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MR. WROE'S VIRGINS by Jane Rogers

MR. WROE'S VIRGINS

By Jane Rogers

Pub Date: June 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-87951-702-6
Publisher: Overlook

An earlier historical novel by Rogers (Promised Lands, 1997, etc.), first published in England in 1991, gives an intermittently compelling story of a charismatic doomsday minister who, in 1830, requests seven virgins from his congregation “for comfort and succor.” The voices of four of those women tell the tale, starting with the vain beauty Leah, who accepts her selection by the Prophet—the ugly, hunchbacked Mr. Wroe—as a tribute to her allure, even though she harbors a compromising secret: her illegitimate son. Also chosen are holy Joanna, staunch believer in the role of women as ministers of God equal to men; educated unbeliever Hannah, still in shock from having seen her father through the last stages of a fatal illness; and bestial, battered Martha, brought by her father from the barn where he’s kept her. Although these and the others are promptly set to work at domestic duties, Leah believes herself the natural choice as the Prophet’s true companion and is frustrated when he barely seems to notice her. Instead he turns his attention to Joanna and Hannah, the former for her fervor, the latter for her obvious detachment from the New Jerusalem in England that he prophesies. In fact, Hannah spends an increasing amount of time with the mill workers and the Owenites, who would better their lot, exciting the jealousy of Leah, who sees her as a rival gaining the upper hand in the Prophet’s affections. Spurned when she tries to seduce him and despondent at the death of her son, Leah accuses Wroe publicly of carnal acts with his virgins—and is as surprised as anyone when a church trial reveals her charge to be true. Facets of the historical moment are vividly rendered, and each woman’s voice is distinct, but there are more highlights than depths to this story, giving it a frustrating unevenness.