Jane Rogers chronicles the nine months these women spend together until accusations of indecency and the trial that follows bring Wroe's household to its dramatic end. There is a cripple, a badly beaten mute, two underage sisters who can barely read, Joanna "the Saint," Hannah the unbeliever, and Leah, who secretly mothered an illegitimate child. And then there is Prophet Wroe, as enigmatic and attractive to each of the virgins as he is an iron hand. With an impeccably crafted narrative and utterly beguiling prose, Rogers delves deep into the conflicts surrounding faith, love, and passion. Ultimately each of the virgins comes away with a powerful lesson in independence.
MR. WROE'S VIRGINS casts a spell on readers from the outset, playing on our expectations and touching a chord of desire that could lead to disaster on nearly every page. With an intelligence and skill that recall the work of A. S. Byatt and Margaret Atwood, Jane Rogers has given us novel of ideas that is not so much to be read as to be devoured.
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'The Lord has instructed me to take of your number, seven virgins for comfort and succour.'
Seven? They say his wife is sickly, but seven? Judith touches my elbow, I know, I am trying not to giggle. It is so quiet, it seems no one breathes in the whole of Sanctuary. I must not laugh. I must not. Will he really? Will they let him? Who?
Once Abigail Whitehead said to me, 'Can you imagine doing it with the Prophet?' We laughed with our heads beneath our quilt work, for fear God might have overheard. He is staring us out, everyone looks down. They are still and reverent; they take it for God's will. When Abigail said it I imagined his strange back, which is like the thick shoulders of a bull. He is the ugliest man I have ever seen, but he is powerful.
Would I? People begin to clear their throats, to glance at one another. My sister Anne is looking at me. She widens her eyes. Me? I smile at her and pull a face. But she is serious; she mouths a word. 'Thomas.' Thomas. When her own child is born, she will have no time for mine. I must remove him. I have promised.
But what is she thinking? To the Prophet's house? Does she think he will take kindly to a virgin with a bastard child? Perhaps she thinks that I could hide him there, keep him secretly. It may be possible. They say the Prophet's house is vast. I watch him now. His eyes continue to move slowly over the congregation, the silence goes on and on. He sees me. I can feel the blush rising up my cheeks. He is looking at me. The congregation shifts and sighs. There are girlsthey would be glad to give. I know some as eager to be rid of daughters as any farmer his vicious cow on market day.
You can see what he wants, how he stared at my blushing. If I did ... If I went ... I would be the prettiest there. They will hardly hand over the marriageable ones.
Is this what Anne means? What if he did not like me? He sits himself down, now, and we are on with the hymn singing. Thank heavens it is not now. There is till this afternoon to decide.
Is he looking? Glance quickly. Yes. He is looking at me again, now all eyes are on their hymn books. If he wanted me, I could make him do anything. Could I live that life? Surely they would not make us pray all the day. We should have fine rooms, and servants at our beck and call. The church has money. 'Comfort and succour.' Pray, how must we comfort him? I cough to save myself from laughing. We would not be prisoners. If it is anything tolerable, then I should be able to bear it. Will Judith? And the Elders and church close by: he could not maltreat us.
If I could win his favour ... I should be in a fine position. The favour of a man who talks to God, and whom the entire church fall over themselves to obey. But I should like to know what he has done with his wife.
If I stay at home, I make my daily visit to my sister's, to see poor hidden Thomas. I am locked into my room at night and guarded, ever since my father caught me creeping in at dawn. Allowed to walk out only with my saintly insipid cousin, who would faint away at mention of my child (although his thoughts are so fixed upon matters spiritual that I doubt he has any notion of how a child is conceived). What other escape will I ever be offered? The Prophet will never guard seven as closely as my father guards one.
He is still looking at me. Has he noticed me before this day? I never thought of him but that once, with Abigail. If I did ... he would be obliged to agree to Thomas. For his own preservation.
It is as neat as a row of my good plain sewing. The answer to my prayers. That makes me laugh. Judith pats my back, I cannot catch my breath. Hush, I must be calm.
How it would please my father! To so far exceed his neighbours in virtue, as to give the Prophet a pretty daughter!
'The Lord has instructed me to take of your number, seven virgins for comfort and succour.'
Praise God. This is the sign the women are not forgot. My heart leaps to his words, as the instrument to the hand of the craftsman.
The joy of that moment will never leave me nor, I think, will it be easily forgotten by any of those blessed enough to be present. God was indeed among us, He spoke to our hearts, He called us to join His glorious service. The joy within was so overpowering that I could do nothing but fall to my knees and thank Him a thousand times for calling His unworthy handmaiden. When I became conscious again of the world around me, I saw that a similar feverish joy had gripped the hearts of many. The sign we have waited for has come Southcott's call to the women: the time of the women approaches. Ann Taylor was so overwhelmed by holy ecstasy that she fell in a dead trance upon the floor, and their good neighbour Brother Paine assisted her father to carry her out. A hubbub arose in the pews at the back I could not quite see who was involved, but I do not doubt it was caused by a number of girls who, seeing the general enthusiasm, feared that they might not all find a place among the seven.
And this proved, sadly for many, to be the case. Elder Caleb announced that those who knew themselves called by the Prophet's request should attend a special meeting in Sanctuary at four in the afternoon: and when I entered Sanctuary, ten minutes before the appointed time, I saw that 'many are called, but few are chosen'.
The magnitude of the calling was proving almost too much to bear for several young women, whose tear-stained faces testified to their tremendous love and hope of selection. One or two were so overwhelmed by the call of the spirit that their bodies were turbulent and agitated, and they had to be clasped and held secure by their loving parents. Brother and Sister Mayall, blest as they are with nine beautiful daughters, held fast to the hands of their elder two, sisters Rachel and Rebekah, while many a solemn tear of happiness and overwrought anticipation trickled down the cheeks of these two.
I felt no fear, for I knew myself chosen I knew, from the arrow of certainty that pierced my heart as the Prophet spoke. Does a bird know when the dawn will rise? Can a woman tell when her child quickens in the womb? And when he stepped out into the gallery and gazed down upon us, I looked up fearlessly, knowing myself already dedicated heart and soul to this work. The call reached many a heart I might previously have thought unprepared for it or even, hardened against it. How grossly we are able to underestimate the faith and courage of our fellow creatures. Little did I think that Elizabeth Ogden, whose honour has been maligned by so many, and whose present girth gives rise to a persistent rumour concerning her chastity, would have so repented as to be eager to devote her future to His service: I praise Him that He calls the sinners and the outcasts. Nor did I guess that Ruth Brierly, who is so beloved by her widowed father that all remark upon it, might feel her heart called by God so that she could contemplate leaving the poor distraught old man, who clung to her in an embrace more like a lover's than a father's, unable to see the workings of God's greater will, for his own small human unhappiness.
The word had spread even outside members of our church, for there were several unfamiliar faces present. When the Prophet stepped into view in the gallery one of them gasped and began to sob. She had not seen him before, she did not perceive the power of the spirit within, but only the poor fleshly covering. It is a grief to consider the desperation of such creatures, who have neither home nor faith to call their own, and must resort to seeking shelter amongst strangers whom they fear. After the choosing I hastened to speak to her, in the hope of bringing her to knowledge of God's love but she fled at such a speed that she was lost to me.
The Prophet raised his arms for silence. 'The Lord directs me to chose, His ways are closed to our eyes, blessed be the Lord. Let her name be spoken, who is chosen.' He remained still for a moment, then took up his iron staff, and pointed. At me. I knew. Chosen and blessed of the Lord, I knew.
'Joanna Bamford!' the servitor called, and I answered 'Praise the Lord!' Two of the Elders came into the congregation to lead us forth. From my new position on the dais I was able to see quite clearly those blessed women who are to be my sisters. Rachel and Rebekah were chosen, I rejoice to say, and they greeted their fate with a flood of grateful tears. Next came Dinah, the cripple; oh praise Him, for he loves and is merciful to the meek and the lame. Next Leah Robinson, the draper's daughter and one of the fairest in our church. Next a tall veiled woman, unknown to me; I believe I have seen her father, a farmer, in Sanctuary before today. And lastly beautiful Ann Taylor, who was supported to the front by Brother Paine and his wife, but whose rational faculties gave way utterly under the solemn pressure of the moment, so that she threw herself upon Brother Paine's neck and, as he stepped back in amazement, fell upon the floor in a fit. Screaming, weeping and threshing uncontrollably, the poor girl was helped into the vestry room in inner Sanctuary, and efforts were there made to calm her. The Prophet, having conducted the choice, departed: we were blessed by the priest and asked to return in two hours for a dedication service so gloriously swift was to be the execution of His will. As we departed the building (with many a pitying glance for those unfortunate creatures who remained unchosen, but who will, I am sure, be given their own ways to serve God) Ann Taylor's screams rang out more piercing and shrill than ever, leading me to fear greatly for her soundness of mind.
My fears were most terribly borne out by events later that evening: for while the rest of us prepared ourselves in white robes and earnest prayer, poor Ann Taylor, in a demented fit, burst out from the care of those who sought to help and protect her in Sanctuary, and flung herself under the wheels of the passing post chaise. I am told she has sustained the most terrible injuries, and lies close to death at her father's house. It is a source of overwhelming grief to all who know her; her good neighbour Paine has sent at his own expense to Stalybridge for Doctor Green, thinking he may be able to make her more comfortable than our own humble apothecary Failsworth.
The service of dedication was delayed by this tragedy, as the Prophet visited her father's house to carry thither God's forgiving love, and to urge fortitude on her grieving father. As we six waited in Sanctuary, Elder Caleb brought us the news that a seventh virgin was chosen, having been offered by her aunt and uncle when Ann's distressed state of mind became evident. And sure enough a seventh white-clad figure joined us, only minutes before the Prophet himself arrived, and the musicians struck up their glorious solemn sound.
Miraculous indeed the holiness of that moment; as the Priest blessed us and each of us in her heart offered up her most secret hopes to God. Joanna Southcott's prophecy will be fulfilled: the women shall play their part, as this material world draws into its final days we shall play our part, in the establishment of His glorious Kingdom on earth. To this end was I born; to this day has my whole life tended. I rejoice in the hour of my calling, and in the company of my blessed sisters-in-God. After solemn prayers and the blessings of the Elders, we departed in procession for our new home.
My aunt and uncle have given me to a prophet.
Given handed over with less heartsearching than they would undergo in parting with a crust to a beggar.
It is a Christian Israelite: I have been once to their meeting place, which they call Sanctuary. The prophet is a small crazed hunchback with the manners of a bear, who foretells the end of the world. The elders of their church resemble tribesmen one might have found wandering the deserts of Palestine three thousand years ago, in full-length robes and hair and beards uncut, bedecked with outlandish jewellery. From the hands of the meanest pair of scavenging crows on earth, I pass into the care of a lunatic band of would-be ancient Jews.
I looked sick enough today for them to agree to leave me here while they went about their religious duties; on their return this evening my aunt comes pushing into my chamber (never doing me the courtesy of a knock) and demands that I come downstairs.
Down in the houseplace stands my uncle, with his back to the cold cheerless chimney, for they never light a fire on a Saturday.
'We have heard the word of God at meeting today, Hannah.' I wait in silence. 'He has called you.'
'Your aunt and I have worried over you, and prayed over you, and begged God for guidance over your future. We have asked to be shown your place in His great scheme, because a woman of your age with neither husband nor parent in this world is a trouble to herself and others.'
To you. A trouble to you. 'Yes uncle.'
'Today at Sanctuary the prophet showed us the way for you, as God has spoken to him. The Lord has guided him to ask for the offices of seven virgins, to give him comfort and succour in his work.'
He stops and looks at me. I must try not to be insolent. I know from their expressions, and from my aunt's constant gnawing at her thumbnail through the split in her Sabbath white gloves, that this is serious. But I have no idea what they want. 'You are slow to understand God's will, Hannah. You are one of the chosen. You are one of the seven.'
'Yes, Hannah, you.'
'He does not know me how could he chose me?'
'My child, beware of insolence. Your understanding of the ways of God is frail. He sees not as we see.'
My aunt chips in, her voice high and nervous. 'We offered you, Hannah. We both saw that it was God's will, and we offered you to serve Him in this way.'
'And the prophet accepted,' buts in my uncle hastily. 'Praise to the Lord.'
My silence makes them irritable.
'You are to live with the prophet, Hannah. To further his work, in accomplishing God's will.' They are both staring at me narrowly; my aunt is rigid with anxiety, neck outstretched, fists clenched against her skirts. This pair have given me to a prophet.
I start to laugh. It comes up in bubbles from the pit of my stomach. My body pops with the unfamiliar pleasure of it, I cannot stop. Through the tears unsettling my sight I see the pair of them inflate like hot-air balloons and slither unevenly across the floor to the right. My aunt whispers to my uncle, 'She will disgrace us.'
I shake my head, trying to breathe normally. I have the hiccups. 'No no I will not.' I can imagine how their mean hearts leapt in unison at the thought of handing over my mouth to be fed and my body to be clothed. By what other means could they ever hope to be rid of me, an ill-favoured woman, entrusted into their care by my father on his deathbed, and lacking any other kin in this world? Not only will they escape any censure from their fellows, but they are also gaining, through their generous gift to the prophet, credit in their account books in the sky.
When I had conquered my laughter I placated them, agreeing that the prophet's request was indeed God's answer to our prayers. I nearly upset the applecart again by asking, 'Why virgins?' because my uncle answered, 'For purity in God's work,' and my aunt gasped, then began to choke on her own spittle, and had to run for a draught of water. My uncle stepped after her I could almost see her, standing round the corner beckoning in her stiff awkward way and then I heard her croak 'She is not pure! That is why she asked, you fool. What shall we do?'
There was a silence and I moved nearer to the doorway for fear of missing his answer. But it was clear enough when it came. 'Well how is he going to find out?' No reply from my aunt. My uncle laughs. 'There is only one way. I think she is safe enough.'
My aunt coughed, or pretended to. 'For shame!'
My uncle came back into the room, still smirking to himself. 'You may pack your things. The virgins are to be given to the Prophet at Sanctuary, an hour from now. You must wear white; pack the rest in the portmanteau your father left.'
Given. Like a slave. If it is even more disagreeable than this house, surely I will be able to summon the energy and courage to run away.
It is dusk when we leave Sanctuary. Dressed in billowing white, blinded and half-choked by veils which flap against our noses and mouths in the icy wind, we lumber like cows along the rutted lane to the prophet's new mansion. He strides behind us with the proprietorial air of a farmer returning from market. One of the virgins is crippled, with short bowed legs another has taken her arm and supports her lurching career over the uneven ground. Now the church mumbo-jumbo is over I find myself curious to see these other women. We are ushered into a huge hall and suddenly abandoned; the elders have gone, the prophet has gone, the doors are shut and seven of us stand around a large mahogany table, trapped.
The light is poor, a couple of tapers only burning at each end of the table, and a small smoky fire hissing in the great hearth. The place smells damp and unused. With no chairs to sit on, we all instinctively move in away from the dark walls. In an effort to see better, I throw back my veil. One by one the others follow suit, all except for a tall woman who remains leaning against the wall opposite me. The room is surrounded by a dark gallery at the upper level. It is chilly as the night outside. The cripple is leaning over the table, her white knuckles braced upon it: clearly standing is a greater difficulty to her than walking.
'Sister Dinah! There must be a chair.' The woman who supported her moves hesitantly towards the passage, then disappears into it. She returns almost immediately with a rush-bottomed chair, which Dinah sits upon, and begins to cry whether with pain or relief I do not know. The chair-fetcher pats her shoulder and looks up at me. 'Welcome,' she says, as if the house is hers. 'I am Joanna. This is Dinah, Leah, Rachel, Rebekah. I think I have seen you in Sanctuary?'
Of course they all know each other. 'Hannah Lees. Yes, I have been there once.'
She nods. 'Welcome, Sister Hannah. God has found work for us all to do.'
Her voice is as warm and soft as a dove's, and her face, of all of them, the most generous and intelligent. An unworldly woman, not beautiful, but with a saintly face large, guileless eyes and a high forehead, accentuated by the swept back, pale brown hair above it. Her nose large and flatfish, like a negro's, her lips wide.
Leah, beside her, is a different type. Younger, prettier, sharper. She has already appraised each of us, passing over me without concern, checking, testing, comparing. Her eyes are fixed now on the veiled woman against the wall. Leah is the sort of woman who looks at a woman like me and, in her heart, laughs. I have seen Leahs in the streets, in pairs, blooming from their stays like flowers on slender stems, putting their heads together to giggle.
Rachel and Rebekah are both very young, sixteen or seventeen, I should say, dark-haired and shy, holding hands. They are sisters. Dinah, the cripple, has golden hair and an old-young face: she is calm now, and nods to me when I smile at her.
Leah speaks first. 'Who is that?' The woman by the wall.
Joanna says, 'Hello Sister?' but there is no response. Rebekah and Rachel giggle nervously.
'It is not Ruth Brierly.' Leah's voice makes it clear that Ruth Brierly would not be welcome. The tall woman remains quite motionless. 'Who are you? Have you lost your tongue?' Leah moves towards her, following her own sharp question, but there is no reaction.
Joanna shakes her head. 'Sister? You are among friends, in God's own house, I pray you, put back your veil.' No movement.
'Can you not answer when you are spoken to?'
'Leah ' Joanna's dove-voice is soothing, but Leah is not appeased.
'Answer me!' She lifts her hand to raise the woman's veil, but as she does so the woman ducks, shielding her head with her arms. Leah glances across to Joanna, to confirm a witness: she did not strike her. Joanna comes over to the crouching woman and puts a hand on her shoulder. We can see her stiffen beneath the idiot ruckles of white cloth.
'Do not be afraid. No one here will hurt you, my child. Come.' Something in the gentle tone of that soft voice unthreads me loosens the tight constriction in my own chest and throat and sets tears swimming in my eyes. Gentleness, kindness: they have been lost for so long. The veiled woman allows Joanna to raise her up, and lift her veil.
We see Martha's face. Blue, purple, yellow; bruised and split like an old fruit that has fallen underfoot at market. No movement, no expression, she never even turns her eyes to look at Joanna much less the rest of us. The eyes remain blank. An animal, beside itself with fear, might show such a face. Silence then Joanna's pitying, 'Child, child'
This time her gentle voice makes me weep in earnest. How could her soft voice remind me of Father's whispering rattle? I do not know if Martha spoke I think not. We were taken, or sent, to the bedchambers.