Historical Notes: The Rose in the Wheel

HISTORICAL NOTES: THE ROSE IN THE WHEEL

These historical details, comments, and illustrations help bring the world of Penelope Wolfe and John Chase to life.


St. Catherine of Alexandria was a scholarly princess who refused to renounce her Christian faith and marry a pagan emperor. When her cruel captors bound her to spiked wheels, the “machine” miraculously shattered, so Catherine was instead beheaded. She is the patron saint of young girls, those who work the wheel such as wheelwrights and spinners, students, and clergy.


An image of St. Catherine’s wheel on a wall in Cambridge, England.


An 1802 engraving of the St. Catherine’s Chapel high above the Abbotsbury Swannery on the coast of Dorset.
In this particular chapel there are niches or “wishing holes” in which young girls seeking a husband would drop pins and recite a rhyme:

A husband, St. Catherine.
A handsome one, St. Catherine.
A rich one, St. Catherine.
A nice one, St. Catherine.
And soon, St. Catherine.


WARNING: Possible spoilers ahead! Read the book first.

Writing historical fiction requires a sort of teetering between the pure, elusive ideal of accuracy and the messier demands of a particular story. Accordingly, while taking this opportunity to tie up some loose bits, I would also like to “fess up” to several instances of poetic license. No doubt you have found more I should have mentioned.


Of St. Catherine: Although there were several churches dedicated to St. Catherine in Regency London, Curate Wood’s church, located in Soho roughly on the sight of old St. Anne’s, is completely fictional.

I found few specific references to St. Catherine’s Day celebrations during this era. However, up until the introduction of the new poor law in 1834, workhouse girls at Peterborough and lace makers in other parts of Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire reputedly observed the holiday.

Because angels bore the saint’s corpse to Mount Sinai (where would be established a famous monastery in her honor), Catherine is often associated with hills; tiny, hilltop chapels dedicated to her exist all over England. Actually, the bit of lore about dropping pins in a niche and reciting a prayer for a husband comes from a tale of the St. Catherine chapel high on a hill in Abbotsbury on the Dorset coast. In spite of no path and lots of sheep, I managed to clamber up to this fifteenth-century chapel above the swannery. The Catholic church removed Catherine of Alexandria from the calendar of saints in 1969.


Of Coffee Houses, Taverns, and Public Houses: I invented many of the pubs and coffee houses with the notable exceptions of the Grecian, today called the Devereux; the Russian Coffee House or Brown Bear in Bow Street; and the Cider Cellars tavern.


Of St. Thomas’s Hospital: The female operating theatre in the garret of St. Thomas’s church did not open until 1821. At the time of this novel in 1811, women underwent surgery in the adjacent Dorcas ward, a practice which must have been disturbing for the other patients. I found it more effective to locate a scene in the garret theatre, especially since I was able to see it first hand. Marvelously restored, the theatre is now a museum.


Of the Great Comet: The Great Comet of 1811 was a prominent feature of the night sky. Napoleon reputedly took its appearance as a heavenly sign in favor of his Russian campaign (wrong move). The giant “fireball” was also thought to contribute to prevailing maladies referred to as Comet Fevers and was credited with producing an unusually fine vintage of port wine.


Of British Criminal Law: It was not until 1836 that a person accused of felony was allowed to make his full defense by counsel. Nonetheless, prior to that date a practice had developed whereby a barrister could cross-examine witnesses and argue points of law, yet could not address the jury. It seems this privilege was granted––or refused––somewhat capriciously. In one 1760 trial, for instance, the prisoner was forced to question the witness called to prove his own defense of insanity!


Of the Ratcliffe Highway Murders: In several key ways, the fate of the Irishman Donovan parallels that of the young man called John Williams, chief suspect in the Ratcliffe murders. In both cases the evidence against the accused is circumstantial, and the rush to judgment seems appallingly unjust.

Still, Donovan escaped the final indignity visited upon Williams, for on New Year’s Eve day, 1811, London was treated to a gruesome procession that wound its way through the streets of Wapping, pausing in turn at the homes of the Ratcliffe victims and at the lodging house where Williams had lived. The focal point of this procession was a cart in which was displayed Williams’s corpse, clothed in trousers and frilled shirt. Also featured were the bloody maul and other weapons used in the crimes. The ca valcade ended at a crossroads where Williams was thrust into a cramped, unblessed grave.

Thousands of people watched the interment in eerie silence until the moment when an attendant picked up the maul to pound a stake through Williams’s heart and the crowd exploded with curses and howls.

It is easy to imagine John Chase of Bow Street mingling with the throng, keeping a vigilant eye out for pickpockets and other malefactors eager to take advantage of this cathartic moment in the life of a city. It is less easy to envision the presence of Edward Buckler, who probably would have chosen to remain sequestered in the Temple with more congenial ghosts.

As for Penelope Wolfe, even an unconventional gentlewoman of her mettle would hardly dare to brave so public and unsavory a spectacle, though no doubt her curiosity must have presented a severe temptation. This instance is one in which following the rules might be said to redound to her benefit.