The Rapture

Claire McGlasson

Faber & Faber, £14.99

Asked to picture a cult leader, most people are likely to imagine someone in the David Koresh or Jim Jones mould, a charismatic but sinister man lording it over a remote armed compound. They’d be less inclined to conjure up a middle-aged lady in suburban Bedford. Nevertheless, the unlikely story of Mabel Barltrop and the Panacea Society is absolutely true. Continuing as a charitable trust to this day, it was founded in 1919, inspired by the teachings of prophetess Joanna Southcott, who sealed up a trunk before her death, stating that it should be opened in a time of national crisis, with 24 bishops in attendance, whereupon Christ would return and a new age would descend upon the Earth.

The Society’s founder, Mabel Barltrop, as depicted in Claire McGlasson’s fictionalised account, believed herself to be the “second Eve”, just as Christ was the “second Adam”. Renaming herself Octavia, she bought up several properties in Bedford for her all-female community, founded on the basis that men had been blinded by reason and it was up to women to “be the ones to heal the rift with God”. McGlasson shows the Panacea Society under Octavia’s strict and idiosyncratic rule to be as oppressive as East Germany under the Stasi, with members bound to keep notebooks in which they detail each other’s infractions.

In this company, 26-year-old Dilys feels like a terrible disappointment. She’s not among Octavia’s favoured few. She’s never spoken in tongues or felt the presence of the Holy Spirit. And she feels her failure all the more keenly for being Octavia’s daughter.

Set in 1926, The Rapture is based firmly in fact, but takes one major liberty in the invention of Grace Hardwick, a love interest for Dilys. She strikes up a conversation with Grace, a young woman far closer to her in age than the other Society ladies, in a church, and invites her to come and see the community for herself. Love blossoms between them, but it’s a fraught relationship given that physical contact “whether in greeting or consolation”, is forbidden and same-sex relationships are beyond the pale – a fact driven forcefully home when two of the Society’s rare male members are suspected of illicit relations.

The Rapture spins a hugely engaging story about a girl who lost her mother to insanity when she was seven and from then on had to live in a world defined by delusions and compete for her love with a whole community. Dilys is as committed to Octavia’s “Truth” as the rest, and even though she’s presented with the possibility of escape in the shape of Grace Hardwick, her feelings are incompatible with her long-held beliefs. As the edifice of Octavia’s teachings seems on the verge of crumbling, Dilys’s fear and self-doubt threaten to pull her down with it.

McGlasson enthrals in this powerful, page-turning novel in which a spiritual community is brought down to earth by secrecy and worldly power games, while the most transcendent moments are to be found in ambiguous, dreamlike passages of forbidden sensuality.