Mr Wroe's virgins, Faber 1991 (Abacus 2001)
John Wroe, prophet of the apocalyptic Christian Israelite Church, made his headquarters in Lancashire in the 1820's. When God told him to comfort himself with seven virgins, his congregation gave him their daughters.
Each woman in Wroe's household, from brutalised Martha to saintly Joanna, has her own secret hopes of a new life - either in heaven or on earth - at a point in history when anything seems possible. And each has her own view of the prophet. Mr Wroe's Virgins tells the story of the nine months of their life together, until accusations of indecency, and the trial that follows, bring Wroe's household to a dramatic end.
'An engaging, serious and gleefully ironic novel, one that leaps headlong into the most ambitious and risky territories: faith, love and existential meaning.' New York Times Book Review
A New York Times Notable Book
'A delight from the first page to the last.' Obserever
'There is a rich vein of comedy in this beautifully written book which deals so profoundly with the attractions of idealism and the confusion between sexual and religious feeling.' Guardian
In 1993 Mr Wroe's Virgins was adapted by Jane and made into a four part drama serial for BBC2, produced by John Chapman, directed by Danny Boyle, and starring Jonathan Pryce, Kathy Burke, Lia Williams, Kerry Fox and Minnie Driver. The drama was BAFTA nominated, and Kathy Burke won the Royal Television Society Award for Best Actress, for her performance as Martha.
The power of prophecy :
MR WROE'S VIRGINS
Sunday Independent 21 April 1991
THERE was a real Mr Wroe. Born in Bradford in 1782, the son of a woolcomber, he was instructed to convert to Judaism by a vision he had during a serious illness in his late thirties. He joined the Apocalyptic Southcottian church instead and soon occupied an important position in it, styling himself and his followers as Christian Israelites. He was accepted as Prophet by his Lancashire congregation in 1822 and received from on high the news that Ashton was to be the New Jerusalem. In 1830, he received a further message that the Lord wanted his followers to provide Wroe with seven virgins "for comfort and succour".
They did. They lived to regret it. 'These are the facts upon which Jane Rogers bases her fourth novel. Although she plays masterfully on the expectations to which they give rise. she is also very good at upsetting them. The seven (invented) virgins Mr Wroe chooses for himself include a cripple, a badly beaten mute and two under-age sisters who can hardly read. Of the three sisters who narrate most of the story, only Joanna has the transcendental innocence men are supposed to dream of. Hannah, donated by her aunt and uncle, is not even a believer, while Leah has a secret illegitimate son.
It goes without saying that the Prophet will use them as domestic slaves, overlook many of their virtues and abuse their trust. But there is more to Mr Wroe than that. He is a liberating influence to the same degree as he is a corrupting one. His inconsistencies make him a puzzle that the women are tempted to solve: he is a powerful orator but does not seem willing or able to use his skills when he interviews his charges privately. In his study he is cold and distracted. And there he also drinks - though not to excess. He is not excessively moralistic either. When he discovers the truth about Leah's son, he has the baby brought into the house as an orphan. When Hannah tells him she has no faith, he not only talks to her openly about his own doubts, but also allows her to attend Owenite meetings in the town. Even though he thinks it futile, he does not stop her assisting in the setting up of unions for the town's millworkers. She is not a prisoner, he tells her, she is free to go anywhere her mind can take her. He is similarly aloof when Leah tries to seduce him. She doesn't need men, he tells her. And yet he tells the naive Joanna the opposite when he interprets one of her dreams to mean that she should allow her body to be used as the receptacle for the Son of God. I took him to mean that power begins in the eye of the beholder. Here, for once, the patriarch is not a big bad wolf to be obeyed or else exterminated, but a man too complicated to make sense of his own contradictions, and so only intermittently powerful. The women, for their part, retain control of their own thoughts and are capable of subtler freedoms than defiance, even when they are obediently mopping the floors, with the result that, by the end, even Joanna, who has been most badly damaged by Mr Wroe, can be said to have outgrown him. More important to her and to all the other characters are their ideas of the future. Some are apocalyptic, others are political, or too sweeping to leave room for anyone else's Utopia, but together they evoke the expansive spirit of the time and elevate this book far above the level of an allegory.
Jane Rogers has always been an interesting writer. Although her moral vision is complex and sometimes dangerous, her novels are accessible - or would be if the reading public knew about them. If you haven't heard of her, it's because she is hard to market. She's not a feminist or an anti-feminist. She doesn't belong to a region or to an exotic corner of the Commonwealth. She doesn't play the game at London literary parties. She sits at home with her husband and two children in Lancashire and writes books. Yet the fact is that she writes better than almost anyone of her generation: this novel, particularly, deserves a prize.
Read first chapter of Mr Wroe's Virgins
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