Octavia: Daughter of God
Denis Judd applauds a compassionate account of a vicar’s widow who led a religious cult in the interwar years
Reviewed by: Denis Judd
Author: Jane Shaw
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Price (RRP): £18.99
This book tells a story so strange as to beggar belief.
In another way, though, it is merely one more example of the overwhelming power of religious fervour, allied with the urgent desire of any number of ‘lost souls’ to find salvation – however unorthodox the message or the messenger – in order to assuage their own personal problems and perhaps to address the ills of humanity at large.
At the centre of the book is the charismatic Mabel Barltrop. She was a vicar’s widow living in Bedford, who was to be renamed Octavia (or the ‘eighth prophet’) by herself and the thousands of devotees, in whose eyes she was indeed the female messiah.
It is no accident that the emergence of this cult occurred in the immediate aftermath of the catastrophic slaughter and dislocation of the First World War. The era was also troubled by the apparently unstoppable rise of socialism.
This was demonstrated by the Bolshevik revolution in Russia (and even the advent of the half-hearted first Labour government of 1924), the growth of mass trade unionism climaxing in the General Strike of 1926, the recent tumbling down of emperors and kings in Europe, and a general unease at a new world order that, particularly in the west, encompassed social upheaval and a marked decline in traditional deference.
In particular, the post 1918 years saw the political and personal emancipation of women in Britain.
Young women, especially, wore short skirts, bobbed their hair, went to work, smoked in public and were freer to express their sexual needs. It is worth noting that DH Lawrence’s highly controversial novel Women in Love was published in 1920.
Where in all of this does Octavia fit in? Certainly she was no political radical. Her biographer describes her as “charismatic, testy, opinionated, humorous, autocratic, perceptive, snobbish, narcissistic, faithful, conservative, innovative”. How many of these adjectives could be applied to the male messiah, Jesus Christ, I wonder?
Despite the fact that many of her female followers had been, or still were, suffragettes and radicals, Octavia had a deep aversion to the Labour party and progressive politics and did all she could to obstruct them.
Mabel Barltrop was first inspired to take her eccentric path to salvation and glory through reading about the early 19th-century visionary Joanna Southcott, a domestic servant who believed that she would give birth to a ‘messiah’-like figure. Mabel and her followers came to believe that she, Octavia, was this messianic daughter of Southcott reincarnated in Bedford to return humanity to its pure state before Eve took her bite of the fateful apple.
Thus would the world finally be rid of sin and suffering. The new Garden of Eden was happily near at hand, in the modest shape of Octavia’s garden in Bedford.
All manner of misfits, sincere seekers after truth, charlatans, the rootless, the faithful, the disturbed, flooded into the Panacea Society she founded. A number of men joined the organisation too, though some of them were troubled homosexuals and brought their dilemmas with them. In fact, what to do about sex seems to have been a core issue with many Panaceans.
Octavia had her own disturbances to deal with: she suffered two nervous breakdowns and was twice admitted to residential mental institutions. By the time that Octavia died in 1934, her ministry and its apostles had touched the lives of hundreds of thousands.
Her remarkable life has now been properly assessed by Jane Shaw in this sensitive and always readable book.
Professor Denis Judd is the editor of The Private Diaries of Alison Uttley, 1932–71 (Remember When, 2011)