Saturday, August 01, 2009

Camberwell and Crowley

Straycation, South East London Folklore Society's walking festival, strolls off tonight with Scott Wood as your guide 'around the mythological sites of Camberwell. There'll be ghosts, folklore, saints and Aleister Crowley's father-in-law. Meet on Camberwell Green, junction of Camberwell Road & Camberwell Church Street'. It starts at 7 pm and there is no charge.

To whet your appetite, here's the tale of Camberwell's connection with the famous occultist Aleister Crowley.

In the last decades of the nineteenth century, the vicar of St Giles Church, Camberwell, was the Reverend Frederick Festus Kelly. He moved with his family from Paddington to there in 1880 and remained vicar for the next 35 years. His children, Gerald and Rose, played a major role Crowley's life.

Gerald Festus Kelly (born 1879) met Crowley at Cambridge University in 1898. They became friends and possibly lovers. After leaving Cambridge, Kelly moved to Paris and established himself as an artist. Crowley visited Paris in 1902, and it was via Kelly's connections that he met the sculptor Auguste Rodin and the writers Arnold Bennett and W. Somerset Maugham. The latter used his Paris encounters with Crowley as the basis for his novel 'The Magician' (1907).

In July 1903, Crowley met Gerald's sister Rose in Scotland. Seemingly to rescue her from a marriage being arranged by her mother Blanche, Crowley proposed to Rose. By the 17 August they were wed and the marriage was registered. The marriage of convenience soon became for real as Crowley fell in love with, in his own worlds, 'one of the most beautiful and fascinating women in the world'.

Crowley and Rose Kelly spent their 1904 honeymoon in Cairo, where Rose played a key role in the genesis of Crowley's best known work 'Liber Legis' (The Book of the Law). Crowley spent several days invoking ancient Egyptian deities and came to believe that Rose was relaying messages from the Gods to him, including one that he should wait in his temple on a given date and write down whatever he heard. Crowley did so, writing Liber Legis which he always maintained was dictated to him by Aiwass, his Holy Guardian Angel . Crowley came to regard Rose as a Scarlet Woman, in his postive sense of a woman in touch with the gods. He wrote several poems for her, including Rosa Mundi (Rose of the World).

Their marriage did not end happily. Their first child died of typhoid contracted while travelling around China, and Rose became an alcoholic. The couple divorced in November 1909, at which time Rose was back living in the family home in Camberwell. Rose remarried but died of alcohol-related causes in 1932. Rose Kelly and Aleister Crowley had a second child, Lola Zaza, but after the divorce Crowley rarely saw her. Gerald Kelly went on to become president of the Royal Academy, although by this point his friendship with Crowley was over.

Rose, Lola and Aleister Crowley

Crowley mentions a visit to Camberwell in his book Magick Without Tears: 'I remember sailing happily in to breakfast at Camberwell Vicarage, and saying cheerfully, in absolute good faith: "A fine morning, Mr. Kelly!" I was astounded at the reply. The dear old gentleman - and he really was one of the best! - half choked, then gobbled at me like a turkey! "You're a very insolent young man!" Poor, tiny Aleister! How was I to know that his son had driven it well home that the hallmark of English stupidity was that the only safe topic of conversation was the weather. And so my greeting was instantly construed as a deliberate insult!'

Source: Booth, Martin, A Magick Life: A Biography of Aleister Crowley (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2000); Crowley, Aleister, Magick Without Tears.

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