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Mr. Wroe's Virgins Hardcover – May 1, 1999
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Nothing is known about the seven virgins themselves and so Jane Rogers has created a novel in which these women's lives are given voice. Each chapter is a first person account by four of the women, the saintly Joanna, who strongly and naively believes everything told to her of the church's mission, the ambitious and grasping Leah, who isn't a virgin at all, having given birth to a son, the idealistic and unbelieving Hannah, who is more interested in the plight of the working man/woman and making things better on earth rather than preparing for the apocalypse and Martha, a brutalised feral woman who has no real concept of the religious purpose of Wroe's mission. The other three virgins are not given a voice but their lives and character are described by the other characters.
I found the book to be a very readable and interesting read. Depending on whose narration you read, John Wroe comes across as an inspirational teacher, a charlatan, a sexual predator (if any of the women were virgins at the start of the book, they weren't at the end) and a shrewd man of business. There were also hilarious passages, especially the one in which Joanna and Hannah describe and discuss the methods of physical punishment for church members. I think some men might pay a lot of money for such treatment.
The times in which the book is set were turbulent. It was the time of the Industrial Revolution. The old crafts and skills were becoming redundant and work was becoming more mechanised, resulting in great wealth for factory owners but poverty for workers. There was no political representation for most of the population (this was before the Great Reform Act on 1832). Some people were trying to turn their backs on these problems by joining communes and co-operatives (like the ones founded by Robert Owen in Lanark or later in the US) or by joining separatist apocalyptic churches like the Christian Israelite Church. I thought the book an excellent description of the times.
Told from the point of view of four women -- four of the 'virgins' taken into the home of Prophet John Wroe, 'for comfort and succor' -- but never from that of Wroe himself, Rogers' novel goes beyond simply telling a story. The voices of these four women are individual and distinct. The sections of the story they each relate overlap in time a bit, and their various points of view illuminate descrepancies in the way they view the events depicted here.
Leah is a beautiful, haughty, self-centered young woman -- she is sure in her own mind that she is the most beautiful and desirable of the seven chosen, and she is determined to play this to her own advantage. She sees her 'sisters' as competition, and she views their motives -- innocent though most of them may be -- with great suspicion, seeing and imagining things not quite as they actually are at times.
Hannah is an unbeliever, thrown in with this group of Christian Israelites, feeling much like a fish out of water. Rather than accepting Mr. Wroe's dire predictions of the imminent end of the world -- Judgement Day -- she instead sees the answer to humanity's woes through education, through working together for the common good. These beliefs lead her to working with the poor of the town, teaching them to read, attempting to raise their social and political consciousness, and getting involved in the birth of the trade union movement in England.
Joanna -- Saint Joanna, as she is called by most of the other women -- is completely devoted, in heart, body and soul, to God and to Mr. Wroe's movement. She views every single event in her life through scriptural interpretaion, bending to God's will every chance she gets. From the opposite end of the scale, her view is thus just as skewed as that of Leah.
Martha -- the fourth narrator -- comes to the house as a mute, obviously horribly beaten and abused by her father at home, who has seen Mr. Wroe's call for seven virgins to serve him as an easy way to rid himself of a daughter he doesn't want, a burden. Martha's narrative is, for me, the most striking in the novel. At first, it comes in fragments, little bursts of words, the most rudimentary images and feelings. As the novel progresses, Martha's thoughts and expression become more organized -- she is being taught speech and hymns by 'Saint Joanna', who evidently possesses the patience of Job -- and the horrors of her earlier life, which she sees as so completely separate that she thinks of it as happening to the 'other Martha', become clearer and clearer. The abuse and suffering she has endured is unbelievable and heartbreaking -- and it explains her temperament, which could at times be seen as epileptic or schizophrenic. This is an incredibly damaged young woman.
As the Prophet of his church, Mr. Wroe weilds immense power and influence. He hears instructions and illuminations directly from God, almost on a nightly basis -- even with a council of Elders to aid in governing the affairs of the church, Wroe's word is practically law. Living in a house with seven young women, it is inevitable that suspicions and accusations begin to mount -- the novel is set, after all, in 1830s England, a much more puritanical society that we enjoy today. Wroe himself is tempted by the presence of the women as well -- and this temptations, combined with his human frailty, lead to much trouble for him and his church.
Rogers skills in both narrating this tale -- and, again, the use of the four narrators is done to stunning effect -- share the spotlight here with her ability to convey the contradictions inherit in organized religion in general. When one person -- or even a group of persons -- holds such power and influence over their 'followers', there is bound to be trouble. The weight of the organization's purpose is too much for a leader to bear. When the people rely on a human leader to tell them how to follow the will of God -- rather than listening to their own hearts and finding their own path -- that leader's humanity will almost inevitably lead to disaster.
The novel is very 'heady' -- but at the same time very readable, being compelling and entertaining. It's a wonderful achievement. Knowing that Rogers wrote the script for the BBC's adaptation of the novel, I'd be very interested to see that as well.