The Devil in the Marshalsea is Antonia Hodgson’s first novel and the winner of the 2014 CWA Historical Dagger Award. A thriller set in Georgian London, it tells the story of loveable rogue Thomas Hawkins, would-be pastor turned ladies’ man and gambler, whose fall from grace ends abruptly in Southwark’s notorious debtor’s prison, the Marshalsea. Fear and superstition are rife in the prison after the recent murder of one of its inmates, and Tom must use his wits, and every shred of his gambler’s luck, to discover the identity of the killer and earn his freedom.
Good historical fiction brings to life the sights, textures and smells of places forever lost to us, including the less savoury ones- rot, grime and blood- that would have been prevalent in times long past. And this, my dear friends, is a very smelly book. Antonia Hodgson brings the sights and smells of 1727 Southwark to life, taking us deep inside the grim confines of the Marshalsea – a truly horrific, and fascinating, place. Hodgson’s careful attention to detail give this novel its gorgeous texture (and its wonderful scent) but even more impressive is the lightness of her touch- the way she seamlessly weaves historical detail into a fast-paced thriller. History never overshadows the story, which takes place over four days and rips along at a cracking pace with intrigues deepening and plots thickening by the hour.
That being said, there was still plenty of time for moments of dark humour and wry reflection from Mr Hawkins, and to meet other fascinating characters, many of whom really existed. Time, too, for some truly wonderful cursing. Call me immature, but there are few things I like more than the sweet sound of a well-timed historical F-bomb exploding, and Hodgson fires them with admirable skill. I laughed out loud more than once.
I adored this book. I loved its its murky atmosphere and its characters, especially Tom Hawkins (so honestly flawed, such wonderful legs). It worked beautifully for me as an historical novel, and the fact that it was also a thriller, and a damn good one, too, was like getting extra gooseberries on your dressed mackerel, or a half-pint of raspberry brandy in your bowl of punch.
I can’t wait to read the sequel!
An Earthly Hell – The Real Marshalsea
The Marshalsea (1373- 1842) was one of Southwark’s notorious debtor’s prisons. It existed in two locations on what is now Borough High Street, and was known for subjecting its prisoners to starvation and torture.
‘Although conditions in all the Southwark prisons were bad there are indications that they were worse in the Marshalsea, perhaps because the prisoners were entirely at the mercy of the Knight Marshal or his deputy. The complaint of a Frenchman, M. La Touche, in 1629, that he was detained in “hunger and nakedness” because he could not pay the prison charges, although an order had been issued for his release, is typical of many. In 1639 the prisoners revolted, pulled down the palings about the house and attacked the watch with stones, brickbats, and firebrands. One of their accusations against Hall, the undermarshal, was that 23 women were lodged in one room where there was no space for them even to lie down. In 1718 an anonymous rhymester called the Marshalsea an “earthly Hell…” (from British History Online).
The Marshalsea is also famous for its connections to Charles Dickens. Dickens’s father did time there, so to speak, in 1824, when Charles was twelve years old. He left school and worked in a blacking warehouse to help his family, who had joined his father in the prison. Dickens spent Sundays with his family there, and he used it as a setting in his novel Little Dorrit. “[I]t is gone now,” he wrote of the Marshalsea, “and the world is none the worse without it.”
The Marshalsea was closed by an Act of Parliament in 1842. The buildings and land were auctioned off in July 1843, and in the 1870s most of the buildings were demolished. Southwark Council’s John Harvard Library and Local Studies Library now stand on the original site, at 211 Borough High Street. The prison’s southern wall remains.
Georgian London was a truly scary place. It was also an interesting one, and if you want to have a closer look at it, check out this amazing digital map of 1746 London at Locating London.org. Search for ‘Marshalsea’ in the quick search box and you will see Tom Hawkins’s London- the Marshalsea, Snows Fields, the Borough, and much more.
If you’re still with me,
you’re a nerd you might also like this prize winning animation by Pudding Lane Productions which flies through the streets of 17th century London. Yes, it’s London as it was a hundred years or so before our story begins, but it’s still an interesting watch and brings to mind the twisting alleys, dark corners and firelit inns of Thomas Hawkins’s world. Enjoy!