Early in 1919, Ellen Oliver, a former suffragette and vicar's daughter, received a divine revelation that her friend Mabel Barltrop, a 53-year-old Anglican curate's widow living at 14 Albany Road in Bedford, was the female messiah. The middle-class women who had gathered around Mabel, mainly relatives of clergymen, confirmed the news, as did Mabel herself. Inspired by the teachings of the late 18th- and early 19th-century prophetess, Joanna Southcott, "Octavia", as Mabel became known, was convinced that she was Southcott's child, the daughter of God in her prophecies, sent to save humankind.
Thus the Panacea Society was founded, a community whose religious beliefs spread across the world during the 1920s and 1930s through a network of corresponding members. When Jane Shaw, a priest and historian, visited them in 2001, she found only a few Panaceans left, still clinging to the hope that their messiah, who had died in 1934, would return, as would Christ (houses had been prepared for both of them). Shaw also discovered an extensive archive, which recorded in minute detail the life of this astonishing community, and which forms the bedrock of this absorbing book.
Barltrop, a charismatic figure who had had two nervous breakdowns and spent time in mental institutions, was disillusioned with the male-dominated Anglican Church. It taught about the Kingdom of Heaven but did nothing about creating it on Earth. As Octavia, she appointed 12 female apostles who, like all Panaceans, vowed to remain celibate and took a marriage oath to God.
In and out of each other's houses in the daytime, the members gathered in the evening to hear Octavia read her daily message from the Lord, which arrived at 5.30pm sharp, and to share in the Eucharist at which Octavia draped a handkerchief on her head and a Liberty shawl around her shoulders. The community's domestic feel was reinforced by the belief that the original Garden of Eden extended for a three-mile radius from the chapel. Octavia would not go more than 77 steps from her home for fear that Satan would attack her.
As the society grew (with male Panaceans few and subordinate), its structure became increasingly hierarchical as the dominating, obsessive Octavia devised strict rules for daily living, even about eating toast noiselessly. Kissing, make-up and red meat were forbidden. More importantly, all members had to endure "Overcoming", whereby they monitored and reported their failings and those of others in order to overcome sin so that, with Christ's Second Coming, they could achieve immortality.
Inevitably, the arrival of men in this tension-bound community created crises. A flamboyant American, Edgar Peissart, not only made a bid for power but also set up a male homosexual subgroup. He was put on trial and expelled. Leonard Squire Tucker, who arrived in 1925, fell in love with Octavia's close friend, Kate Firth. The lovers denounced the society, and departed.
By now Octavia had consolidated her power by claiming that she had the gift of healing, which was advertised in selected newspapers. She would breathe on and pray over ordinary tap water into which would be placed small sections of card, later exchanged for small squares of linen, cut with pinking shears. By the end of 1925, more than 9,000 applicants from all over the world had applied to her healing ministry.
To many in our secular age, Octavia's ideas appear delusional. But as Shaw points out, after the carnage of the First World War, some saw an emphasis on women's moral superiority as a suitable response to the violent world of male politics. Further, the arrival of Bolshevism and the General Strike of 1926 were seen as "doomsday" moments that required divine solutions to these threats to established order.
Shaw has been criticised elsewhere for her links to the Panacea Society: she supervised some of the research undertaken for the Prophecy Project at the University of Oxford, to which the society donated £500,000, and, since the publication of her book, has been appointed one of the society's trustees. But this does not invalidate the work of scholarship that this book represents. Octavia, Daughter of God is certainly not hagiography. Rather than condemning, Shaw seeks to sensitively explain and understand the Panaceans. She thus adds considerably to our knowledge about the varied paths that women followed in interwar Britain as they sought answers to the problems of their time.
Octavia, Daughter of God: The Story of a Female Messiah and Her Followers
By Jane Shaw
Jonathan Cape, 416pp, £18.99
Published 25 May 2011