Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Mr Wroe’s Virgins by Jane Rogers.

‘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.

Posted in Personal Purchase

Throwback Thursday! A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray.

Meet the Bradleys.

In lots of ways, they’re a normal family:
Zippy is sixteen and in love for the first time; Al is thirteen and dreams of playing for Liverpool. And in some ways, they’re a bit different:
Seven-year-old Jacob believes in miracles. So does his dad. But these days their mum doesn’t believe in anything, not even getting out of bed.

How does life go on, now that Issy is gone?

This book is truly beautiful, moving and insightful novel about a family dealing with grief. The Bradley family have lost four year old Issy, and Carys Bray tells their story through each family member in turn. Bray has personal insight into the Mormon church, although she’s no longer a member. That doesn’t mean that this is a grand criticism of the religion, what she does is use her insight to craft a family of faith coping with the worst thing that could happen to them. She takes us on the weekly Merry-go-round of family night, youth club, Saturdays writing sermons and church on Sunday. I was brought up in a similarly restrictive evangelical Christian background till I rebelled at 16. I have spent my whole life watching adults try to reconcile their faith in an interventional God, with tragic events in their lives. When people believed that God granted them the good weather for their BBQ, it was hard for them to understand why my Multiple Sclerosis hadn’t responded to their healing. This could go one of two ways: God had a reason for giving me MS or I didn’t have enough faith for their healing to work. This family experience similar feelings and treatment, as their comfortable and cosy religious world implodes.

What the author shows us, is that nobody is immune from grief. Dad is a bishop in the church, and since marriage outside the faith is discouraged, Mum is a Mormon convert. His standpoint, although written with great empathy, is the one I found it hardest to relate to. Possibly this is because of my religious bias, but it felt like he was trying to make sense of it too early in the grieving process. It can take years to be able to put such an enormous loss into context and be able to identify its effect on your emotions and choices. This is the immediate aftermath and Ian is trying to make sense of it in terms of God’s purpose. As a bishop he has the pressure of the ‘public’ face he has to maintain. He’s a leader so he can’t appear weak, doubtful or as if he’s questioning God. It’s quite a normal reaction to feel very angry with God. If you have given your life over to his work you could be forgiven for having questions: Why has this happened when I serve you? Why should I believe in you? If followers see that doubt or uncertainty, it could undermine their faith. The only way to rationalise this, in the context of his position, is to assume God is testing him – testing his faith like Job or teaching him something. While this might keep Ian’s public face intact, he could be experiencing a crisis of faith behind the mask. Even worse it could put him on a collision course with the rest of his family.

Wife Claire is simply overwhelmed, unable to maintain a private face never mind a public one. She retires to her bed, completely paralysed by grief. She finds herself asking all the questions Ian is avoiding and as a convert she has a different context through which she can view her grief in many different ways, instead of just one. However, as she stays in bed, the rest of the children are dealing with their grief alone. The faith they’ve been brought up in has failed them, they have been faced with mortality so close to home it raises fears of further trauma. Eldest girl Zippy is trying to hold everything together at a turbulent point in her own development. She tries to be Mum to her youngest brother, the beautifully drawn Jacob. Her brother Alma is disappearing into his football and dreams of playing for Liverpool. All the children find their father’s responses strange and unsympathetic, but feel abandoned by Mum. There’s also an anger developing. Their father is a powerful man in church terms, so how have their parents let this happen? Could it happen to them? Bray has written in these children’s voices with skill and empathy. She has thoroughly imagined what their inner language would sound like. Jacob’s concept of his faith as at least the size of a toffee bonbon. They were so real I wanted to gather them and care for them.

For me, this was a stunning first novel and catapulted Carys Bray onto my list of authors whose work I would buy without hesitation. Her understanding of family dynamics and construction of each character’s inner world is exquisite. She just ‘gets’ the psychology of grief and I wasn’t surprised to discover she has experienced personal loss. Her care for each of these people, and even the religion she has left behind, is so evident and I was left feeling an affinity for her as well as the characters. The death of someone in such a young family is like throwing a grenade into the room. I felt like this book was capturing that immediate aftermath where adrenaline is still running, your ears are ringing, you don’t know where anyone else is or even how injured you are. I remember that feeling – of being so lost, you don’t know how lost you are. Bray is a novelist of exceptional depth and skill. I have just bought her third novel and I’m so looking forward to immersing myself into another of her worlds.

Meet The Author


Carys Bray was brought up in a devout Mormon family. In her early thirties she left the church and replaced religion with writing. She was awarded the Scott prize for her début short story collection Sweet Home. A Song for Issy Bradley is her first novel. She lives in Southport with her husband and four children.

Her first novel A SONG FOR ISSY BRADLEY was serialised on BBC Radio Four’s Book at Bedtime and was shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards and the Desmond Elliott Prize. It won the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award. Her second novel, THE MUSEUM OF YOU, was published in June 2016. WHEN THE LIGHTS GO OUT, her third novel, was published in May 2020. Carys has a BA in Literature from The Open University and an MA and PhD in Creative Writing from Edge Hill University.