Mr Wroe and his virgins were real people. He was a prophet
of the Christian Israelites
in the town of Ashton-under-Lyne
, near Manchester
, and as such one of the inheritors of the millenarian
mantle of Joanna Southcott
. She had died in 1814 after a phantom pregnancy
of the new saviour, but her sect was still vigorous in 1822 when Wroe took up the leadership of the Ashton branch. He announced that Ashton was to be the New Jerusalem
, and they began building temples and walls there.
In 1830 Mr Wroe demanded from his congregation seven virgins.
Their stories are not known to history, except that two of them accused him of indecency, and he was put on trial before the Elders of his sect. Jane Rogers gives us their biographies in her 1991 novel Mr Wroe's Virgins, a complex and insightful exploration of their motivations and feelings, pitting the strange beliefs of the sect against other idealistic forces at work at the time. It is narrated by four of the women.
Hannah is the representative of the modern reader: intelligent, liberal, educated, and an unbeliever in any of the religion. Her sympathies are with the oppressed mill-workers, now that the Industrial Revolution is driving down wages, and replacing men in factories by women and children. Her sweetheart Edward is in America, at the commune of New Harmony, a creation of the socialist reformer Robert Owen. Its splits and failures mirror those of the religious community Wroe is creating. Wroe and Hannah talk together intelligently and equally: he does not require her to believe in God, let alone his own mission, and excuses her from sacramental duties. He allows her to go out into the town and teach the working people to read, as long as she's escorted so as not to provoke comment from people who see the strange and risible bonnet and gown of the faith. He sharply argues with her about the worth of it, however: if the world is going to end and all are going to die, what is the point of a little temporary relief from suffering? Is not his own vision of judgement and perhaps paradise a better incentive to good, or a better comfort if good is of no use?
Leah is pretty and scheming. She it is who is to accuse Prophet Wroe of indecent and unspeakable things, once her scheme has failed. She is entirely in it to further her own position, to become not one of seven lowly servants but a wife or mistress of this powerful figure. She knows how to manipulate him, she thinks; but for some reason he never seems to take that sort of interest in her.
Joanna is perhaps the only one of the seven virgins who is one. She is good, kind, efficient, maternal, and a total believer. She was inspired by the teachings of her namesake Joanna Southcott, and now has total faith in Mr Wroe and his revelations of God's will. Then he reveals to her, in private, that Shiloh the New Redeemer is indeed to be born in their time, the last times, physically born of woman. And blessed is she amongst women.
Martha, the fourth narrator, begins as little more than animal. She has been brutally mistreated her whole life, and knows nothing but fear, hunger, and cunning. Mr Wroe saves her truly: she is brought into a world of light and comfort, allowed to sleep in a bed, not needing to steal food from the pigs' trough, not being raped or beaten. She learns to read a little, and to speak more.
The novel was adapted into a radio play in 1992 by Jane Rogers's husband Mike Harris, and then a 1993 BBC miniseries with Jonathan Pryce as Mr Wroe, Minnie Driver as Leah, Lia Williams as Joanna, Kathy Burke as Martha, and Kerry Fox as Hannah.
John Wroe was born in 1782, in Bradford. He was an ill-favoured hunchback, a mesmerising orator, and a convincing visionary. After an illness in 1819 he at first sought to convert to Judaism, but was influenced by the Southcottian church, and it was he who created the syncretistic movement of Christian Israelitism, regarding Britain as the home of some of the lost tribes of Israel. His followers adopted a stringent Biblical Jewish law in matters such as diet. He travelled widely across Europe, seeking unification with Jewish and Roman Catholic leaders. After his scandalous trial, which turned into a riot when he was acquitted, he spent a lot of time overseas, and died in Melbourne in 1863. His successor in Ashton, Zion Ward, was imprisoned for blasphemy after declaring himself the Second Christ. The temple where the seven virgins served Wroe was called the Sanctuary; built in 1825, it later became a cinema. Jane Rogers created a compelling portrait of a fictional John Wroe using this biography as a shell. The writing is subtle and evocative, and never makes any of the characters absurd or shallow.