Many discussions of Rose Edith Kelly’s impact on the development of 20th Century occult traditions include some mention of how “unlikely” it is that such a person would have been a catalyst for Aleister Crowley’s pivotal work, The Book of the Law. Born into a white-collar family (her grandfather’s claim to fame was the publication of directories for local businesses and services), Rose appears in contemporary accounts as a bit of a cipher: pretty, flirtatious, and probably quite flighty. Unlike other female occult figures in the male-dominated Hermetic tradition, Rose seems not to have attempted to emulate to the standards of her male colleagues, but instead her oracular talents are portrayed as having come completely out of the blue. What’s important to keep in mind when discussing Rose Edith Kelly is that we’re really discussing the portrait of her as depicted male contemporaries: chiefly those of her brother, the painter Gerald Kelly, and Crowley, her notoriously self-aggrandizing second husband.
The events that led to Rose’s marriage to Crowley could be described as “whirlwind” if they were more traditionally romantic. In 1903, a widowed, nearly 30-year-old Rose was in the unique predicament of being torn between two marriage proposals while her heart truly belonged to her unavailable, married lover. A creature of her whims, Rose had recently been caught by her parents for using funds they’d thought would go towards a discreet abortion on purchasing expensive gowns and dinners, and this situation resulted in a furious Mr. and Mrs. Kelly insisting Rose pick one of her suitors immediately and put a stop her impulsive behavior. It was in the midst of this scandal that Aleister Crowley, a good friend of Rose’s brother’s, arrived on the family’s doorstep. Within weeks of his appearance, Crowley and Rose eloped in an act likely driven by a mutual desire to dismay. Crowley, flying in the face of gentlemanly behavior, refuted demands for annulment by assuring anyone who’d listen that the marriage had most assuredly been consummated. Rose, meanwhile, relished the drama.
Rose Edith Kelly was probably far from the tabula rasa that many occult sources like to portray. An experienced, adult woman clearly well acquainted with life’s erotic pleasures (lest we forget that Crowley was a fourth male player in Rose’s already-complex love life), it’s likely that Rose’s attraction to Crowley was less that of a fly being drawn into a spider’s web than that of two hedonistic personalities resonating against one another. Dubbing her “Rosa Mundi” (Rose of the World), Crowley embarked with Rose on a honeymoon to Cairo that would prove life changing for both parties.
In Cairo, Crowley elevated the performative nature of his magickal practice, spending a night with Rose inside of the Great Pyramid at Giza and outfitting a section of their rooms as a temple. In the midst of this grandstanding, it was Rose who was struck with an oracular vision of the Egyptian god Horus, managing to convince a suddenly skeptical Crowley of its authenticity by recounting key mystical facts about the deity. Through Rose, Crowley received the ritual instructions that would connect him with Aiwass, the spirit that would convey to him The Book of the Law, a text that laid the foundations for Crowley’s occult practices going forward. Themes such as “every man and woman is a star” and “love is the law, love under will” flowed from Aiwass—a spirit guide found through Rose Edith Kelly’s visions.
Rose’s wildness and seeming disregard for impulse control had a self-destructive side. While Crowley traveled the globe, spending time in China and India, and making a stopover to scale K2, Rose slipped into alcoholism. When their daughter Nuit Ma Ahathoor Hecate Sappho Jezebel Lilith Crowley died before reaching the age of two, Crowley found it difficult not to place blame on Rose and her alcohol abuse. It’s unclear whether she had this problem all along or whether Crowley simply grew annoyed at her over-indulgence in drink over time, but by 1909 the couple sought divorce. Crowley’s ever-shifting focus and alliances meant that he paid little regard to the break-up, leaving Rose with custody of their other child and a minuscule alimony payment after providing ample evidence of his infidelity to speed the process. Crowley had already moved on to new occult workings, taking the work that he and Rose had performed together and integrating it into the collage of his magickal philosophy. Rose’s addiction worsened, and in 1911 she entered an asylum to treat her “alcohol dementia.” Once out of treatment she seems to have done something of a one-eighty, marrying a Catholic physician named Dr. Joseph Andrew Gormley (and not, in fact, dying in an asylum as certain spurious sources would have one believe).
Was Rose Edith Kelly’s brief flame of oracular talent truly the result of communing with ancient gods, or were her words the fantastical imaginings of a personality inclined towards the dramatic, humming in sync with Crowley’s own obsessions? What’s certain is that the brief time in which she and her husband conducted workings would have indelible influence on his developing philosophy. While Rose Edith Kelly the woman was a victim of her vices, her importance as a 20th Century symbol of the mystical feminine deserves to live on.