Back to the Garden: Jane Shaw's "Octavia, Daughter of God"

January 12, 2012   •   By Lindsay Reckson

IN STYLE IT TOOK THE SHAPE of any other garden party, that signal diversion of the interwar years. Tea and jellies, dancing and croquet, "lemon-ade" and clock golf:

Octavia gave a Garden Party to all at the Centre, in the Garden of The Haven, on the 18th — a most perfect day. Tea was served under the big weeping ash-tree named Yggdrasil. After the Meeting, twelve of the party danced country-dances, dressed as country people in smocks and panier dresses.

The only difference being that the dancers thought they were cavorting in the Garden of Eden, reestablished in the market town of Bedford, about 50 miles north of London. And they believed their host was the daughter of God.

Let's back up a bit. More than a hundred years earlier, in the second decade of the 19th century, a domestic-servant-turned-prophet from Devon named Joanna Southcott declared herself the expectant mother of a new female messiah. As Southcott and her followers believed, this child (the half-sister of Jesus) would complete the unfinished project of redeeming mankind from original sin. Southcott died in 1814 without having given birth, but her writings and prophecies — some of which were sealed in a large wooden box, with instructions to be opened by 24 bishops of the Church of England in an unspecified time of "grave national danger" — became the sacred texts of a small but determined 20th-century community that tended garden, as it were, religiously.

In 1919, Mabel Barltrop declared herself the child of Southcott's prophecy, and convened a group of mostly unmarried white upper-middle-class British women to wait out the Second Coming with all the comforts of country life in Bedford. Disaffected by their silencing in the Anglican establishment, Barltrop and her companions fashioned an eclectic millenarian heterodoxy. They drew from Southcott's texts as well as from the pages of popular 19th-century religious movements (including Theosophy, Spiritualism, and Christian Science) to supplement their High Church histories and theological attachments. The community — eventually known as the Panacea Society — offered its followers both spiritual and practical forms of relief. Some left disappointing or abusive marriages for a life of comparatively desirable celibacy; many revalued "spinsterhood" by joining a group of women largely liberated from domestic obligations (though someone always had to serve the tea). They believed in direct communication with God, second baptism, and spiritual healing. They also rode bicycles, went to the movies, and danced in country drag.

The transformation of Barltrop, the self-educated wife of a vicar and mother of four, into Octavia, daughter of God — the charismatic, exacting figure at the center of Jane Shaw's group biography, Octavia, Daughter of God: The Story of a Female Messiah and Her Followers — is a remarkable one. Confined to a mental hospital for "nervousness" after the death of her husband, and suffering from what Shaw reads convincingly as a form of OCD, Barltrop found both consolation and community in Southcott's writings. For Southcott had set forth a decidedly female-centered theology: woman, responsible for the world's fall, would in turn be responsible for its restoration. Furthermore, the upheavals of the Great War — by any account a period of "grave national danger" — made the time ripe for therapeutic revelation. The women who gathered around Octavia in Bedford in the early 1920s were not war widows (they were for the most part significantly older than the generation of women left husbandless by the war's immense casualties). But they lived in a world of gender relations remade by women's labor and ingenuity during the conflict. In becoming Octavia, as Shaw demonstrates, Barltrop brandished considerable charm and organizational savvy, situating herself as spiritual hub for a group of world-weary seekers.

Shaw's biography suggests that as with laws and sausages, the making of religion is a messy affair. Like generations of female prophets before her, Octavia effectively eclipsed the space between mental illness and divine authority. She rewrote nervousness as spiritual attunement, resisting mainstream medical diagnoses of women's minds and bodies. And yet her community was no revolution; on the contrary, it was founded on deeply conservative principles. Octavia's obsessive attention to detail, combined with the Panacean imperative of "Overcoming," meant achieving divinity became a rigorous and highly codified process. In theological terms, "Overcoming" meant fighting the evil within, a collective purging of sin in preparation for immortal life in the Garden. In practical terms, it meant an almost dictatorial code of domestic behavior, no doubt aimed at keeping the peace in Bedford. In community-owned houses, cherry cakes had to have enough cherries; "serviettes" were without fail to be called "napkins"; and boots were to be removed in upstairs bedrooms. Alongside these more benign (if overbearing) forms of constraint, compulsory confession facilitated a theologically sanctioned form of surveillance. Members were encouraged to tell all, and such testimonies (in addition to providing much of Shaw's archive) allowed Octavia's inner circle to consolidate its spiritual hierarchy.

Lax members faced divine repercussion — getting the details wrong meant delaying the Second Coming. Shaw relates the sheer terror involved in preparing for a garden party on Octavia's watch:

We can only imagine the fear and trembling with which members prepared the party food and set up the room, hoping against hope to get it right this time, accepting the instructions as part of their regime of obedience and Overcoming.

As a historian and an Anglican priest, Shaw's approach seems to reside partly within this fear and trembling, this hope of getting the details of thick description right. Having discovered a near "perfect archive" of the Society in 2001 at its still extant headquarters in Bedford, Shaw extracted her narrative out of thousands of uncatalogued "letters, diaries, papers, meeting minutes, records of rituals and liturgies, written confessions and photographs," and this alone qualifies Octavia as a scholarly feat. That the details sometimes overwhelm — that one can, at times, barely see the Garden for the leaves — suggests the depth of Shaw's immense historical immersion.

For a religion fixated on the Garden's primal scene, it is not surprising that sexuality was the primary subject of many of these documents, and the Panacea Society's complex queerness — nestled at the center of this story — becomes the axis on which it turns. Though Shaw is hesitant to claim same-sex desire as a motivating factor in the early days of the community, she emphasizes the intensity of its core female friendships, which almost certainly pushed the logic of worship beyond its heteronormative bounds. Insisting on celibacy as a prerequisite for entering its "inner circle" of believers — sexual reproduction being unnecessary in the millenarian context — the Panacea Society became for many an escape from the constraints of traditional marriage. And yet Panaceans frequently "reinterpreted" celibacy, with predictably scandalous results. Edgar Peissant, for example (one of several early male Panaceans), deemed celibacy the separation of the sexes, a gloss that opened up space for sex between men. Peissant - expelled from half a dozen heterodox religious communities in America before arriving in Bedford - was perhaps too much a seeker for Octavia's taste. An avid gardener who boasted of his geraniums, Peissant was banished from Bedford following a fixed, Oscar Wilde-style trial. For all its own queerness (sexual and otherwise), the Society treated male homosexuality as an "iniquity" greater than original sin, something to be weeded out. Sensing a threat to its woman-run order, it beat a hasty retreat, describing heterosexual marriage as the "natural" union between "a Male Masculine Man and a Female Feminine Woman."

While Shaw argues that the Society was "presenting its own radical, utopian solution to the 'marriage question,'" attempting to read the radicalism of the Panaceans on marriage or any other question is more often than not a disappointing exercise. Though Panaceans saw political involvement as a futile waste of spiritual energy, they were strikingly opposed to popular democracy, labor unions, home rule for India, and women's rights (Octavia noted, "in a world like this, there are no rights that are worth having"). They read right-wing newspapers; they were anti-women's suffrage, anti-birth control, anti-Bolshevik. They believed with imperialist fervor in the racial superiority of white people, which they justified with the trappings of polygenism and 19th-century race science. Their main beef with the Church of England being the neglect of bodies over souls, Panaceans made clear that their concern was limited to certain bodies. And as European politics grew increasingly fragile in the early 1930s, Panaceans expressed their admiration for Mussolini.

All of this makes Shaw's careful, selectively sympathetic portrait all the more impressive. If it is our prerogative as readers to pass judgment (we clearly cannot help it), Shaw's effort, on the contrary, is to highlight the complex, contradictory positions that emerge in and through religious practice. At one level, Shaw tells a familiar (Weberian) narrative of the transition from charismatic authority to its routinized, bureaucratic enforcement, evident in any number of religions, "alternative" or not. Spending time with the Panacea Society, as Shaw argues, allows us to see this process in microcosm: in less than a decade, the group shifted from a "rather free-form network to an institution with rituals, rules, and the requirement of obedience." At another level, Shaw's minute attention to the everyday dramas and negotiations that made this shift possible points up what Robert Orsi has described as "the volatile and unpredictable nature of religious creation": the accidents and accommodations that infuse religion as lived experience.

Take, for instance, the felicitous incident with a codeine tablet in 1921 that turned the Panacea Society — still a relatively small group of religious cohabitants in Bedford — into an international healing ministry. As Shaw describes it, Octavia, wanting something for her nerves, had been about to take the tablet when it rolled unaccountably out of her hand and across the room. Accustomed to imbuing nearly everything with religious significance, Octavia decided that God was the only proper analgesic - she would rely on him alone. In 1923, the Society proclaimed Octavia's own power to heal, and quickly began marketing small squares of cardboard and linen which could be used to turn regular tap into healing water. By 1934, as Shaw indicates, 32,742 people had requested the squares, and the Society had become a well-oiled healing machine. If Panaceans couldn't claim any celebrities, they could in all accuracy claim a global reach. While Christian Science had sparked the interest of figures like Theodore Dreiser and Frances Hodgson Burnett (beloved laureate of the English garden) at the turn of the century, Panaceans catered mostly to anonymous arthritics living in the far reaches of a crumbling Empire. As Shaw insists, their stories are no less fascinating for being anonymous.

As if the healing ministry weren't enough, Panaceans campaigned throughout the 1920s and thirties for the opening of Joanna Southcott's Box, whose cultural iconography ultimately outlived their own. Believing (in the aftermath of the Great War) that they had entered a time of grave national danger, Panaceans petitioned Church of England clergy to revisit the issue of the Box. They took out advertisements in newspapers and on double-decker bus lines proclaiming "distress and perplexity" would persist until 24 bishops relented and opened it. The bishops never did (or haven't yet, depending on how you look at it). But as Shaw notes, Southcott's Box - the archive within an archive, the even-more-secret garden - has had a life of its own. Should we have any doubts, we need only retrieve a 1969 Monty Python sketch in which the Box competed with a sofa, hat stand, washbasin, and lamp in The Epsom Furniture Race. "Cut to three bishops shouting from actual studio audience. Open the Box! Open the Box! Open the Box! Open the Box! Open the Box!"

Without shying from the parodic potential embedded in their eccentricity, Shaw does serious justice to the Panaceans, and especially to the charismatic woman who anchored and inspired them. Mabel Barltrop died in 1934, and the last of her followers (some of whom joined the Society shortly after her death) maintain the Panacean pastoral in Bedford, still hanging around in the Garden for the Second Coming of Christ and Octavia. Shaw wears her fondness for these aged seekers on her sleeve; some divulged long-kept Society secrets to her during the writing of the book, which has the tenor of an insider's account minus the guilt of exposure. If Shaw borrows the Panacean mania for a detail to a fault, those details remind us that there is great pleasure, after all, in historical obsession. And if, as Shaw notes, "their idea of paradise was a tea party, with all the proper etiquette observed," she didn't come to crash it. Merely to ask how, and under what circumstances, a religion grows.