In 1830 the prophet John Wroe asked his congregation of Christian Israelites in Ashton-under-Lyne for seven virgins to serve in his household. The Israelites had already built a Sanctuary and four gatehouses at Ashton, in the belief that the Lancashire cotton town was to be the site of the New Jerusalem. Mr Wroe got his virgins, but less than a year later he was almost lynched by his flock after the church elders had acquitted him on charges of indecency. His later career was pursued as a missionary, notably in Australia where the Christian Israelite sect still survives. He died at Melbourne in 1863. Who the seven virgins were, and what happened to them, is not recorded.
There are some novelists who treat the past as a cornucopia from which almost anything could be extracted. To the serious historical novelist, however, it is more like a jigsaw with some pieces missing. Not only does Mr Wroe’s Virgins fill a gap in our picture of early 19th-century social history, but it is carefully shaped to fit in with the neighbouring pieces. Jane Rogers’s fourth novel is full of information about the harshness of the Industrial Revolution, the plight of the weavers and spinners, and the fight against the Combination Acts. Through the device of a character who was reared in Owenite circles, we get glimpses of the rise of socialism and the Co-operative movement, the campaign for universal suffrage and the beginnings of adult education. The narrative includes a public meeting addressed by William Cobbett, and a letter from New Harmony, Indiana, giving a graphic account of jealousies and discords in the Owenite model community. John Wroe himself is the sort of preacher whose divinations and vaticinations were denounced by Carlyle, and at the end of the novel we hear of the murder of a local mill-owner’s son – an event that was to inspire Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton.
Yet, though it can be readily situated in terms of a public history, the material of this absorbing novel – a sort of 19th-century handmaid’s tale – is bizarre enough. What will happen to the seven young women so ceremoniously installed in Mr Wroe’s house? Once they have donned the ‘uniform of God’, the majority of their time is spent in domestic chores, though there are also religious duties, including that of administering the corporal punishments begged for by the long-bearded elders. (The church rules state that each victim has to be held in position by the female’s left hand around his private parts.) Masochism is a way of life for the faithful of both sexes: after all, the humblest in this world will be the most exalted in the next. One of the great strengths of Mr Wroe’s Virgins is its bringing together of the two worlds, placing millenarian fantasies within a vividly rendered context of everyday life.
The Biblical number seven is rather too many for the protagonists of a novel. Jane Rogers’s solution is to crosscut between four of the women, Joanna, Leah, Hannah and Martha, who alternate as narrators with intriguingly different perspectives. Saintly Joanna is the only member of the sisterhood who shares the prophet’s religious obsessions. Leah’s motive for joining the household is to provide for her illegitimate son, who is soon smuggled into the ménage as a supposed foundling left at the church door. Hannah, an orphan, is not and never becomes a church member. Life with the Christian Israelites eases her transition from a London radical childhood to mature commitment to the Northern working-class movement. Her political beliefs are strengthened by arguments with the prophet, who dismisses her views but treats her as an intellectual equal. He also reveals to her the emptiness of his own faith, his cynical understanding that he is a mere showman bringing nourishment to his followers’ stunted imaginative lives. He tells her, too, that he expects to have to leave Ashton in a hurry. This last fact is one of the secrets intuited by the fourth narrator, the retarded and brutalised Martha, whom Wroe has saved from a life of bestial drudgery on her father’s farm. Martha’s awakening in her new environment is graphically evoked, and it almost justifies the prophet’s strange and nasty behaviour.
The rumours of debauchery that begin to spread are not wholly without foundation. Mr Wroe has left behind a wife and family in Bradford. Leah schemes to achieve social respectability by seducing him, though to Hannah he seems an ugly dwarf with the manners of a bear. Poor Joanna is all too easily persuaded that she has been chosen to follow in the footsteps of her namesake Joanna Southcott (who died after a hysterical pregnancy in which she was to have given birth to the Prince of Peace). Once he has finished with Joanna, the prophet turns to Martha, a more willing partner despite her history of sexual abuse at the hands of her father.
As with the Owenites at New Harmony, it only takes a few months for Jane Rogers’s four narrators to become riven with envy, mutual suspicions and secrecy. Only Hannah has any insight into the real intentions of Mr Wroe, a desperately confused and twisted man who is, nevertheless, not an unmitigated tyrant. On occasions he can be both just and kind, suggesting that his motives for taking the seven women into his home were not wholly base ones. (His congregation, of course, believe that he is simply carrying out the will of the Lord.) Martha learns to read and pray, and Hannah, under Leah’s and Joanna’s instruction, learns to be useful around the house. Most importantly, she and Martha learn to stand on their own feet. Even the tragic Joanna is led to express the dream of setting up a women’s church, purged of the sinfulness that defiles male prophecy. Mr Wroe’s household becomes the improbable setting for a romance of female independence.
The unravelling of this intricate story is, if not providential, at least poetically just. Hannah, the freest spirit among the seven women, is the last to abandon their community once it has fallen apart. Martha quietly helps herself to enough of Mr Wroe’s possessions to enable her to set up house alone on the moors beyond Stalybridge. Only the sharply amusing but vindictive Leah, who has always taken just what she wanted, fails to construct a life of her own. At Mr Wroe’s she was like a precocious vamp in a girls’ boarding-school, stealing out at night to meet her latest Army officer and allowing herself to be taken, in the course of a missionary tour, on the kitchen table of the house where she was staying. Though it is her accusations that destroy Mr Wroe, she alone is unchanged – for the worse or, just as likely, for the better – by her life as one of his virgins.
Amanda Prantera’s new novel is another piece of the jigsaw that historians have overlooked. In this case, there is one particular historian, Cassius Dio, who wrote a chronicle of ancient Rome in 80 volumes at the beginning of the third century AD. One of his sources was the great scientist Galen, who had been personal physician to the emperors Marcus Aurelius and his son Commodus. The Side of the Moon begins with the assassination of Commodus, the public execution of most of his retinue and the burning of the imperial archives. Galen, who is disgusted by the bloodcurdling stories about Commodus and his concubine Marcia put about by the new rulers, sits down to write his memoirs: but his house is broken into and his manuscripts are burnt. He decides that his one remaining chance is to tell Cassius his story, but Cassius, a conventionally-minded Senator, is only half persuaded by it.
Commodus, on Galen’s admission, had set out to abolish the Senate and destroy the powers of the rich. Not only was the new Emperor, Septimus Severus, determined to blacken his predecessor’s memory, but Commodus has continued to be vilified, so much so that the current edition of Chambers Biographical Dictionary describes him (in terms I believe to be cribbed from a whole line of reference books) as ‘one of the most worthless and bloody wretches that ever disgraced a throne’. It seems that Amanda Prantera is a novelist not given to ducking a challenge. Supposedly Galen unfolds his defence of Commodus during the prolonged physiotherapy sessions that he gives to the valetudinarian Senator. This narrative situation stretches one’s credulity a little – though it is true that a medical checkup from Galen would be a pretty formidable affair. When Marcus Aurelius returns from the Danube, Galen meticulously explores each of the Emperor’s bodily orifices, tastes his urine, and feeds his spittle to a frog to see if the frog changes colour.
‘A toga is not easy to manage with style until you get used to it,’ Galen observes. Amanda Prantera has a liking for the stylishly off-beat; her previous novel, Conversations with Lord Byron on Perversion, featured a present-day biographical researcher with a computer (addressed as ‘My Lord’) which turned out to have Byron’s unpublished and unbuttoned memoirs stored away in its memory bank. The Side of the Moon marks a rather drastic switch from the romantic to the classical, crediting Galen with a fussy, self-important manner and a weakness for dry Latin mottoes – Lux veritatis is the title of the final chapter, in which Cassius informs Galen that he intends to suppress most of what he has heard.
We certainly do not warm to any of Prantera’s main characters here, but that is not the point. Galen was initially recruited by the saintly Marcus Aurelius to help carry out his disastrous ‘Project’, an attempt to prepare his son to take on the role of the ideal Platonic philosopher-king. Galen took it upon himself to educate the backward, left-handed Commodus; later on he would whole-heartedly approve of the young Emperor’s plans to mobilise the populace against the aristocracy and to make Christianity the compulsory state religion. Marcus, however, had finally come to despair of his son: hence the desolate tone of the Meditations, a book which, so far as Galen is concerned, is the product of an author who was mentally unhinged. Galen concludes that Marcus has gone senile, and administers a poison to him during what inevitably proves to be his last illness – an act which helps Commodus to the throne, though it later leads to accusations of patricide.
Galen’s scientific achievements included the discovery of the crossover of the nervous fibres running from the head to the body. He has a special sympathy for the left-handed, and he has also brought up Commodus and Marcia to share his own fascination for dissecting corpses fresh from the morgue. (He does not, however, accept the commonly held view that Marcia eventually had Commodus strangled.) Commodus made some tactical mistakes, but his sole real failing was that he remained true to the Project conceived by his austere father, who was not obliged to confront the irrational and sinister aspects of politics. How far should Galen’s hitherto missing account of the ‘side of the moon’ in Roman affairs be regarded as irony, self-justification or simple lunacy? Amanda Prantera’s teasing novel converts one of the most cut-and-dried episodes of ancient history into a complex and shady business, an undecidable tale told by unreliable narrators. For Cassius, however, Galen’s apologia is a trite little demonstration of the vanity of utopian statecraft. Instead of subscribing to such ‘dangerous, high-minded nonsense’ as the Platonic theory of government, he thinks, we should rejoice that a fascist dictator was stopped dead in his tracks.