastern-European Jews in Palestine, their traditional Holy Land. In these pursuits he was recognized for his openness, dedication, steadfastness and, simply, his unwavering enthusiasm.

However, Laurence also explored a world of what might nowadays be termed “dubious” spiritual practices, becoming a follower of Thomas Lake Harris, a self-proclaimed American prophet, who established communities in New York and California. While Laurence eventually grew disheartened with Harris’ leadership and withdrew from his community, he continued to have faith in many of the sect’s fundamental beliefs and followed their practices, including some questionable sexual practices, until the end of his life.

Casey’s telling of Laurence’s story captures the enthusiasm, drive and gregariousness that he brought to his life, reminiscent of the pace and tone of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s travelogues. Casey clearly has an appreciation for all aspects of Laurence Oliphant’s life, and presents him as a well-rounded individual, and not, as could easily have been done, as a curiosity or fanatic. It is through this approach, seeing Laurence as a whole person, that the reader can begin to reconcile “the sum of his parts.” Inquisitive and searching from childhood, raised in a religious family that encouraged self-examination and questioning, looking for meaning from his life beyond professional achievements; all led Laurence to the exploration of a spiritual world beyond that of the mainstream religions of the times, and into new worlds of community and communion, both physical and spiritual.

This is a fascinating book, offering a window into a specific segment of Victorian life in general, with a focused view of one life in particular. For anyone who enjoys reading biography, history and/or literature this book provides a not only a great story but an introduction to a very unique and sadly unknown man. Casey’s deep research into his subject adds layers of authenticity and it is clear that he has a soft spot for his subject, which only adds to the multi-layered portrait that he is able to build. A thoroughly enjoyable read about a fascinating man who deserves to be better remembered than he is.

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