Monday Motivation: The secret in the iron-bound chest

 In Monday Motivation, Richard Benyon's blog

There was, in Bedford in the UK, a curious institution called the Panacea Society. It was a millenarian religious group, founded in 1919 which followed the teachings of a nineteenth-century seer or prophetess whose singular legacy was an iron-bound chest stuffed full of prophecies.

The founder of the society, Mabel Marltrop, was the widow of an Anglican clergyman. The Panacea Society didn’t attract thousands of adherents, but it did sign up enough wealthy members for it to establish itself in the city in a substantial way. By the 1930s, seventy members of the society had clustered together in community in Bedford, buying properties and funding the construction of a society HQ.

What has any of this to do with writing, you may well ask? Well, naturally, curiosities of all kinds should be of interest to any writer. We’re all curious creatures, no? And the thought of a sealed, iron-bound box, a number of prophecies, a secretive, committed group of believers – well, it all sounds rather Indiana Jones-ish, or even Dan Brown-ish, doesn’t it?

But there’s more, people… Let’s first take a step or two back, and examine, not just the curious features of the Panacea Society, but the reasons for its success – and its ultimate demise – and how these teach lessons instructive to writers.

Let’s begin with that sealed casket. The original prophetess, Joanna Southcott, was a prolific predictor of the future. But her juiciest prophecies were, it was believed, consigned to the box, and sealed.

That box, and the tantalizing promise of its contents, were used strategically by Mrs Marltrop to attract adherents. Because the burning question was, what had the legendary Joanna Southcott prophesied?

That box was, in writers-speak, a MacGuffin* – a mystery which all who heard about wanted solved. It created instant intrigue. It created suspense. A petition was circulated in the early 1930s that was signed by 100 000 people: open the box, it cried. Everyone wanted to know what was in the box!

So the question is, why didn’t they simply open the damn thing?

Because Mrs Marltrop was a clever woman. She knew that if they opened the box, the mysteries would be solved, the questions would be answered, the suspense would be relieved.

So what she did is stipulate under what conditions the box could be opened and she built them into the very foundations of her order. Only if 24 bishops of the Church of England gathered together in Bedford (the society built a special building to host this sacred conclave) could the box be legitimately opened.  And one of the chief objectives of the society was to persuade those bishops to agree to meet in the Bishops’ House for that purpose. Advertisements were placed in the local and national press, imploring the Church to heed the society’s call.

Naturally, the Church of England gave the society a very polite middle finger.

And then, rumours circulated that the box had, in fact been opened – and inside all that had been found was “a broken horse pistol and a lottery ticket”.

Without any prospect of the box’s being opened (if, indeed, it hadn’t already been opened) the Panacea Society’s bright star waned and its membership dwindled – although its heart continued to beat, albeit falteringly, for a surprisingly long time. Its last member died in 2012 whereupon its assets – some millions of pounds – were converted into a charitable trust, a museum was opened, and the once fervent cult, became an historical curiosity.

If you have a big secret at the heart of your narrative, you have to make sure of at least three things: one, that you don’t let the cat out of the bag prematurely; two, that you persuade your readers that at some stage before the end of your story the secret will be revealed; and, three, that the secret will have been worth waiting for.

You could bear these lessons in mind when devising your next nail-biting thriller – or, if you’re truly ambitious with megalomaniac tendencies, you could use them in constructing your very own cult.

So, after all, the Panacea Society (which, by the by, believed that Bedford was the original site of the Garden of Eden) did leave a legacy worth recounting.

Happy writing,

Richard

*Here, from Mr W, a pithy definition: In fiction, a MacGuffin, (sometimes McGuffin or Maguffin) is a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or another motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation.

Read Jo-Anne’s latest blog: ‘Writing Secrets: Verbs are not always “doing” words

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