In February 1919, a small group of middle-class English women received a life-changing revelation. What they learned, Jane Shaw explains in Octavia, Daughter of God: The Story of a Female Messiah and Her Followers (Yale), was that Mabel Barltrop, a fifty-three-year-old former mental patient living in the town of Bedford, was the incarnation of God. Mabel, whose late husband had been a priest in the Church of England, announced a new Christian theology, in which the Trinity was replaced by a foursome: God the Father and God the Mother, Jesus the Son and Mabel (or, as her followers began to call her, Octavia) the Daughter. She had come to conquer death and was guaranteed never to die. She had healing powers so strong that if she breathed on water or a piece of linen, it was transformed into a cure for any bodily ailment.
Octavia’s followers named themselves the Panacea Society, and they advertised her cures widely. Some seventy people came to live near her in communal housing in Bedford, and thousands more around the world wrote in to ask for a piece of the sacred linen. Over the years, Shaw writes, Mabel announced many refinements of her doctrine. She was forbidden to go more than seventy-seven steps from her house; her garden, in Bedford, was the location of the original Garden of Eden; her late husband had been the incarnation of Christ; the souls of the departed were not dead but had flown to the planet Uranus to bide their time until they returned. With no authority beyond her own personality and imagination, Mabel Barltrop created one of the most bizarre and irresistibly comic religions ever to spring from mankind’s eternal appetite for God.
When Shaw, an Episcopal priest, first encountered the Panacea Society in 2001, it had dwindled down to a handful of surviving members — octogenarians still living in Bedford and hoping for Octavia’s return. (Contrary to her promise, she died in 1934.) But to Shaw’s delight, the communal houses where the members lived had been perfectly preserved for decades, along with all their papers and correspondence. She has drawn on this treasure trove to write not simply a biography of Mabel Barltrop but “a life or biography of the community itself.”
Shaw’s sympathetic but hardly credulous account of this experiment in faith reads at times like an extended Monty Python sketch. Yet she argues convincingly that the Panacea Society holds important lessons for the sociology of religion. Concentrating on the first two decades of the Panacea Society’s existence, Shaw explains how its extraordinary eccentricity was rooted in and reflected wider British culture. Octavia’s preaching of a female-centered Christianity, she shows, fit nicely with the feminism and spiritual experimentation of the period. As a female priest, Shaw is especially sensitive to the liberation the Panacean women must have felt at seeing Mabel don a priest’s stole and celebrate Communion.
Yet the real fascination of the book comes from the way the Panaceans’ lunacy coexisted with a prim bourgeois respectability. Many of Octavia’s dictates had to do with the proper way to behave at table and how to throw a good lawn party. She was a good Tory who abhorred the Bolsheviks and the Labor Party, and believed implicitly in the British Empire and the superiority of the white race. Even in its decrepitude, Shaw writes, the Panacea Society remains madly practical. The last members fully expect Jesus to return to Bedford soon, and they have a house prepared for him to live in. It’s currently occupied, they explain to Shaw, but the tenants are “on two months’ notice.”
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