One sunny day in 2014 I was planting some daffodil bulbs at the unmarked grave of God’s granddaughter Dilys, when I decided to take a friend’s advice: write about the strange world that the unfortunate woman had lived in a century before …but how?
Her world had been that of the Panacea Society, a mostly female millenarian group that was secretive yet known world-wide for campaigns to open Joanna Southcott’s Box of Prophecies and for its claim to offer a cure for all illnesses. As a volunteer at the Panacea Museum, I knew all about the weirdness of their lives and beliefs. I especially liked telling visitors about their claim that Bedford was the site of the Garden of Eden. Perhaps they were bonkers, barmy or just strange, but they were also fascinating, sincere and deserving of a book about them.
A scholarly book had already been written about the leader, God’s Daughter Mabel Barltrop. It surprised me that nobody had written fiction based on the story although I’d spoken to two visitors who years before had started extremely imaginative attempts at it. You could easily make it a cheap source of ridicule after all, but I wanted my book to be proper social history, a factual account of the Society told in a suitably unorthodox way, but to echo the eccentricity and puzzling nature of the Society itself. It would include dubious prophets, Beelzebub, God, a Messiah, Edwardian ladies, confessions, Original Sin, religious machinations and the Day of Revelation…an impressive list of contents.
I can’t write convincing dialogue, but like to read autobiographies, so the structure became a mixture of styles to hide my inadequacies and play to my strengths. Some parts are straightforward and easily understood, but others are complicated (“a good attempt at meta-fiction. It’s post-modern” was one comment). I added some suitably bohemian illustrations and realised that I had included some personal autobiographical elements. I like Laurence Sterne, so it ended up as something that I think he might have understood. There are several mysteries included, which you might find if you read it carefully enough, so I’ve written an “explanation” for anyone who might want to understand it fully and realise that I’ve told the story in a clever and unique way, incidentally giving insights into how an amateur like myself goes about writing a book.
I could have made the story sensationalistic, but you’ll find no melodrama, no gratuitous sex or scandal. Oh no indeed no. Instead, you’ll find the facts about a strange group told in a wryly humorous way, you’ll find empathy, subtle hints about their “dirty linen” and you’ll find that you want to know more about them. I hope readers will be sympathetic to members’ beliefs, misguided though they undoubtedly were, rather than ridicule them as the “Bedford Loonies.” They did little harm.
And what about Dilys? Well, I still tend her grave but now it has a proper headstone, with wording that respects her memory and hints at the claustrophobic and strict community that helped bring about her long-term depression.
The hardest part of writing the book was daring myself to pick up the phone and ask about how to go about self-publishing; the best part was opening the boxes of newly-printed books with my name on them. I’ve given all the sale proceeds to a mental health charity and a local hospice.
‘Imagining Eden’ by Adrian Bean can be purchased on Amazon.