“Marshalsea, in Hodgson’s meticulously-researched story, was more like a village than a place of incarceration. Although, of course, everyone was incarcerated there – their fortunes brought low by debt and fecklessness.”
Charles Dickens wrote about a debtors’ prison in Little Dorrit. But his gaol didn’t open for business (and debtors’ gaols were a business) until almost a century after the one Antonia Hodgson so vividly describes in this scorcher of a debut novel.
Debtors’ prisons were the strangest of communities, unlike any other kind of jail. Marshalsea, in Hodgson’s meticulously-researched story, was more like a village than a place of incarceration. Although, of course, everyone was incarcerated there – their fortunes brought low by debt and fecklessness. Three hundred years ago, to fall into debt was seen as just as wrong as to steal, or to kill – a moral failure deserving of condign punishment until matters could be set right. Some debtors died in jail after decades of hopeless impoverishment.
But life could be comfortable enough, if one had well-heeled friends and family on the outside. Gifts of money from them bought favours – decent rooms (hardly comparable to prison cells); good food cooked on the premises; alcohol, books and smart clothes. In Hodgson’s Marshalsea of 1727, there were bars, coffee shops, books and brothels. If you had the borrowed brass to pay for them.
There was also cruelty and brutality. It all depended on which side of the inner wall you were imprisoned – the Master’s Side, all relative ease and comfort if you had a few coins to jingle in your pocket to pay for your room and board and comforts; or the Common Side, a hell-hole where destitute prisoners were manacled to corpses as a punishment and counted the days left to them to live in single figures.
“Tom is a parson’s son who has fallen by the wayside. Forced to study at Oxford for the clergy, he rebels – spectacularly – and winds up in the cesspits of London, whoring, gambling, and fighting.”
Tom Hawkins is the figure Hodgson has invented to take us by the hand into this extreme corner of the human zoo – Marshalsea debtors’ prison, in early 18th century Southwark. A truly Godawful place.
Tom is a parson’s son who has fallen by the wayside. Forced to study at Oxford for the clergy, he rebels – spectacularly – and winds up in the cesspits of London, whoring, gambling, and fighting. He ends up wildly in debt but redeems himself in a high-risk card game, only to be robbed afterwards and left for dead on the streets. His creditors come after him and he finds himself flung into Marshalsea, friendless, broke and terrified.
But Tom is befriended by the most feared man in the prison: the sly, mysterious Samuel Fleet. Fleet is believed by all to have brutally murdered his last cell-mate, an impecunious, charming army officer. So when he insists Tom joins him and sleep in the late Captain Roberts’s bed, everyone – including Tom – thinks another killing is on the cards.
Hodgson sketches some brilliantly illuminated characters in this, her debut novel, and the 18th century dialogue she gives us is earthy and convincing. Prudes should avoid this book.
By turns disturbing, funny, and deeply illuminating about a shocking period in British legal history, The Devil in the Marshalsea will have you swearing never, ever, to get yourself in debt.
Here are a selection of the reviews for The Devil In The Marshalsea
“Impeccably researched and astonishingly atmospheric, with time past evoked so strongly that one can almost smell it, this is a truly spellbinding tale.”
“Historical fiction just doesn’t get any better than this. A riveting, fast-paced story…Magnificent!”
“Alive and immediate. The story crackles with anxiety as Tom finally finds purpose for his idle hands, the true meaning of honor and the identity of the real devil in the Marshalsea.”