A WOMAN’S WORK: the spiritual life journey of Ethel Merston
JRC reviews Mary Ellen Korman’s “A Woman’s Work”
What I have before me as I write this review is a handsome trade
paperback titled “A Woman’s Work.” It is subtitled “The Spiritual Life
Journey of Ethel Merston” and the author is Mary Ellen Korman. Barbara
Allen Patterson is identified as the book’s editor. I assume Mrs.
Patterson to be the wife of William Patrick Patterson, the energetic
and well-known exponent of the Fourth Way, who has contributed a short
Patterson is a partner in Arete Communications of Fairfax, California,
the book’s publisher, as well as the founder-editor of “The Gurdjieff
Journal,” the latest issues of which have been serializing the text of
this book. So as a subscriber to the “Journal,” I knew the book was
about to be published, but not so soon. Maybe the publisher was also
surprised. On the book’s copyright page, there are two curiosities.
The first curiosity is that the present publication has been
copyrighted in the year “2009.” This is a slip-up that is certain to
confuse librarians and bibliophiles. (J. Walter Driscoll,
bibliographer of Fourth Way publications, take note!) For the record,
I purchased my copy directly from the publisher and it arrived on
August 11, 2008.
The copyright page’s second curiosity is that it runs the Library of
Congress Catalogue which lists ten names for indexing purposes. Since
these could double as the backbone of the book, let me list them here
in the order in which they appear on the copyright page:
1. Ethel Merston. 2. G.I. Gurdjieff. 3. Ramana Maharashi. 4. J.D.
Krishnamurti. 5. Anandamayi Ma. 6. Sunyata. 7. Swami Omananda. 8. Pak
Subuh. 9. J.G. Bennett. 10. Fourth Way.
These names are quite a mouthful! The book also offers the reader
forty-nine black-and-white photographs of gurus and other people.
There are generous source-notes and also an index of names.
I know little about the author, Mary Ellen Korman, except for what it
says on the book’s back cover: “Editor-writer Mary Ellen Korman has
long been interested in spiritual transformation and its many
approaches. She teaches a yoga of body impressions and lives in
southern Pennsylvania.” I am not quite sure how a session of “a yoga
of body impressions” differs from a standard session of hatha yoga,
but that is what it says and I am willing to learn.
In the Preface, Mrs. Korman acknowledges the contribution of her
husband Henry Korman, with whom she has authored an earlier book in
1997. Its title is not promising, as least in the present context:
“Living with Dogs: Tales of Love, Commitment, and Enduring
As a reader and reviewer of this book, however, I want to acknowledge
the seamless prose of Mrs. Korman. She has done exemplary work
combining her own writing with that of Miss Merston who kept a diary
of her life, travels, and reflections. Passages from this diary and
other works are introduced into the narrative. (The typescript of the
diary is on deposit at the City of Westminster Archives in London.)
The two voices are one voice, rather like the chanting of one of those
Tibetan monks who is able to intone both a tone and an overtone in one
My sole criticism is that Mrs. Korman is too vague about some facts
that could have been checked. For instance, was Miss Merston really
awarded an O.B.E. (Order of the British Empire) for her outstanding
work with the WRNS (Women’s Royal Naval Service) during the Great ar?
More work should have been done here and elsewhere.
Now to Ethel Merston. The excerpts from the book that have been
appearing in issues of “The Gurdjieff Review” did not really whet my
appetite to read the full text, but the mention of the “big names” did
pique my interest – enough to purchase a copy. All her life, Miss
Merston was a pilgrim, a quester, a seeker. She would probably concur
with this description of her way of life – but not if the definition
of a “seeker” excludes someone who is a “finder.” I will return to
this point shortly, but first some biographical information.
Ethel Merston was born in London, England, in 1882, into a family of
professional and accomplished Jewish-German parents of some wealth and
social standing. The original family name was Meyerstein. It seems the
family was a secularize one and dysfunctional. Edith’s mother was
artistic but high-strung and young Ethel fought with her bitterly. The
mother also “dabbled” in Theosophy.
When Ethel was eight years old, Madame Blavatsky “came to tea.” She
and her younger brother Will met the Madame. “Ethel and Will had heard
that Madame Blavatsky had only to point her finger at an object and it
would fall. The children watched her closely. When finally she pointed
and nothing happened, they were disgusted with her.” That incident
seems to have set the pattern for the future full of ultimately
disappointing meetings with gurus.
Ethel developed various psychosomatic illnesses (the author is as
vague as Ethel is about these) but as if in compensation, she had a
passion for languages and gardening. She left home without any
education or training and supported herself with temporary secretarial
work. She joins the WRNS and apparently distinguished herself on the
home front during the Great War.
After the war she sought the services of a psychiatrist, and her
choice of specialists is interesting: Dr. Maurice Nicoll, who was at
the point of abandoning Jung for Gurdjieff. She heard Gurdjieff speak
on one occasion and on another attended a lecture at the Quest Society
on the Fourth Dimension delivered by P.D. Ouspensky.
All this is mentioned in passing, in so many words, as the author has
hardly any other real information about Ethel’s first forty years. So
the biography effectively begins on a bench on the Boulevard de la
Madeleine in Paris in late August of 1922 when she meets George
Gurdjieff and appeals to him to receive her at the Priory, which is on
the point of opening its doors to selected members of the public.
After half an hour of silence, Gurdjieff replies with one word:
It turned out that Ethel – I will call her Merston hereafter – had
organizational and administrative abilities, so she became the chief
gardener at the 200-acre estate at Fontainebleau-Avon. She learned
enough Russian to order the Russian residents around and she possessed
enough class to intimidate the English visitors. This period is well
documented in the literature of the Fourth Way, particularly by her
nemesis at the Priory: young Fritz Peters who later wrote about the
many run-ins that he had with her.
Merston emerged as an unliked and unlikeable martinet (with “a little
black book” to record transgressions). Part of a chapter is devoted to
describing how Gurdjieff took pains to humanize her in the eyes of the
residents and visitors, and how he laboured to sensitize her to the
needs of other people, as other people experienced her as being
captious and distant.
At the Priory she learned to deal to some extent with her pressing
spinal problems through massage therapy as well as exercises in
self-remembering and self-observation: “I did not try to stop the
worry, but just to separate it from the body.” She wrote about
Gurdjieff: “I did not go to him for spiritual teaching, but solely for
physical healing purposes.” She left the Priory in 1927 but continued
her personal associations with Gurdjieff’s followers.
This would be a long review, indeed, if I gave equal time to Merston’s
experiences with other teachers in other parts of the world. Here I
will devote a sentence or two to each encounter, as she visits guru
after guru. Through the influence of a psychotherapist named Adelaide
Gardiner, who was also a leader of the Theosophical Society’s Esoteric
Group, she undertook a study of the “astral body.”
An inheritance from the estate of her parents in 1932 left her
independently wealthy and free to travel at will. In New York City she
met Ruth Underhill and the two of them shared accommodation in Tucson,
Arizona. She attended A.R. Orage’s groups in New York in 1924. She
even had psychic readings conducted by Edgar Cayce and another by Mrs.
Eileen Garrett. Nothing much occurred.
In 1934, at the age of fifty-two, she arrived in Bombay. She would
live in India off and on for the rest of her life. She never married
or showed much interest in or understanding of men. She shared living
quarters with a series of talented but unstable women who exhibited
psychic abilities as well as symptoms of mental, emotional, and
physical disorders. She met Saroijini Naidu, the poet and patriot,
whom she admired, and Mohandas Gandhi, who impressed her (as he did
everyone else, except Ali Jinnah of Pakistan).
Readers interested in how an English woman of a certain social class
conducted herself in India prior to Partition will find the bulk of
the book worth reading. The same is true for readers interested in
trance mediumship, for Merston’s companions were always conducting
seances or otherwise simply falling into trances. Seldom did the
voices that spoke to them during these sessions said anything
significant. Musicologists will be interested in the descriptions of
violinist Maude MacCarthy (Omananda Puri) and her husband, the
brilliant composer John Foulds.
In the meantime Merston read books by Alice Bailey, Helena and
Nicholas Roerich, and Paul Brunton, and she received private
instruction in specific but unnamed yogic techniques from a Hindu
medical doctor. In 1935, she returned briefly to Europe where she
attended one of Krishnamurti’s talks at Ommen, Holland. It seemed she
had no rapport with the designated World Saviour, or he with her.
Then it is back to India again. In 1931, Paul Brunton had received
instruction from Ramana Maharshi, “one of India’s great sages,” and
Merston was drawn to the Adviatic Vedantic teacher’s ashram near the
temple town of Tiruvannamalai at the foot of Aurunachala. She was
struck by the place’s peace and beauty.
She sat with Maharshi and told him, “I have hopes that I shall find
some interest in life.” The Maharshi replied, “If there is no
interest, it is good.” Their dialogue is reproduced at some length but
it seems to be a mishmash of cliché and mistranslation. She soon left
to visit other places and people, but she would return at least five
times: “I visited the Ashram each summer to sit in Bhagawan’s
Merston spent the Second World War in India. She immersed herself in
village life and acted in many capacities – as social worker, nurse,
gardener, herder, magistrate, etc. It turned out her distance from
other people made her good at non-judicial dispute resolution and
social mediation. But her labours were uphill battles against the
centuries-old ignorance of the villagers and the new-found arrogance
of the politicians and bureaucrats of the national government.
She met Alain Daniélou and his companion Raymond Burnier,
musicologists who had studied at Rabindranath Tagore’s Santiniketan.
Then she met dance student Uday Shankar, guru Anandamayi Ma, poet
Lewis Thompson, guru Krishna Prem at the famous ashrama of Mirtola,
and Sri Aurobindo at Pondicherry.
She visited Mirtola, the ashram of Sri Anandamoyi Ma, but rejected the
Bengali guru’s approach of devotion and worship. She befriended the
Danish mystic Sunyata (Alfred Sorensen) and regarded him as a
“natural” mystic, as had Brunton earlier. She was attracted to the
spiritualism of Swami Omananda and The Boy who channelled The
She attended the death of Bhagavan at his ashram in 1950. As she
herself observed, it seemed to take decades for the lessons of her
teachers to take effect. “If I understood anything of the Maharshi’s
way of Self-inquiry, it is entirely due to Gurdjieff.” Then she
encountered Mataji, Krishnaji, known as The Mother.
On a visit to England in March 1954, J.B. Bennett invited her to stay
at Coombe Springs. She undertook editorial tasks connected with his
three-volume work “The Dramatic Universe.” All the while she continued
to work on her own glossary of “All and Everything.” What became of
that glossary is not mentioned. It seems Madame de Saltzman, with whom
she had no genuine relationship, had commissioned a glossary of her
On a return visit to Coombe Springs in 1957, she met Pak Subuh. She
was suspicious of the Indonesian teacher and felt hypnotism was behind
the effects of latihan. She invoked Bennett’s repeated experiences of
latihan to explain his end-of-the-day conversion to Catholicism.
In 1958, she visited friends in San Francisco, and in New York she met
up with an old friend, Jessmin Howarth, and at Franklin Farms in
Mendham, New Jersey, she conversed with John Pentland and
mathematician Christopher Fremantle.
Back in India in 1959 she resumed her friendship with a Benedictine
monk, Père Henri Le Saux, who wrote kind words about her, including
these: “She was an Englishwoman, always ready to do anyone a kindness,
no matter when or who it might be. This she always did with great
sensitivity….” It seems that the five decades of wandering in search
of gurus had engendered compassion. In 1967, at the age of
eighty-four, Merston succumbed to cancer and died in the shadow of her
What to make of her life? She was at once an adventurous Englishwoman
and a spiritual voyager, yet it seems (at least to the bystander or
interested observer) that hers was a life of to-ing and fro-ing
without much sense of self-awareness or self-fulfillment. (She cruised
on ocean-going vessels rather than on jetliners, but nonetheless
she brings to mind a jet-setting, globe-trotting journalist like Pico Iyer.)
No doubt she did what she wanted to do at the time, but did it satisfy her?
Despite years of hard work, indeed labour, she seems to have scattered her
attentions and her achievements. What were her goals? Simply to live?
Who is to say? She, the expert, does not say.
She was definitely not a finder, if by “a finder” is meant someone who
makes a self-discovery, perhaps a “personal best.” Within herself she
carried her problems (psychological as well as physical), and was
unable to commit herself to any single discipline or kindle within
herself a spark or flame of independence. This may explain her
never-ending, peripatetic pilgrimages to visit the world’s spiritual
leaders and sacred sites. Perhaps it is the travel and not the
terminus that is the destination.
As I read about the travels of Miss Merston, however, I kept thinking
about an Alice whom I knew, not “Alice in Wonderland” but the woman
who for decades until her recent death served as my research
assistant. A social-worker by profession, a woman the age of my
mother, all her life she was a “quester.”
Over the eighty years of her life she was, serially, a Presbyterian by
birth, a member of the United Church of Canada by default, a
Theosophist by interest, a student of the Kaballah through chance, a
Crowleyite as it happened, an Anthroposophist for reason of residence,
a Mormon by marriage, and at the end of her life an Anglican for
convenience. She seemed to have missed Gurdjieff (though she once
attended a function at the Foundation in New York, something I have
never done) and also Krishnamurti (though she did attend one of his
Looking back on this “quest” of hers, I wonder about its seriousness.
Alice was an independent thinker to the degree that she yearned for a
meaning and a significance in life that she could not find in
organized religion. But she was stubborn and would not learn anything
from anyone but herself. Was Alice passing the time? Was she in search
of a miracle? Was she like Merston?
We are informed that Merston began by searching for a cure for the
severe back pains that she suffered, but I believe she had much more
than that in mind. She was waiting for someone to offer her a placebo
with no strings attached. It never happened.
The “quests” of these two women bring to mind the famous byword of the
stage magician. Referring to the “vanishment” of an object, the
magician knows what his audience does not suspect: “Either the object
is still there or the object was never there to begin with.”
Is it a stretch to say that the same principle may be applied to the
“search for truth”? Indeed, it is there to begin with, or it will not
be found elsewhere.
John Robert Colombo is the author-editor of three books devoted to the
life and work of Denis Saurat, the Anglo-French littérateur and
metaphysician. This fall will see the publication of a collection of
his essays titled “Whistle While You Work.”