Bu i l d i n g J e r u s a l em i n t h e Home C o u n t i e s OCTAVIA, DAUGHTER OF GOD: THE STORY OF A FEMALE MESSIAH AND HER FOLLOWERS
convinced that she herself was that child. Surrounded, like so many Victorians, by death, Octavia sought in Southcott a way of living on earth without suffering. She mounted a l i felong campaign to persuade the Anglican bishops to open Joanna Southcott’s locked box of secret writings – but the box remained firmly closed. Octavia trained herself in the spiritualists’ technique of automatic writing, enabling her to take down daily messages from God, which she passed on to her followers. Arguing that a woman (Eve) had caused the Fall, she insisted that only a woman – more precisely, Octavia herself – could bring the Millennium and restore the Garden of Eden. Octavia didn’t agree with the suffragettes, though many of her followers did; but she reconfigured the doctrine of God to include God the Mother (an uneducated working-class woman, her onetime home help, was promoted to this post) as well as herself as God the Daughter. Her dead husband was supposed to be Jesus.
By Jane Shaw (Jonathan Cape 398pp £18.99)
TOWARDS THE END of the First World War, a fifty-something vicar’s widow living in Bedford declared herself to be the Daughter of God. Her name was Mabel Barltrop, but thenceforth she took the name Octavia, and became the charismatic leader of a new religion. From her leafy Edwardian villa, Octavia dedicated herself singlemindedly to the task of building a community, composed mainly of respectable middle-class women l ike herself . They called themselves the Panacea Society, and soon Octavia had recruited twelve female apostles and many more resident members, establishing a religion with its very own Garden of Eden in the streets of Bedford.
Octavia disciplined her followers by a process she called ‘overcoming’. Members had to r id themselves of their personality and sense of self in order to prepare for immortal life. This involved all sorts of rules about etiquette. They were forbidden to annoy other s by making a noise while e a t i ng t oa s t . They were encouraged to spy on each other. Octavia had an autocratic, controll ing personality, and she suffered from OCD (she could never walk more than seventy-nine steps away from her house, and grew stout in consequence), but she was also witty and full of good sense.
There’s something oddly comic about these ladies, who never freed themselves of their class attitudes. Octavia insisted, for example, that members of the Society should use the word napkin, never serviette, and she held strong views on cakemaking (plenty of sugar). She suffered from mental illness, diagnosed as melancholia, and her relig ious awakening took place while she was a patient in Northampton asylum. She claimed that her illness was part of God’s purpose, but it could equally be argued that she was delusional.
Octavia: strong views on cake-making
Claiming to possess healing powers, Octavia took to blessing water, which she insisted gave it healing properties. This enabled the Panaceas to become a global movement. They
Jane Shaw is a priest and religious historian. She discovered this little-known religion ten years ago, and when she visited the last survivors of the cult she found them living in a faded time warp in Bedford’s suburbs. It would be easy to mock them, but the strength of Shaw’s book lies in her ability to take Octavia seriously as a religious figure. Rather than r idicule the Panaceas, Shaw analyses them as a religious movement. Octavia’s inspiration was the prophetess Joanna Southcott, who died in 1814 claiming that she was pregnant with the daughter of God: Octavia became devised a way of healing by mail order – small squares of linen upon which Octavia had breathed were posted to thousands of customers all over the world, with instructions to add water.
Sex, as Shaw explains, was the ‘switching point’. Like the early Christians, the Panaceas distanced themselves from the world by following celibate lives. As with that other early twentieth-century new religion, Theosophy, this meant that sexual scandal was always a danger. The Society almost broke apart when Octavia’s best fr iend Kate, who was a founder member, fell for a man thirteen years younger named Leonard. Kate spoke out against Octavia and accused her friend of living off her money and then marginalising her in the Society. It was all true.
LITERARY REVIEW June 2011