The Devil in the Marshalsea: Antonia Hodgson

★★★★

Thomas Hawkins: Book I

It’s 1727 and Thomas Hawkins is in trouble. Admittedly, this is pretty much the status quo for this roguish disowned son of a clergyman; but this time things are worse than usual. Having spent his meagre income on wine, women and gambling, Tom is in dire financial straits, but a chance win at the tables has brightened his mood. Now he can pay his rent, get his landlord off his back and carry on having a good time. But the world has other plans. Mugged and robbed in the stews of St Giles, Tom is left – once again – penniless, and his landlord is in no mood to be generous. Our bewildered young hero is dragged off to the infamous Marshalsea, the debtors’ prison in Southwark. Like hell, it’s easy to enter but hard to leave. And, like hell, there are demons loose within. As rumours of murder and ghosts spread around the prison, Tom is made an offer: find the murderer and he will be set free. But what if the murderer finds him first?

The Marshalsea’s name doesn’t have the familiar ring of the Fleet Prison or Newgate, but by the end of the book you feel that you know it intimately – and would have done anything to avoid it. A city within a city, it’s a place where money talks – a bitter irony, considering the debt-laden state of its inmates – and where every kindness has its cost. Despite his swaggering ways, Tom is an innocent among wolves, with little idea of who to trust. His one hope is the offer extended by his old friend Charles Buckley, now a promising young clergyman whose powerful patron just happens to be in charge of the Marshalsea. Charles can’t get Tom off completely, but he makes a deal: if Tom can find the murderer of Captain Roberts – whose beaten body was found hanged in the prison – then Tom will go free. Unfortunately, there’s precious little evidence. Everyone has their own theories about the murderer, and everyone is hiding something. Worst of all, Tom has been unwillingly taken under the wing of Samuel Fleet – the titular devil, a man feared by all within the prison walls, and the one who just happened to be the murdered man’s cell-mate. Fleet professes himself eager to help – but does he help, or hinder?

Hogson’s novel is a deliciously convincing piece of period work. Her characters speak not with the stilted elegance of fiction, but the crude cut-and-thrust of ordinary life, peppering their dialogue with swear-words and curses. Each member of the prison population (‘community’ seems too gentle a term) is quickly blocked out into a rounded, vivid personality, from William Acton, the red-faced brute of a governor, to Mr Woodburn, the mild-mannered priest tasked with the job of saving these disinterested souls. And we come to know the Marshalsea itself, with its grim split personality: the Master’s Side, where gentlemen can while away the time at Mrs Bradshaw’s coffee-house, or the chop-house, or have a shave with Trim the Barber – just as long as they have enough money to pay for their rent along with these luxuries – while, on the far side of the dividing wall, the Commons Side is a stew of filthy, close-packed, diseased humanity condemned to a living death. Despite the wall, it’s all too easy to slip from the Master’s Side into the Commons; just as long as you never expect to make it out again.

The central mystery – who killed Captain Roberts? – is meaty and satisfying and I only guessed the right answer by virtue of having suspected absolutely everybody in the novel at some point, including Tom himself. However, there are plenty of other secrets to winkle out: is Samuel Fleet friend or foe? What is his relationship with Kitty, the pretty maid from the prison’s coffee-house? What lies behind the sightings of Captain Roberts’s ghost? And, perhaps the most devilish question of all: how far will Tom go to find the truth? If an easier path is offered, securing his release without assuaging his doubts, will he take it? Has our young hero wandered so deep into the mire that even his honour can be bought? If this is a rake’s progress, it’s also (to some extent) a kind of pilgrim’s process: the situation in which a young man has to decide what he stands for, and how much of himself he’s prepared to lose to dissolution. Fortunately, Tom remains cheerfully temptable throughout and, given that this is the first in a series, it’s safe to say that his experience in the Marshalsea won’t be quite the salutary lesson it should have been.

Considering I bought this book three years ago, it’s high time I read it; and it was worth the wait: a brilliantly-evoked tale of sin and grit and misery in early Georgian London, happily probing the city’s grimy underbelly. Hodgson writes well and with relish, and although none of her characters are precisely nice (because where would be the fun in that?), I’ve come away with soft spots for several, primarily Moll, Fleet and Trim. And perhaps the best thing, as revealed by her afterword, is that so many of the figures we meet actually existed. Sadly that also means that the conditions she describes are equally authentic, many based on a diary kept by John Baptist Grano, a trumpeter who had worked with Handel, and who was imprisoned in the Marshalsea for eighteen months in 1728-9. That gives us pause for thought – but it’s also a joy, as a modern person comfortably removed from all the filth and disease, to have such a well-crafted view into the less glamorous and elegant aspects of my city’s Georgian past.

I’m sure it won’t be long before I’m tempted to find out what Tom Hawkins did next…

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