About On Paradise Row
On Paradise Row is a work of fiction. Mostly.
The novel imagines a few weeks in the life of the seventeenth-century English philosopher and writer, Mary Astell, who has been called the first English feminist. A quiet woman who spends her day in meditation and study, Astell is surprised by the sudden arrival of a young woman whose unwelcome presence interrupts her peaceful life and challenges her calm certitudes. To solve the problems created by this uninvited guest, Astell must negotiate not only the vast city of London but also the obstacles women face there. As she makes her way through the dirt and dangers of the crowded streets, she must also find a way through the social, political, and religious institutions designed by those who have little interest in, much less sympathy for, anyone who is not rich and powerful—and male.
While the story is entirely the product of my imagination, the novel’s plot incorporates many details and events drawn from the lives of real women who lived in late seventeenth-century England.
Mary Astell was well known in literary London, her person and her work both celebrated and satirized by her contemporaries. Today her most frequently read works are A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694) and Some Reflections upon Marriage (1700). In late 1696, when the events of this novel unfold, she had just come to live in a newly constructed terraced house on Paradise Row in the village of Chelsea.
Several of the other characters in the novel are also based on real women, Astell’s friends and acquaintances in Chelsea: Lady Catherine Jones, daughter of the earl of Ranelagh; Elizabeth King, the wife of the rector of All Saints Church; and Mary Methuen, whose sweet-smelling honeysuckle was admired and commented on by several of her neighbors, including Mary Astell.
Other characters include historical women whom Astell might have encountered as she went about her business in the city: the scandalous Hortense Mancini, duchess of Mazarin, who also resided on Paradise Row; Anne Tenison, wife of the archbishop of Canterbury, and her “faithful” attendant, Ann Stubbs; Mary Kettilby, author of A Collection of above Three Hundred Receipts in Cookery, Physic, and Surgery, printed by Richard Wilkin, the bookseller who published many of Astell’s works.
Still others who make an appearance in On Paradise Row are women who were known in seventeenth-century London, but who were probably not the kind of women with whom Mary Astell would have had an acquaintance—outside the pages of a novel, that is. Among them are Gertrude Rolles, a successful milliner with a shop in the Royal Exchange; Mrs. Ball, the proprietor of a marriage house in the Fleet; and Elizabeth Wisebourne, a notorious brothel-keeper whose premises were on Drury Lane.
All of these women—Mary Astell, her friends, her neighbors, and her contemporaries—have left at least some evidence of their lives in London, and I have tried to make real characters out of the tantalizing bits of information that have survived.
For the lives of the other women whose stories are told here—disgruntled maidservants, working women, impoverished widows, and runaway apprentices—I have turned to a variety of sources, including witness depositions, criminal examinations, trial records, settlement and poor relief appeals, livery company records, wills, and other kinds of archival material. These female characters may be fictional, but the circumstances of their lives are real enough.
For the reader who would like to know more about the history behind the fiction, I encourage you to check the tabs under "About the Book." You will find a timeline of historical events, biographical details, maps, portraits, and a variety of contextual materials. There are also links to copies of newspapers, like the London Gazette, to diaries and summaries of parliamentary debate, to legal proceedings and court reports, and to information about Chelsea in the late seventeenth-century.
I have spent years thinking and writing about Mary Astell. I’ve read her work with scores of students. I’ve walked the length of Paradise Row (now Royal Hospital Road), visited the Chelsea Physic Garden, and had my picture snapped while I was standing next to a sign reading “The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, Astell Street, SW3”—in the photo, I am grinning like a madwoman. You might well conclude that I am little obsessed.
And so I have a confession to make. Mary Astell hated “idle novels” and thought that reading them was not only a waste of time but would also lead “to the practice of the greatest follies.” I am sure she would despise On Paradise Row. I can only offer my apologies and, in my defense, say that it is a product of much love and admiration.
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