1885 The Light on the Path - First Edition (Association Copy)
One of the cherished pieces in my personal collection includes a first edition of theosophical classic The Light on the Path by Mable Collins. According to theosophical mystic lore Collins took pen-to-paper after an experience in which her Astral Body was taken into a Hall of spiritual initiation "on the walls of which she saw and read some lines written in golden letter." these lines and letters combined to birth the sleek little book The Light on The Path, published in 1885 by Reeves & Turner publishing company. Initially Collins claimed to have written the book under the dictation of spirit guide Master “Sri Hilarion” a purported secret Greek brotherhood of Masters. Collins later retracted this claim much at the dismay of leading theoretician of Theosophy H.P. Blavatsky, and several of her loyal followers within the Theosophical Society at the time. This was the genesis of Collins' conflict with Blavatsky which led to her eventual departure from the society. Although this publication is not completely to blame, the irony of such a tiny tome sparking such immense strife within the society does not escape me.
In respect to the publication, the publisher initially issued two version of the first edition; several were issued in wrappers and others in hardcover. The consensus is that this edition was printed in small numbers and equally rare in both of the known variations. What makes this holding particularly interesting is the association and notes which were included in the book. The book is signed on the reverse side of the front free endpaper to an "Elmira Y. Howard, from her friend S.H.R." Ms. Howard earned her medical degree in 1870 (finding herself a widowed mother post-Civil War), after which she attended mainly to women and children, and the African American Community in Cincinnati, Ohio. She also served, for some time, as corespondent to the Cincinnati "Commercial-Gazette."Her exact ties to the Theosophical Society are unknown although geographically her association with the Theosophical Hall in Cincinnati could be generally assumed.
Another point of inquiry was that of the 'S.H.R.' from whom the book was presented to Mrs. Howard. The initial instinct, and admittedly rather hopeful assumption, was that this edition was presented by Collins' herself under the moniker of Sri. Hilarion (S.H.) She was known to have signed a few books with the informal pen name. But what to make of the "R"? I inquired with well respected author and colleague Ronnie Pontiac, who has extensive ties in theosophical circles via his previous work with Manly P. Hall's Philosophical Research Society in Los Angeles. Several days after the query we remained stumped. The second attempt of identification was to compare the handwriting on my copy to previous documents written by Mabel Collins. I reached out to an associate, and well known theosophy curator Erik Mona , who was kind enough to send me a scanned copy a letter written Collins. The handwriting does not appear to match, but it cannot be certain one way or another. Thus the mystery of the association remains for the moment.
Perhaps the most interesting piece of this puzzle is the contemporary letter which accompanies the book. The letter matches the handwriting of the presenter 'S.H.R' thus we may determine that the letter was presented together with the book to Ms. Howard. The letter contains a list of 'rules' with notes which expand additional information on several of the rules in the book. This brings us to our next point of reference.
Some years back Weiser Antiquarian catalogued a first edition of Light on the Path in which was include a series of notes at the hand of Collins. According to the experts at Weiser "Around the time of publication of "Light on the Path," Collins received additional explanatory material on the text from the Master Hilarion which came to be known as "the Notes." Collins apparently hand-copied "The Notes" onto a number of blank pages, which she inserted into this copy of the first edition. She may have prepared one or two other copies similarly, but if so we have been unable to trace them, and she could not have done many because of the labour involved (although we have found reference to another with by "by Sri Hilarion" written by Collins on the title-page). "The Notes" were subsequently typeset and incorporated in printed form into all later editions of the work."
The notes on my copy are very similar to those presented in the Weiser catalogue, but not exact. Hence the questions remain: Could it be that this is one of the few surviving copies hand written by Collins? and if not Collins, perhaps an assistant editor or corroborator? "The Notes" were subsequently typeset and incorporated in printed form into all later editions of the work, so it is also possible that the presenter noted these from a later edition before presenting the copy to Mrs. Elmira Howard. In whichever way we see it the notes included together with this first edition are exceedingly rare, and unique to say the least.
Note: This copy remains in Near Fine condition with only minor exterior soiling. It was acquired from an associate bookseller in the U.S. state of Georgia in July of 2022. This edition remains in our permanent collection and is not currently for sale. (Scroll below for additional photos)
Ernest J. Rose