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The Double Life of Laurence Oliphant

About this book

The Double Life of Laurence Oliphant by Bart Casey is the improbable tale of a Victorian young man who abandoned a glittering career as an author, war correspondent, diplomat and Member of Parliament to embark on a quest to understand the true meaning of life by finding God and the angels in heaven.

His partner in that mission was his wife, Alice le Strange. When they met, she was a young British heiress in her twenties, living in Paris, and Laurence was her older next door neighbor and the chief correspondent for The Times of London covering the siege of Paris and the bloody aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war. They fell deeply in love. Together they gave up their fortunes and free will to embark on their spiritual quest under the guidance of the despotic cult leader Thomas Lake Harris at his commune in America.

As the leader of the Brotherhood of the New Life, Harris cobbled together revelations he imagined were from spirits in Heaven planning for the Second Coming of Christ when the spirits would return to earth and live together with the chosen. The prophet was a frequent visitor to heaven, and to aid his journey to the other world, he required the services of key female members of his commune, who would join him each night, lying together and breathing deeply until they both were magically transported to the other side. Brotherhood members were urged to develop their own occult skills so they could make the celestial journeys as well.

However, unlike the many other dubious cult leaders who went broke, Harris also required members to work hard during the days at sensible business ventures like making fine wines or controlling the transatlantic cable business, and his community always enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle headquartered at an opulent estate in the wine-making country north of San Francisco in California.

Finally, after 14 years, Laurence and Alice broke with Harris who they came to see as a false prophet too much in love with sex, power and money. Then, with the backing of the British government and Jewish leaders across Europe, the Oliphants devoted their final years to easing the suffering of Jewish refugees by working to establish a home for them in the Holy Land.

Sadly, after their deaths, their lives came under the scrutiny of self-righteous moral policemen who alleged they had been involved in scandalous sexual activities. To make matters worse, Laurence’s Scottish family solicitors decided it was better to let the allegations blow over without any response and as a result the reputations of both Oliphants became tainted by the silence.

The Double Life of Laurence Oliphant tells the whole story of their remarkable and eccentric lives, and sets the record straight about the actions and beliefs of these two attractive and independent-minded spirits of the Victorian age.

Reviews for The Double Life of Laurence Oliphant

Kirkus Star Review:

"A rollicking biography of a classic 19th-century figure, featuring imperial adventure, high diplomacy, literary fame, and an eccentric cult focused on bizarrely sublimated sexuality.

"Casey recounts the impossibly full life of Oliphant, a Scottish aristocrat born in 1829 during an era when his privileged caste ran the world. The son of the chief justice of Britain’s Ceylon colony, Oliphant gained fame with bestselling travelogues of Nepal, Russia, and Canada and worked as a foreign correspondent and British diplomat (sometimes both) in global hotspots: he stormed Chinese cities during the Opium Wars, parried sword attacks by anti-Western samurai in Tokyo, toured the corpse-strewn battlefields of the Franco-Prussian War, and witnessed the bloody destruction of the Paris Commune. Eventually, jaded by his life as a member of Parliament, satirical novelist, and London rake, he sought redemption with American spiritualist Thomas Lake Harris and his Brethren of the New Life group, which ran utopian communes in New York and California. Much of Casey’s book offers an entertaining account of Harris’ strange doctrines. Converts did manual labor cleaning stables and scrubbing laundry; the faithful “de-magnetized” each other of “lust currents” by counterintuitively having communal nude scrub-downs. They also practiced deep-breathing exercises that induced mystical visions; during these, disciples would join in orgasmic union with their opposite-sex “other half” in the celestial realm. (Earthly sex, however, was frowned upon: Harris separated families and forbade Oliphant and his wife, Alice, to have sex, explaining that they were not each other’s true celestial soulmates.) Breaking with Harris, but not all his teachings, after Harris announced the second coming and proclaimed himself king of the world, Oliphant went on to help establish Zionist colonies in Palestine. Casey relates this colorful saga with well-paced narrative aplomb, setting it against the cultural ferment of the 19th century. His version of Oliphant is an appealing character, part dashing man-of-the-world and part idealistic seeker, possessed of both ardent religiosity and droll humor. He and his associates emerge as embodiments of a time of boundless horizons and breathtaking ambitions, of spiritual yearning that chafed against expectations of mundane happiness and fulfillment, and of a hunger for charismatic figures who lent a cosmic glamour to technological and political upheavals of the era. The result is an energetic page-turner, a shrewd character study, and a rich social history.

"An engrossing portrait of an emblematic Victorian."


San Francisco Book Review:

"Meticulously and impeccably researched, and wholly and thoroughly well-told...
Laurence’s life was beautifully captured in this revealing biography."


The Scotsman, Edinburgh:

"Casey has written an interesting book, admirably deadpan in its treatment of the Harris community."


The Jerusalem Post:

"Bart Casey writes with clarity and grace. Laurence Oliphant was a fascinating individual, someone who easily carries the label 'eccentric.' But he carried it with humor and grace, while leading a fascinating and exciting life."


Garth Hallberg, author of Boon Juster:

"A magical mystery tour of the never-dull, paradoxical life of a captivating eccentric and his bizarre circle of Victorian mystics."