Jane Shaw. Octavia, Daughter of God: The Story of a Female Messiah and her Followers. Jonathan Cape, 2011.

British readers who are old enough may remember newspaper adverts back in the 1960s and 1970s which read something like "Crime, banditry and the distress of nations will increase until the bishops open Joanna Southcott's box". These strange adverts were the work of the Panacea Society, the subject of this book.

The Panacea Society were one sect of the followers of Joanna Southcott (1750-1814) who had proclaimed herself "The woman clothed with the sun" in the Revelation of St John, and had died after not giving birth to the expected Messiah, Shiloh. Despite this disappointment groups of followers of Joanna continued to operate throughout the 19th century.

Odd things happen in libraries, and lives have been known to be changed by them, but few things could have been odder and few lives more changed than that of Mabel Andrews Baltrop when she went to Bedford Library on the 9th September 1914, for it was there that a library assistant handed her a little blue pamphlet about Joanna and the Southcottians. Mable, the widow of a Church of England clergyman was enthralled, for it seemed to answer her spiritual longings. Not only did she become a convinced Southcottian, she was over the next few years to set up her own Southcottian organisation, which eventually became the Panacea Society, but was within five years to discover that she herself was none other than the expected Shiloh, the daughter of God. At a rather later date she revealed that her late husband was actually the second coming of Jesus in his role as priest.

She and several women friends formed a religious community in Bedford, where she presided as the 8th prophet, hence the name Octavia.

It is this community that Jane Shaw, an Anglican priest and historian of religion, came across by accident when she read about the sale of some of its assets in 2001 and visited the community and its remaining members. She was allowed full access to their archives and was able for the first time to tell their story in this sympathetic but by no means uncritical book, which combines scholarship with an accessible style and most welcome absence of social science jargon.

We have heard the slogan "the personal is the political"; for the Panaceans the personal was not just political, it was theological, every detail of the daily lives of this group of mainly women, their loves, jealousies and petty quarrels were all given cosmic significance. Though members could do certain things in the general community, this was in many ways as closed and inward looking as any convent, indeed many ways more so.

Radical religious groups are often thought of as dangerously subversive of the established order, nothing could be further from the truth with the Panacea Society. Mabel erected bourgeois respectability and the nuances of the English class system into divine commands. Their ideology was one of Die Hard Toryism with a penchant for absolute monarchy accompanied by a total loathing of the Labour Party, trade unions and the "Bolsheviks". They replicated the English class system of the time in their community, working class members being reduced to the role of domestic servants and not allowed to attend chapel with the middle class members.

This was in fact a claustrophobic utopia, and one hedged around with all sorts of petty rules and restrictions, the more so when one of the members Emily Goodwin started to channel God the Mother. Confessions and a prohibition on sexual activity added to the tension. One can see in this community the development of a freelance totalitarian society, with its litany of thought crimes. Mabel/Octavia disapproved of voting in outside elections, so every general election the members reacclaimed her their leader. Commanded by The Divine Mother members signed a sheet of paper which read "In conformity with this command, I definitely sign my name to my desire to elect Octavia to continue the temporal and visible rule in the kingdom coming on earth until such time as a more definite Divine Rule comes into operation, and I quite understand that this election includes implicit obedience to the commands of the Divine Mother" (p259). Despots of the world eat your heart out. Needless to say when the no voting rule was relaxed so that members could vote for Stanley Baldwin the Tory leader to fight the Bolshies, there was the expected 100% turnout and 100% for Mr B.

Like many totalitarian religious and political movements, the Panaceans were down on sex, the explicit reason usually given is that sex is part of the fallen world, but the implicit reason is that private devotions, passions and loyalties detract from the exclusive love and loyalty which should be shown to the Great Leader. It was not surprising then that when one of the founding members Kate Firth, once Mable's best friend, fell in love with a new male member she was subjected to all sorts of harassment and finally jumped ship along with her lover. The rules were everything.

Jane Shaw shows how, like many would-be messiahs and prophets, Mable had serious mental health issues, and was in mental hospitals on more than one occasion. Jane Shaw suggests that she had obsessive compulsive disorder, she seems to have been definitely agoraphobic, being fearful of going more than a few yards from her home, and her periods of intense depression alternating with those of great activity and self assurance suggest some form of bipolar disorder.

Like many such leaders, Mable/Octavia's children suffered from neglect, her two surviving sons moved across oceans to escape from her, while her daughter, who inherited her depressions but nothing of her charismatic personality, was stuck in the little closed community until she died. It is this, along with the organisations racism, snobbery and obsessive control, which suggests that "delightful English eccentricity" is not always delightful.

There is much of interest in this book, the relationship between mental illness and visionary experience, the ability of charismatic individuals to convince others of the most improbable claims, the ease into which respectable 'normal' people fell into a totalitarian order, the often incompatibility between various aspects of people's beliefs and lives, in this case the disjunction between what was clearly a radical 'feminist' theology, with the utter conventionality of the rest of the members' beliefs, and as a reminder just how strange the inter-war years were. -- Peter Rogerson.

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