Book Review: ‘The Double Life of Laurence Oliphant’
Not your typical biography, “The Double Life” is a quirky book about a man who lived a life laced with adventure, high social standing, literary success, and participation in a bizarre cult.
Casey describes this Scottish aristocrat as leading a double life—politically and spiritually. It is not often that these two spheres coincide, but through his lifetime of experience, Laurence Oliphant is able to blend his two diverse lives into one unified purpose.
Oliphant’s spiritual side was cultivated from a young age, as his parents engaged him in a constant religious dialogue in which he was challenged to honestly analyze his moral life. In return, his parents were equally honest in sharing their own spiritual struggles.
“Indeed from about Laurence’s age of 10, both parents always spoke with him as an equal, no doubt imparting a good deal of added confidence to their already precocious son,” Casey writes.
His political life was marked by a series of travel guides and articles written while working as a British diplomat in Nepal, Russia, Canada, as well as war-torn China and France.
Oliphant was especially dazzled by Japan, which was just opening its doors to the Western world. Yet he did not visit these places to simply marvel at their exotic scenes and customs; Oliphant wanted to make a difference by reporting what he saw in the hopes that someone would be inspired to act.
Writing was the perfect medium for him to do so. He was able to participate from an outsider’s perspective and was careful not to become too involved. Casey writes that at one point, “All of Laurence’s energies and aspirations were focused on taking part, in some way, in his country’s actions in the Crimean campaign, although he certainly avoided any thought of joining the army.”
This wanderer’s lifestyle filled the unconventional aristocrat’s life with adventure. Nothing was out of bounds for the precocious writer—not even the tense American South during the time of slavery. “Heading even further south,” Casey writes, “our manic young reporter accepted an invitation to join the notorious ‘Walker’s Army’ sailing from New Orleans with 300 men to reinforce mercenaries already on the ground taking over Nicaragua.”
Yet in spite of this exciting political writer’s life, Oliphant could not resist the call of his deep spiritual self. Giving up his success and social standing, Oliphant embarked on a search for God and the meaning of life. Perhaps this was the result of his parents’ teachings, but they were probably not expecting their son to join up with a cult led by the charismatic Anglo-American preacher Thomas Lake Harris, who led the Brotherhood of the New Life.
Casey goes to great lengths describing the lifestyle that Harris and his followers experienced, relying on letters, diary entries, poetry, and excerpts of novels that followers wrote, inspired by their time with Harris.
Harris’s “New Life” communities were places of joyous manual labor and group baths that were meant to free the faithful of lustful thoughts. Yet Harris encouraged a deeper, celestial intercourse between cult members and their spiritual counterparts. Members practiced deep-breathing meditation on their own, with the goal being perfect sexual union between human and angel soul mate.
This was the spiritual world that Oliphant was drawn to. He brought with him his mother, suddenly widowed and searching for new meaning, as well as his future wife Alice le Strange, whom he met through his mother.
Known in the community by his faerie name “Uncle Woodbine,” Oliphant lived and worked in Harris’ New Life community, but he was forbidden conjugal visits with Alice, who wasn’t his true “celestial soul mate.” Eventually, he was restricted from visiting Alice altogether, and the couple understandably broke away from Harris shortly after.
Although Casey does an exceptional job explaining the ins and outs of community life in Harris’s cult, the cult’s financial situation was most difficult to follow. It is possible that Harris was conning his most wealthy followers into providing his communities with extra funds, as may have been the case with Oliphant.
“The Double Life of Laurence Oliphant” is an often humorous book, thanks to Casey’s witty writing and outlandish anecdotes. However, Oliphant’s life provides a valuable lesson about the importance of using all of one’s gifts. No person is meant to live two completely split lives, even if their great passions are as distant as religion and politics. Only when we discover how to reconcile our diverse interests are we able to live completely fulfilling lives.
Oliphant moved from diplomatic adventurer to cult member, but he wasn’t completely happy until he left the cult and embarked on his final mission—returning Jewish refugees to their Biblical homeland in Palestine, a task which employed both his political and spiritual life. Casey’s book teaches readers that when we learn, like Oliphant, to plunge wholly into a mission, we can then live our lives to the fullest.
“The Double Life of Laurence Oliphant: Victorian Pilgrim and Prophet”
By Bart Casey
Post Hill Press
200 pages; $19.26
Chelsea Scarnegie, from the Chicago area, has a degree in writing.