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Annie Besant (1847 – 1933) was a well-known British atheist, freethinker, socialist, feminist, political activist and, ultimately, a latter-day woo-peddler. She was raised a Christian and, at the age of 20, married Frank Besant, an Anglican minister. However, she was a formidable woman, and split from her husband over religious differences to become an active member of both the secular movement and the Fabians. Later, she met Helena Blavatsky and became involved in the Theosophical movement and Freemasonry.
Born Annie Wood, to a middle-class family of Irish extraction living in London, Annie's father died when she was just five years old. Her mother ran a boarding house for boys at Harrow School but struggled financially and young Annie was cared for by her mother's friend Ellen Marryat, who ensured that she had a good home-schooled education and imbued her with a sense of duty and feminist ideals. At the age of 19, while on a walking holiday, she was reintroduced to Frank Besant, a young, high-church, evangelical vicar who proposed to her after only a week. Frank took Annie's reluctant silence as a tacit acceptance and she drifted into an engagement under the pretence that as a vicar's wife she would be able to satisfy her desire for a noble and useful life by working with, and helping, the poor.
In the three years following her wedding Annie conceived two children, a boy in January, 1869 and a girl in August, 1870. It was a near-fatal bout of whooping cough and bronchitis suffered by her daughter that caused Annie to start questioning her religious beliefs and over the following three years she endured self-torment, and even contemplated suicide with chloroform, as she turned from a Christian to an atheist. However, Annie's political views hardened, and she became convinced that deeper social changes were needed beyond immediate service in order to alleviate poverty and suffering.