An English Utopia

Philip Hoare. England's Lost Eden: Adventures in a Victorian Utopia. Harper Perennial, 2006.

In our day, the place to be to encounter the magical has been the West Country, from Warminster to Glastonbury, and down to the coast of Cornwall. In the mid and late Victorian period, the New Forest became a similar focus for the mysterious and the outré. Philip Hoare chronicles the often impinging worlds of the supernatural which linked the working class cultists who followed a certain Mary Ann Girling, to the upper class aesthetes and spiritualists in the circle around John Ruskin.

Mary Ann Girling was daughter of a stone mason, who at some period in her life, accounts differ but probably around her mid thirties, she had a vision in which her bedroom filled with light and Jesus Christ appeared to her. Just as today's hypnopompic visions inspire tales of alien contact and abduction, then they inspired tales of divine encounters. Like modern contactees she went on the form a cult. Her followers renounced sex and work and possessions and engaged in ecstatic whirlings and wild dances which gave rise to rumours that they had been hypnotised.

As with many of today's 'new religious movements' Ms Girling's movement caused dissentions in families, and as in the great deprogramming movement in 20th century America, families used pretty forcible tactics to 'liberate' their members. As with later movements one gets the impression that a number of the converts were young people, particularly young women, who saw in it an escape route of sorts from a world of oppressive family life and domestic drudgery. Older people joined as a escape from poverty or the anomie of their atomised lives.

If the Girlingites represented working class rebellion from class and gender moulds, then the New Forest also held its attractions for a variety of well connected dissidents such as the radical libertarian MP Auberon Herbert who put up the Girlingites in his barn when they were evicted from their house;William Cowper, Lord Mount-Temple and his wife Georgina, or Judge Andrew Peterson who built a giant tower in his garden to better commune with the spirits. Spiritualists saw this eccentric cult as containing echoes of their own beliefs. Associated with this circle was John Ruskin, in headlong revolt against the modern world, while out in the background were the likes of Daniel Home the medium and the founders of the SPR, Myers and Gurney. This surely a milieu in which the hippie ufologists described by Andy Roberts in Magonia would have flourished.

Ultimately the Girlingites failed, because Mother Mary Ann forecast she wouldn't die, and towards the end proclaimed herself the second coming of Christ. This was a bad move because she did and she wasn't and her by then reduced sect faded away, its last member dying in 1941. Perceptive Magonia readers will detect some similarities between Mary Ann and Ruth Norman, another immortal who wasn't.

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