Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Octavia, Daughter of God: The Story of a Female Messiah and Her Followers

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Octavia, Daughter of God: The Story of a Female Messiah and Her Followers

Article excerpt

Octavia, Daughter of God: The Story of a Female Messiah and Her Followers, by Jane Shaw. New Haven, Connecticut, Yale University Press, 2011, xviii, 398 pp. $35.00 US (cloth).

This is one of those books which one reads with very mixed feelings. The story of a small neo-Southcottian sect with bizarre opinions and peculiar domestic practices in interwar Bedfordshire; the initial response is likely to be one of dismissal. Can a group so tiny, so extreme, and (to speak plainly) so weird, really teach us anything about the history of gender, religion, or anything else?

The group discussed in this book is the Panacea Society, a communal society based in a row of semi-detached houses in Bedford. Founded by Mabel Barltrop, the widow of an Anglican clergyman, who founded the group after a couple of lengthy stints in lunatic asylums, where she appeared to suffer from a mixture of depression and religious mania. The Panacea Society advocated a celibate communal lifestyle with elaborate middle-class rules of etiquette and a conviction that the successful practitioners would never die. Barltrop herself, known as Octavia in the group, was the "Shiloh," and understood by the group to be the daughter of God and destined to redeem the human body just as Jesus had redeemed the human soul. She, her followers believed, was destined to found the New Jerusalem in the provincial city of Bedford.

Shaw provides a detailed account of the beliefs and practices of the group: extremely right wing, they denounced the first Labour government as "rule by servants" and, when Stanley Baldwin fell from power, instituted him by God's command, as the head of the world's Spiritual Government. …

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