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This is a fat sprawling book with a thin one trapped inside. The core story is that of a group, hardly to be dignified as a sect, around Mary Ann Girling: a Suffolk labourer's wife who in the 1860s started to have visions, preach in the open air and attract followers. When they began to speak in tongues and dance themselves into trances, they attracted rowdy scoffers, who multiplied when the "Children of God" moved to south London. In 1873, they moved again, to Hordle, between Southampton and Bournemouth, on the edge of the New Forest.
Girlingite life was communal, celibate, trustful and regularly ecstatic. Their brief existence fits the millenarian tradition chronicled 40 years ago in Heavens Below, by W H G Armytage, where their story is told in two succinct pages. Philip Hoare uses it to link an aleatory exploration of numerous bizarre behaviours and beliefs, a Shandyan aggregation involving Ann Lee's Shakers, Auberon Herbert, scion of Highclere, spiritualism, mesmerism, Palmerston's natural son William Cowper and his wife, Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Beata Beatrix, John Ruskin and Rose la Touche, George Macdonald, The Wreck of the Deutschland and Andrew Peterson, who built a 200-foot concrete tower overlooking the Solent as a sort of spiritualist lighthouse.
Hoare has had a happy time reading crackpot literature, though no Edens or utopias feature - only delusions. His chapter headings are from Blake's Jerusalem, and the collaged stories are interlarded with photos, WG Sebald-esque cadences and Iain Sinclair-ite psychic geography. Everything appears to co-exist in time and Girling's life shrinks to that of one among many crazies.
It is terrible enough, however. The group were evicted from their Hordle home, harried from barns, sheds and tents, prosecuted and deprived of their meagre possessions and tormented by the popular press, falsely alleging indecency, promiscuity and coercion.
Indeed, so vivid is Hoare's account of their persecutions that one is surprised by the orderly nature of their 1881 census return, listing 66 souls, each giving "son" or "daughter" as their relation to Mary Ann, and "prefers to live by faith" as occupation. The sole photo of their charismatic leader also belies her eldritch reputation: clad in a thick wool dress and high bonnet, she has carefully ringleted hair in the style of 1847. She died of uterine cancer in 1886, the same month as a local firm advertised charabanc trips "to see the Shakers Encampment", for four shillings a head.
The other characters make a motley crew, their eccentricities mainly facilitated by wealth and position. It is sad to read of Herbert's retreat to a charcoal-burner's hut in the forest, filled with books and slivers of flint, though he, like Girling, seems to have been quite contented. Peterson's tower still stands, hosting mobile phone masts. More interesting are the literary relics of Mary Ann's ministry, traced from images in the Graphic to George Meredith's poem "Jump-to-Glory Jane", illustrated by Laurence Housman, whose 1949 radio play The Watchers represented a lingering link to the Hordle Shakers.
On virtually the last page we learn the reason for Hoare's interest: his parents' attempt in 1969, in their Southampton home, at spirit contact with his elder brother, killed in a car crash. Behind all the lunacies of late-Victorian religions and quasi-religions lies the fearful truth that there is no life after death.
Jan Marsh's books include 'Back to the Land: the pastoral impulse in Victorian England'
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