Were you surprised to discover the weird reality of life in a debtors’ prison?
I was surprised and fascinated. Originally I’d planned to begin the novel with a scene or two in a debtors’ prison and then move the story out into London. But as I began to research the Marshalsea I quickly realised it would make an incredible setting for the whole book. I loved the idea of confining the tale almost entirely within the prison walls. The fact it was a mixed prison with a bar, a coffeehouse – even a barber’s! – meant that the Marshalsea was rather like a small village. (A particularly brutal village you couldn’t escape.) Again, something of a gift for a crime novel. Every kind of person could end up there, from a butcher-turnedkeeper to a French fortune teller to a disgraced young gentleman. Also, while the idea of a debtors’ prison is a very peculiar concept, the subject itself remains relevant, sadly. I began writing The Devil in the Marshalsea in 2010, in the midst of the economic crisis. In 1727 people were still suffering from the first great crash of the modern age: the South Sea Bubble of 1720. There were clear comparisons. The whole issue of debt, of potential ruin, felt very immediate. And that knife edge within the prison – how to stay on the right side of the wall – seemed like a natural metaphor for debt itself. Perhaps in another three hundred years people will find the idea of homeless people living and dying on the streets just as weird as we find debtors’ prisons.
Your research must have been meticulous. What were your main sources?
One essential source was a prison diary written in the Marshalsea in 1728–9 by a debtor called John Grano. He lived on the Master’s Side and offers up a detailed portrait of the prison and its characters, including William and Mary Acton, Sarah Bradshaw and Joseph Cross. He had to be careful what he wrote as he couldn’t hide the diary – Acton even read parts of it. So some reading between the lines was required. It helped to balance his slightly easier experience alongside a poem written in 1718 by an anonymous prisoner, which was called ‘The Marshalsea – or, Hell in Epitome’. It described prisoners being chained to rotting corpses as punishment. Possibly an exaggeration but it worked as a counterpoint to Grano’s diary. Another vital document was the Government’s 1729 enquiry into the state of prisons. It came about through tragic circumstances. A young architect called Robert Castell died in a debtors’ prison after being forced to share a cell with a man dying of smallpox. Castell was a friend of James Oglethorpe, an MP. Oglethorpe was so appalled that he campaigned to set up the parliamentary committee. He inspected the prisons himself, including the Marshalsea. The Committee’s report makes for harrowing reading. It describes how in the height of summer up to a dozen prisoners a day were dying on the Common Side. It also includes sketches of implements of torture used on the prisoners. I remember reading the document in the British Library and feeling Oglethorpe’s rage and disgust, almost three hundred years later. Finally there was the account of William Acton’s trial for murder in 1729. The Committee’s fi ndings led directly to Acton being charged with the murder of four prisoners and Oglethorpe led the prosecution. The depiction of the Strong Room and Tom’s terrible night there was drawn in part from this account.
The dialogue reads as extremely authentic. How did you discover how people spoke almost three hundred years ago? The cursing, the cultural references?
A lot of it came from primary sources, the ones mentioned above but also a range of pamphlets, newspapers and broadsheets. Letters, diaries and memoirs, too. Plays such as The Beggar’s Opera. And criminal biographies; it was common for condemned prisoners to publish their life stories. They used to sell them at the gallows. It was a careful balance to bring in cultural references and contemporary slang without overloading the text. I used very little ‘canting’ vocabulary for instance – the language invented by an underworld of thieves and ‘lewd women’ to discuss criminal activities without being overheard. It’s not a language Tom would really know or use except in direct context, for example when he meets Sam, the little ‘mooncurser’. And Sam calls Tom a ‘black coat’ – the cant word for priest. It’s a signal that Sam is a part of a different world – the world of St Giles. As for the cursing, most of the swear words we use today have existed for long, long centuries. Just because there’s no swearing in Jane Austen doesn’t mean to say it wasn’t happening off the page. That would be like watching EastEnders and assuming no one swears in London! The words existed and were used. How they were used and where is more a matter of debate. I found a very helpful collection of ‘libertine literature’ – basically porn before porn existed – and the language is as direct and colourful as it would be today. I do like a good old swear but there was also a serious point to it. I think some people feel quite removed from this period in history – all those wigs and stockings, the idea that it was all so polite. It wasn’t. Whenever I doubted myself I would look at a few Hogarth paintings. They’re shagging each other and vomiting on the fl oor and stealing purses. If you could turn the sound up on those paintings, the air would turn blue, I’m sure.
Will the next one be a period novel, and if so, which era have you chosen?
The next novel is a sequel, set a few months after The Devil in the Marshalsea, in 1728. So all my research into the clothes, the food, the language was already done. Praise be. But it spreads out into London, both high and low. It’s such a wild, dangerous, witty world; I was very happy to return. And Tom Hawkins is not a man to settle back into a quiet, comfortable life.