Is dystopian thriller Girl One the new Handmaids Tale?

Curious case of the ‘virgin birth’ brought to light again by new book: Dystopian thriller Girl One echoes shocking 1950s true story of British mother who convinced doctors her daughter was born without a man

  • Dystopian thriller Girl One by Sara Flannery Murphy has been hailed by critics
  • Book follows a woman who was born without male DNA at a rural commune
  • The novel has been praised as ‘a genre-dying, thought-provoking thriller’ 
  • Meanwhile author Layne Fargo called it ‘a heart-pounding, binge-worthy’ book 
  • It has been compared to ‘Orphan Black meets Margaret Atwood’

The release of a new dystopian thriller following women who were the result of virgin births has thrown the spotlight back on a curious case from the fifties in which a woman claimed to have conceived a child without a man. 

Girl One by Sara Flannery Murphy, 37, who lives in Utah, is set to be released in the UK next week and is ‘part detective story, part road-trip’ in which a woman born via parthenogenesis as she tracks down her mother after she goes missing. 

Fans are already hailing the book as a successor to The Handmaid’s Tale, the seminal novel by Margaret Atwood, which is also set in a dystopian future and tackles issues of reproduction for women.

Its release revisits the idea of parthenogenesis, where the embryo grows and develop in absence of fertilization, which became a huge news story in 1956 in Britain when Emmimarie Jones shocked doctors and scandalised the church by claiming she had had a virgin birth. 

The release of a new dystopian thriller depicting the first person who was born of virgin birth is shedding a light on the case of Emmimarie Jones shocked doctors and scandalised the church by claiming she had had a virgin birth (pictured with her daughter Monica in 1956)

In 1955, a lecture by geneticist Dr Helen Spurway of University College London, described how the female of a species of guppy fish, while kept segregated from the male, can independently produce female offspring, as well as noting a laboratory creation of viable baby rabbits without male parents. 

This example of artificial parthenogenesis (reproduction without fertilisation) in a mammal led Dr Spurway to call for a re-examination of the assumption that spontaneous parthenogenesis – aka, a virgin birth – was impossible in humans.

Journalist Audrey Whiting decided to follow up on Dr Spurway’s casual suggestion, and on 6 November 1955 the Sunday Pictorial launched its search for a virgin mother.

To be considered, the woman had to have every reason to believe her child had no father, and the child had to be a daughter with a striking resemblance to the mother. 

In 1956, after a scientific investigation by doctors in Britain, The Sunday Pictorial ran a piece under the banner MY BABY BORN WITHOUT A MAN which became a phenomenon

Of the 19 women who came forward to the paper, 11 were discounted straight away, having misunderstood the criteria. Six more pairs were ruled out after a test found mothers and daughters had nonidentical blood groups. Another pair was eliminated because they had different eye colours.

She responded to a newspaper feature seeking ‘a virgin mother’, writing: ‘For ten years I have been wandering and worried about the birth of my daughter. I honestly belief that she has no father.’ 

She claimed that she had been a virgin at the time of the alleged conception and  bedridden with rheumatism in a German hospital, staffed only by women. 

After leaving the hospital in the summer of 1944 she had gone to the doctor feeling lethargic and hoping to be prescribed a tonic, only to be told she was three months pregnant. ‘There has been no opportunity. It can’t possibly be true,’ was her response. 

What is parthenogenesis?

Parthenogenesis, also known as a virgin birth, sees the embryo grows and develop in the absence of fertilization.

It sounds unusual—some might even say miraculous—but it’s a surprisingly common occurrence in the animal kingdom.

Researchers believe that an absence of available males likely drives the phenomenon.

Although the exact mechanisms of parthenogenetic reproduction can vary from species to species, all parthenogenesis produces normal, healthy offspring.

In 2001, fertility specialists have found a way for women to have babies without men.

It involves a cocktail of chemicals acting as an ‘artificial sperm’ to trick a human egg into forming an embryo.

At the time, the stunning discovery alarmed medical ethics campaigners, who described it as turning nature on its head. 

Researchers said the groundbreaking technology could be used to help women whose husbands are infertile but who do not want to use donor sperm. 

Any babies born from the process would be female and genetically identical to their mother. 

In 1948, two years after her daughter’s birth, she married a Welshman and moved to Hereford where she was still living when she responded to the appeal. 

Between November 1955 and June 1956 Mrs Jones and her daughter Monica, then ten years old, readily submitted to a series of experiments devised by a team of specialists assembled by the newspaper and led by Dr Stanley Balfour-Lynn of Guy’s and Queen Charlotte’s Hospital, London. The aim was to establish whether a father had played any part in Monica’s birth. 

The tests confirmed that mother and daughter had identical blood, saliva and sense of taste – all apparently consistent with a case of virgin birth. 

The final test – a skin graft between mother and daughter, and vice versa – failed to ‘take’.

On the skin grafts, it was concluded that they indicated that Monica’s genes did match her mother’s, despite all the previous evidence to the contrary. 

Any parthenogenetically conceived child  could not have any genes that had not come from the mother in the first place.

Therefore while a skin graft from a virgin-born child would take on her mother, the one from the mother would not necessarily take on her child. 

Doctors concluded the final test didn’t negate the validity of the first three, and stated that her claim of the fatherless child should be taken seriously.

They declared: ‘We have been unable to prove that any man took part in the creation of this child.’ 

The Sunday Pictorial ran a piece under the banner MY BABY BORN WITHOUT A MAN which became a phenomenon, doubling the paper’s circulation to six million and making headlines around the globe.  

‘It’s the story the whole world is talking about,’ the Melbourne Argus trumpeted. 

Readers were drip-fed every detail of the six-month medical investigation under the subheadings The Tests, Four Left, Relief. 

New dystopian thriller Girl One by Sara Flannery Murphy, is set to be released in the UK next week and revisits the idea of the ‘virgin birth’ 

They had to wait a whole week for THE MOTHER’S OWN STORY, Emmimarie’s illness, pregnancy and Monica’s birth – another front-page world exclusive. 

Even disagreements among scholars in the medical journal The Lancet could not derail the story. ‘Any doubts in the public mind about this can now be dispelled,’ the Daily Mirror promised.

But not long afterward, Emmimarie and her daughter vanished.

Speaking in an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour in 2001, Whiting, who had become friends with Emmimarie, recalled, ‘Then [not long after publication] of course she disappeared from the face of the earth. 

‘She said she thought she might go to Germany for a little while… And she said, “I’ll be in touch with you.” 

‘I never heard another word from her. I wrote to her several times at the German address she gave me and I never heard anything. It’s very strange.’ 

Helen Spurway died in 1978, Stanley Balfour-Lynn in 1986 and Audrey Whiting in 2009. 

Records of births, marriages and deaths show that an Emmimarie who married an Ernest Jones in Hereford in 1948 died in Camden in 1983, but there is no trace of Monica. 

According to the Bloomsbury website, Sara’s novel has received praise from a host of fellow authors, with some comparing it to a cross between Orphan Black and Margaret Atwood

It’s a concept echoed in Sara Flannery Murphy’s book Girl One, which is set to be released next week in the UK, follows a woman who’s been brought up by the scientist who created her, but is not her biological father.

When her mother goes missing, she embarks on a search to find the eight other women who were all created in the same way.  

Author Sara told Nerd Daily she had ‘started and restarted’ the book a multitude of times and even abandoned the project at one stage.    

The novel has been widely praised by critics ahead of its release next week, with Kami Garcia, author of Beautiful Creatures, saying: ‘A genre-defying, thought-provoking thriller that is impossible to put down. Girl One is an engaging, timely exploration of identity and the power women possess when they band together.’ 

The novel may remind many of the popular novel The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, which is also set in a dystopian future and tackles issues of reproduction for women

Mindy Mejia, author of ‘Everything You Want Me To Be’ and ‘Strike Me Down’, wrote: ‘Girl One flares into the world with genetic possibilities and a bold remaking of history. 

‘A speculative feminist thriller of the highest order, Girl One is fresh, boundless and thought-provoking. 

‘Certain books and characters linger long after the final page. Josephine Morrow and her extraordinary journey is one you won’t soon forget.’ 

Meanwhile Layne Fargo, author of ‘They Never Learn said: ‘Sara Flannery Murphy’s Girl One is both a heart-pounding, binge-worthy thriller and a riveting exploration of creation, consent, and the power of sisterhood.’ 

The novel may remind many of the popular novel by Margaret Atwood, which is also set in a dystopian future and tackles issues of reproduction for women. 

The author previously revealed how she ‘started and restarted’ the book a multitude of times and even abandoned the project at one stage

In the Handmaid’s Tale, most women have become infertile due to warfare-induced contamination so the remaining fertile females, known as ‘handmaids’, are kept captive.

They are made to subject themselves to ritual sex, the sole purpose of which is reproduction rather than pleasure.

Meanwhile the TV adaptation of the novel was met with critical acclaim when it debuted in 2017 and it won five Primetime Emmy Awards for the first season including Outstanding Drama Series and Outstanding Lead Actress for Elisabeth Moss.

Moss plays handmaid Offred, the main character in the series, alongside Joseph Fiennes, Yvonne Strahovski, Alexis Bledel and Ann Dowd.

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