‘The Lord has instructed me to take of your number, seven virgins for comfort and succour.’
In 1830, as he thought the end of the world approached, the charismatic, hunchbacked prophet of a religious sect settled in Lancashire heeds the biblical injunction and chooses seven virgins ‘for comfort and succour’. Basing her novel on the life of the real John Wroe, a leader of a group called the Christian Israelite Church, Rogers crafts an impeccable narrative, interweaving the diverse mindsets of some of the chosen women and the prophet during the nine months of complex interaction. Part morality tale, part history, packed with accurate details of early 19th century life, the stories of Leah, Joanna, Hannah and Martha unfold as they cope with the hypocrisy, blind beliefs and idealism of the sexually threatening prophet.
Told with humour, irony and a generosity that embraces even the sinister Wroe, this is a compelling story of astonishing depth, elucidating religious idealism, the beginnings of socialism and the ubiquitous position of women as unpaid labourers.
I came across this novel, even before the BBC TV series of the same name. Having seen/read both, I can recommend them equally, although I think the novel is slightly more successful in a few different ways. The way the book is structured into four different narratives allows the women’s characters to develop fully, as over nine months, the story of their lives unfold. Through them we come to experience all seven women: a pious believer; two sisters, still too young to understand their place in the world; a disabled woman; a beautiful, but egotistical woman; a mute and badly beaten woman; a girl donated by her aunt and uncle, who doesn’t believe in the prophet or his religion. It is only through the women that we experience the prophet, a clever reversal of power. In fact these narratives are the only power the women have at first, these are their only words free from restriction or religious dogma. This power shift is especially interesting when it comes to Martha, who is mute. When I first encountered her narrative I thought I’d bought a book with pages missing. However, it’s just Martha trying to express herself the only way she knows – depicted in staccato monosyllabic language, Martha writes about what she knows, eating and sleeping in the first instance. Yet instead of cutting off her narrative, Rogers leaves a blank page. This is the space into which Martha can develop and come to know herself. One of the most powerful parts of the book is watching this transformation.
We hear that Mr Wroe is a powerful speaker, and we can hear his preaching and religious teaching. However, we don’t fully come to know and understand the man. He doesn’t get to construct himself through language. So, we know something of his belief system and his interpretation of the Bible, but nothing personal. This could be because he is a conduit of God, simply meant to deliver God’s teaching. It also leaves him as something of an enigma. Why and when did he become the person he is today? The belief system he has is very selective, patriarchal and seems to benefit him more than his congregation. He sees no problem in allowing Leah to bring her illegitimate child to live with them. He accepts Hannah into the fold despite her lack of faith, and her doubts allow him to admit his own. He uses all the women as unpaid domestic servants and the exploitation doesn’t end there. He seduces the pious Joanna by convincing her that they will beget the new Messiah. For each woman his approach is different, but it works. I found his exploitation of Martha particularly difficult to read and his ability to take Joanna’s faith and use it against her in such a manipulative way is despicable. I don’t want to ruin the ending, so I’ll reserve any more detail, but such an arrangement can’t last and I kept reading hoping for the women’s emancipation.
I have always enjoyed this book and further reading shows it has stood the test of time. The historical detail is so accurate and the scene she sets is vivid – Martha’s time in the pig sty with the animals really sticks in my memory. It may seem hard to believe that any parent would willingly give up their daughters to this man. However, I understand how religious fervour can sweep through a community. Having family on my Dad’s side from the Isle of Axeholme, I know my ancestors would have experienced the Methodist revival started by John Wesley who hailed from Epworth. The real life Mr Wroe’s congregation firmly believed he was a holy man. Maybe they felt that God would look favourably upon them if they supported his vision. There were of course monetary reasons too; offloading a disabled or mute woman who would never earn money or marry could have helped a family who were stretched financially. Also, the stigma of having a disabled daughter, an old maid still living at home or a a girl who has a child out of wedlock could be wiped out by their inclusion in the prophet’s household, This can be a challenging read in parts, but worth the work as you become pulled in by the voices of these women. Little is known about the real ‘virgins’, but here Rogers gives them a voice and a power they clearly didn’t have in life.
Meet The Author
Jane Rogers has written 10 novels ranging from historical to contemporary to sci fi. Books include Mr Wroe’s Virgins (which she dramatised as an award-winning BBC drama serial), Island, and The Testament of Jessie Lamb (ManBooker longlisted, winner of the Arthur C Clarke Award 2012). Her short story collection Hitting Trees with Sticks was shortlisted for the Edgehill Award.
She also writes radio drama and Classic serial adaptations (most recently of John Wyndham and R.L. Stevenson).
Jane has taught writing to a wide variety of students, and is Professor Emerita at Sheffield Hallam University. She’s a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Her latest novel, Body Tourists, is a dystopia set in 2040.