Stranger Than Fiction: The Story of Octavia, Daughter of God
It is 1919, the First World War has just ended, and people are at a genuine loss— but in Bedford, a group of middle-class English women have a solution: they form a new religion. They choose Mabel Barltrop, a widow recently released from the asylum, as their leader. They name her Octavia and declare she is the daughter of God. Thus, the Panacea Society is formed, a utopian and slightly deranged religion focused on English ways and proper female etiquette.
This may sound like fodder for a science fiction film, but this account is pure history, meticulously compiled and presented by Jane Shaw in Octavia, Daughter of God: The Story of a Female Messiah and Her Followers.
The true triumph of Shaw’s work is her undying sympathy and respect for members of the Panacea Society. While their methods and claims may be far-fetched, Shaw provides a different view. This, she claims, is the story of a group of women trying to reinvent Christianity in their own image, taking pride in their roles as women. Setting up Octavia as the female messiah created a new and powerful female figure. Shaw writes:
With Octavia in place as the daughter of God, the community’s theology put woman at the centre of things. The women were attracted to [the] idea that because Woman has caused the Fall, only Woman could bring about the millennium and the period of peace and justice which it heralded.
At yet, there is also a wild sense of eccentricity, and Shaw does not shy away from some of the natural comedy in her tale. Although Octavia was meant to be the messiah, many of her messages were based in orderly tasks, guidelines for perfect domesticity. Her reign came with many specific rules about how to set a table or how to properly and noiselessly eat toast. She posthumously claimed her late husband was Jesus and declared the area around her house to be the site of the original Garden of Eden. She also had the power of healing; she would breathe on small scraps of cloth and send them all over the world. As part of her disciplined and obscure reign, minutely detailed archives were kept at all times. Shaw‘s unparalleled access allow her to reveal this bizarre story.
And as for the few surviving members of the Panacea Society, they are still hopefully waiting for the return of their messiah, Octavia.