Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A New Eden

"In 1919, Mabel Barltrop declared herself the child of [Joanna] 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. [...]
     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. [...]
     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."
— Lindsay Reckson, Los Angeles Review of Books

"When [Mabel Barltrop] died, in 1934, there were 2,000 'sealed' (or signed-up) members of the society, many of whom lived in and around Albany Road, their homes backing on to a shared communal area, which they believed was the site of the original Garden of Eden. A further 75,000 followers worldwide were convinced that water and linen squares that Barltrop had breathed on, and which were then posted to them, contained miraculous healing powers.[...]
     Among those who endorsed her claim were many Southcottians and war widows, but there was also another constituency. For suffragettes, this female messiah had an obvious attraction as a way of discrediting what they perceived as the all-male ghetto of the church. Though there were small numbers of men in the society, its upper reaches – Barltrop anointed first her own 12 apostles, and then a 'Divine Mother' – were exclusively female. It was run by and for women – a rare and appealing thing, socially and spiritually, in the 1920s and 1930s"
—Peter Stanford, The Guardian


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