BOOK REVIEW: The Devil in the Marshalsea
Lately I’ve had a lucky review streak. I’ve had the good fortune of being able to read some great historical fiction. Great being the operative word…great, but certainly not mind blowing. At least not until I came across this book. The Devil in the Marshalsea stands out amongst the masses of decent (but rather forgettable) novels as being one of the best pieces of historical fiction I’ve read to date. Period. I would even venture so far as to say it’s one of my favourite historical fiction novels of all time.
Tom Hawkins, the well-to-do son of a preacher, is a gambler, rake and skirt chaser drifting through life in London’s sleazy coffeehouses. Unfortunately, Tom’s fortunes take a turn for the worse and he’s tossed in jail for debt in Southwark’s notorious Marshalsea prison. This is the same Marshalsea that Dicken’s made famous in Little Dorrit, one hundred years later. Tom arrives to find there is a murderer running loose in the jail. He has to work frantically to solve the crime before his money and luck run out and he is chucked over to the prison’s “Common Side”. Unfortunately for Tom, things in the Marshalsea aren’t simple. For starters, he’s stuck sharing a room with one of the prison’s most infamous residents: Samuel Fleet. Fleet is eccentric, brilliant and dangerous. He is also suspected of the murder of Captain Roberts. Between sleeping in the same room as a possible murderer, being robbed, beaten, jail fever, and corruption, poor Tom has his work cut out for him. Fortunately, along the way, he makes some unlikely allies and manages to keep his head out of a noose. Tom is a complete mess but I loved him from the first page – he’s an irresistible character; a cad with a heart and sense of honour. I was pleasantly caught off guard when I found myself cheering him on in spite of all his flaws. Hodgson fleshed out her supporting characters as well. Characters who you’d normally hate, you loved; characters who tried to pass themselves off as “the good guys” saw Hodgson smashing their thin veneer and exposing their ugly natures. Supporting characters like Acton, Joseph Cross, Trim, Moll, and Kitty are memorable, cleverly crafted and don’t distract from the plot line.
Historical Fact or Fiction?: The history of the Marshalsea
Hodgson did extensive research into the Marshalsea and Georgian prison life. The book is based on accounts of the jail written by musician John Baptist Grano. Grano was imnprisoned in The Marshalsea from 1728-1729 for a debt of £99. This intimate primary source provided Hodgson with plenty of material for her book. In fact, many of the occupants in The Devil in the Marshalsea were actual residents and proprietors of the prison. Places like Moll’s Coffeehouse have been immortalised in works such as Hogarth’s piece, “Morning”. Many of the shops running in the prison have retained their original names in Hodgson’s novel.
The Marshalsea was located in two places during its infamous five hundred year history; both locations were on what is now Borough High Street, in Southwark, London. Georgian imprisonment wasn’t pretty. Hodgson takes no liberties with the treatment prisoners endured at the hands of their jailers. Most of the population in the Marshasea during the Georgian period were simple debtors; poor souls who languished in jail for years trying to clear their debts. Prisons of the eighteenth century were not run in the same way we are accustomed to hearing about today – they were often run privately and for profit. Prisoners still had to pay extortionate amounts for rent, food and clothing. This meant keeping up an income while incarcerated and trying to find ways to clear debt to get out of jail. It was a vicious circle.
Conditions at the prison were atrocious; if you were lucky, you could live comfortably on the “Master’s Side”, renting a room and being able to afford food and drink. Those with no family or friends on the outside to help were discarded to the squalor of the Common Side and faced starvation, disease, and death. Jail cells were often filthy and rat infested and disease ran rampant. There was a staggering statistic that by 1729, 8-10 prisoners were dying at the Marshalsea every twenty-four hours. While other countries in Europe had a one year limit on imprisonment for debt, England had no such clemency. English debtors were left to rot until their debts had been fully satisfied.
Against this grim backdrop, Hodgson paints a vivid, fascinating picture of the fringes of London’s underworld and gives a voice to the impoverished, the criminal, and the morally bereft of Georgian society.
What makes Hodgson’s book so compelling? Well, for starters, it’s not medieval, it’s not Tudor, and it’s not Victorian; it’s Georgian; that oft overlooked period sandwiched between the Tudor and Victorian epochs. The Georgian period reminds me of that sad, quiet middle child in a family trying to clamour for attention between two popular and obnoxious siblings. Sadly, there are few novels dedicated to this fascinating era. Currently, the market is saturated with writers trying to be the next Philippa Gregory and it seems that every other novel is set squarely in the Tudor or Medieval period. It’s so done, overdone in fact, and starting to get formulaic and boring.
Marshalsea is anything but boring. Hodgson takes Georgian London’s seedy underbelly and brings it to life in the pages of her book. There is no “filler” in this novel, yet the descriptions are still detailed and vibrant. Hodgson has a natural talent for writing. The words flow seamlessly off the page and the story is captivating. She is a brilliant storyteller with a gift for weaving an amazing tale. Nothing feels forced, or overly complicated. The charm of the book is in its simplicity; she is just telling a tale without trying too hard to make it clever.
The Devil in the Marshalsea had me glued to the pages well into the wee hours of the night. I haven’t had that happen in a long time. That’s what makes the difference between a great novel and an amazing novel: the one you can’t put down, and that is this book.
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