MR. WROE'S VIRGINS

By Jane Rogers

Overlook. 276 pp. $24.95

This novel is set in 1830, in the English mill town of Ashton-on-Lyme. The world is in flux: The labor movement is starting, dreadful conditions prevail, but the same kind of restless movement is also springing up in religion. Can the end of the world be at hand? Some people think so, or wish so. Among them are the fairly new sect of Christian Israelites, who dress up in what they fondly believe are Old Testament clothes, play extraordinarily beautiful music on replicas of Old Testament instruments, and wait--some in ecstasy, some in impatience--for "End Time" and the recognition of Ashton as the New Jerusalem. It's something to do, anyway, in a grim and increasingly unpromising world.

The self-appointed leader of this new sect is John Wroe, an astonishingly ugly hunchback who preaches like an angel. He's doing very well indeed in the freelance religion business, and after his congregation has put together a prosperous church and found a large and beautiful house to shelter the Prophet, he asks them, or rather commands them, "The Lord has instructed me to take of your number, seven virgins for comfort and succour." (No matter that he has a wife and three children off in another town.)

The congregation ponies up seven single women who go to live under his roof--each bringing with her preconceptions, yearnings, wishes and a certain amount of desperate apprehension. They are to be his ceremonial churchwomen, assisting in ceremonies that haven't even been made up yet. And what other obligations might he inflict on them? There is, as well, the implicit humiliation of being just turned over to somebody. These are women who, by definition, aren't much in demand.

Two are silly girls we'll never know much about. Another, a deformed cripple, is not long for this world. The others, we'll get to know better: Leah is headstrong, deluded and arrogant, the secret mother of a bastard child. She dreams of becoming Wroe's wife, chief among the seven. Joanna is, in the cliched phrase, a true believer. She dreams only of the Lord, and strives, absolutely as hard as she can, to become--and always be--a virtuous person so that when the End comes, she will be among the Chosen.

Hannah is the kind of character who comes to us from many Victorian novels. She's intelligent, not very beautiful, not a believer at all, and has been dumped on Mr. Wroe because her aunt and uncle have no need of her around the house. Finally there is Martha, a filthy mute from an up-country farm who's been treated like a savage all her life, has no language at all and bolts her food like a dog.

What would Wroe want with such women--or any women? First, the author points out, he needs housekeepers. In the early 1800s, a house required continuous and back-breaking labor. Joanna, because of her religious and emotional enthusiasm, becomes the natural head of this domestic enterprise. The seven are soon locked in an unending round of washing, ironing, sewing, cooking, cleaning, tending fires. (The details about these activities are lifted in fairly undigested chunks from Caroline Davidson's "A Woman's Work Is Never Done," which the author conscientiously acknowledges.) The point is, I guess, that no man, in those days at least, could ever get anything done without the labor of a pack of slaving women.

But this household and the church do some good. Order is brought into chaotic lives. Dinners are served, hymns sung. The women, some of them, become fast friends.

This novel is based on a "true story," as they say. There was a real John Wroe in Ashton, he did preach, he did ask his congregation for those virgins, and he was later tried by the elders of the church for indecent conduct. These things--some things--really happened, and this gives the author adequate excuse to consider some serious questions.

Why do people flock with such enthusiasm to new religions that seem--from the outside, at least--to be so definitely cracked? Why do so many of us long so tremulously for the end of the world? (Won't it end for us anyway, the day we die?) How much of religion is, or should be, diversion, entertainment and magic?

Wroe pines for the end of the world because he's bored to death with this one. His conduct with these women reflects his boredom, his lust and also a keen curiosity, both religious and profane: What would happen if I did this? They certainly would be surprised if I did this!

The female characters, oddly enough, are a bit of a letdown here. Joanna, the good one, prays and strives and then prays and strives some more. Leah, the femme fatale, might have been called a nymphomaniac 120 years later, but it's hard to believe that a woman who's already had a baby, without anesthetic, in serious and disgraceful circumstances would be so avid in her search for more sex with more men. Hannah's intellectual voice seems perhaps too modern, and the savage Martha learns a very high and lyrical English far too quickly.

And yet this is an original, interesting meditation on religion, lust, love and transcendence, as well as a faithful picture of early 19th-century English town life. And it's also extremely timely as the millennium approaches. Why are so many of us so giddy about the end of the world and its metaphorical End Time equivalent, YK2? What's in it for all of us, really?

Carolyn See, whose reviews appear in Style on Friday.

UPCOMING IN BOOK WORLD; These books are scheduled to be reviewed in Style next week:

HOLY SMOKE, by Anna and Jane Campion. A novel about passion in Australia by two filmmaker sisters. Reviewed by Kelly Murphy Mason.

MERDE: Excursions in Scientific, Cultural, and Sociohistorical Coprology, by Ralph A. Lewin. Reviewed by Laura Zigman.

DUE SOUTH: Dispatches From Down Home, by R. Scott Brunner. Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley.

HIDDEN IN PLAIN VIEW, by Blair S. Walker. This mystery focuses on a serial killer murdering African Americans. Reviewed by Cheo Tyehimba.

FAREWELL: A Memoir of a Texas Childhood, by Horton Foote. Reviewed by Carolyn See.