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Religious Motives

[whitespace] Mr. Wroe's Virgins

Jane Rogers takes faith seriously in her new novel, 'Mr. Wroe's Virgins'

By Roger Gathman

THERE IS A state of mind," William James wrote, "known to religious men, but to no others, in which the will to assert ourselves and hold our own has been displaced by a willingness to close our mouths and be as nothing in the floods and waterspouts of God." Jane Rogers' new novel, Mr. Wroe's Virgins, turns on the always vexing question of where the will to assert ourselves stops and God's will begins, if ever.

The historical figure of Mr. John Wroe was one of God's peculiar waterspouts, a regular gargoyle: humpbacked, dark-browed and of obscure parentage; a recognizable type in England's dissenter tradition, like George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, and Johanna Southcott, the 18th-century milkmaid/prophetess to whose teachings Wroe succeeded.

Wroe's vocation was writ inwardly, instead of in the scriptures. He believed, for instance, that one of Israel's lost tribes had wandered all the way to Britain and that, happily, the tribe was mystically synonymous with his congregation. More crucially to our purpose, one day in 1830 he believed that God wanted him to take seven virgins into his household. Rogers tells this story through the eyes of four of the virgins: Leah, Joanna, Hannah and Martha. The three others are relegated to the background.

Leah is a vixen, young, pretty, catty, an excellent housekeeper with a healthy sexual appetite. Give her a few years and she would make an exemplary middle-class Victorian matron, but she is sadly displaced in Wroe's household. When we meet her, she has a big problem: she has secretly given birth to a son. The father, a soldier, has been transferred, God knows where.

She becomes one of Wroe's virgins because she wants the boy to have a father, and she wants to entrap Wroe as a husband, counting on Wroe being as much of an idiot for sex as the tradesmen and soldiers of Leah's acquaintance.

His libido, however, is a bit more enigmatic than has been met with in Leah's brief, although voracious, experience. When Leah not only fails to seduce him but also loses her baby to sickness, she becomes obsessed with bringing Wroe down, and finally does so by accusing him, falsely, of propositioning her. She has no idea that the man who turned her down has actually had sex with the much less prepossessing (to Leah's mind) Joanna.


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Joanna, the oldest virgin, is also the most devout. There is much in Joanna that reminds me of Dinah Morris, the "Methodis' preaching lady" in George Eliot's Adam Bede. But we miss Dinah's redemptive common sense. Leah's nickname for her, Saint Joanna, is all too true--her religion is too much a willful crushing of her reason, a renunciation of the body to the point that she doesn't really know her own character.

This ignorance becomes important when Joanna agrees to have a child with Wroe, secretly. Their sexual congress, unsurprisingly, horrifies her. Martha, one of the other virgins puts it exactly right: Joanna "has a rotten patch, like the soft brown side a sored apple has laid on all winter." Joanna's confession, which emerges in consequence of Leah's lie, topples Wroe from his position in the church and leads to the breakup of the household.

With Hannah, Rogers has created a more credible witness to these events. Raised in radical circles in London and then cast adrift by the death of her father, Hannah is Wroe's intellectual equal. Hannah is alert enough to recognize that Wroe himself is engineering the dissolution of the household.

LIKE MANY MYSTICS, when Wroe is not sustained by overwhelming faith, he is cast down into gloomy depression. He is an absolutist, who must have eternal life or none at all. Hannah is content with ameliorating real life. She'd agree with Keynes' famous dictum, "in the long run, we are all dead."

It's a nice, insightful touch that Rogers shows Hannah just a step away from falling in love with Wroe. Finally, though, she doesn't. This is unhappiness averted--Hannah linked with the fanatical Wroe would turn this story into something by Thomas Hardy, who was, as we all know, hard on his heroines.

For all her subtlety, though, even Hannah is astonished by Joanna's confession. So it is just as well that Hannah never finds out that Wroe has also been intimate with Martha, who, when we first meet her, is a dirty, semi-imbecilic creature. She comes to the household from a farm in which she has been tortured and raped by her father. Like Faulkner's Benjy in Sound and Fury, Martha's experiences, at first, are a brighter or darker series of "now"s.

Her development as a person is, interestingly, reflected in her development as a narrator--her ability to see beyond the linear. Rogers reconciles us somewhat to Joanna's piety by making Martha's improvement the result of Joanna's kindness.

The writing is sometimes marred by anachronisms. At one point, Hannah speaks of "genocide" when that word had not yet even been invented. Mostly, though, we admire Rogers' ability to encompass these different temperaments without condescension. Religious motives, in Anglo-American literature, are so often treated either as deriving from the all-too-human failing of lust or greed or as occasions for sentimentality. It is nice to see how Rogers navigates these difficulties, never, ultimately, reducing Mr. Wroe to a charlatan or a maniac, but clearly situating his mixture of guile and belief in a world that really is ending.

The predominantly agricultural society all the characters have grown up in is dying right before their eyes. Mr. Wroe's apocalyptic imagery, like Blake's, might be the poetically appropriate way to describe that great curse, the Industrial Revolution. As for where God's will begins and ours ends, Rogers wisely leaves that to the reader's discretion.

Mr. Wroe's Virgins by Jane Rogers; Overlook Press; 228 pages; $24.50 cloth.

Roger Gathman writes for the Austin Chronicle, Poets and Writers, Salon and  Feed. His webzine, Calumny and Art, is at http://www.camag.freeservers.com.

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From the September 1-8, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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