I recently reviewed Antonia Hodgson’s book, The Devil in the Marshalsea, and it was an amazing piece of historical fiction. This Medievalist-cum-Georgian author is currently writing the follow up to the adventures of her endearing rake, Tom Hawkins while juggling her responsibilities as Editor-in-Chief at Little Brown UK. Antonia was kind enough to take the time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions about The Devil in the Marshalsea and her upcoming projects.
You majored in medieval literature in university. What drew you to the Georgian period as opposed to writing a book based in the Middle Ages? Would you ever consider writing a book in a different historical period?
I studied English at the University of Leeds back in the 90s – they have an amazing medieval department, which is one of the reasons I chose to go there. It was a brilliant course generally – ranging from Old English right up to optional courses on modern literary theory and science fiction, both of which I took. My subsidiary course was on Icelandic Literature and History and I also made sure I was able to study Chaucer in depth in all three years… And my dissertation was on road movies!
Ironically the one period I didn’t gravitate towards at the time was the Georgian period. I loved Defoe and Swift but it didn’t spark my imagination back then. One of the reasons I was drawn to the 1720s and 30s a few years ago was the realisation that I wanted to discover more about a neglected period. Plus – I loved Hogarth. He was a huge inspiration. And once you’ve read John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera… it’s so funny and cynical and dark – and familiar.
In terms of writing in another period, it’s not something I’ve considered, except possibly a prequel one day involving Samuel Fleet. I tend to work intuitively – something will catch my interest and then it’s down the rabbit hole I go.
The Devil in the Marshalsea is based largely on primary sources, like that of English trumpeter John Baptist Grano, who was imprisoned in the Marshalsea in the late 1720s. How did you come up with the idea for Tom Hawkins’ character from these sources?
Actually it was the other way around! Tom Hawkins came first – and then I decided to start him out in a debtors’ prison – perhaps the Marshalsea or the Fleet. As soon as I began reading about the Marshalsea in the 1720s I discovered the story of the head keeper William Acton and his trial for murder in 1729. Tom’s entirely invented, but I think we all know someone rather like him. Feckless, charming, troubled young men aren’t exclusive to the 1720s…
Tom Hawkins is cheeky, fun and fascinating and by far my favourite character, but second to Tom, I absolutely loved Samuel Fleet. I noticed he wasn’t in the list of real characters at the back of the book. Was Fleet modelled on someone from the primary sources or is he an entirely fictional character?
I loved writing Fleet – he just tumbled on to the page. He was by far the easiest character to write. I’m not sure what that says about my imagination, but there we are.
Here’s a strange thing about Fleet. I made him up – every detail. A bookseller, a spy, in prison for sedition, a publisher of filth and scandal… Then while I was writing the book I discovered there was a real person called Edmund Curll – a bookseller, a government spy, a publisher of filth and scandal – and he was even thrown in prison for sedition in 1727! (Partly for publishing a ‘treatise on flogging’.)
It felt quite spooky but I’m a rationalist about such things. I’d done so much research around the subject I think I just pulled together lots of bits of research and ended up with someone quite feasible, under the circumstances. And half of London seemed to be spying on the other half in those days…
Once I discovered the coincidence I went back and dropped in a few references to Curll as Fleet’s rival. Curll was absolutely loathed by authors – he would create cheap editions of their work and print their private letters. Absolutely no scruples. Alexander Pope once slipped an emetic in his beer as revenge. Then wrote a pamphlet about it, of course.
Something similar has just happened with my second novel. I created a character – a master carpenter who is involved in a moral crusade to clean the streets of vice. (A Herculean task.) But he’s not quite what he seems. I realised I needed to check something about how a master carpenter worked and discovered there was a well-known carpenter who went on a moral crusade…
What facet of this period intrigues you the most and what part of the research for this book surprised you most?
I love the fact that for the first time you have a really significant urban population – London was the biggest city in the world by this point. The old feudal ties were gone, though of course social mobility was still a dream for most. There was a constitutional monarchy. But it was also pre-Empire, before the English started to believe they were the moral guardians of the world. (In order to justify conquering everyone.) In the 1720s and 30s, the English were proud of their liberty, their parliament, the relative freedom to speak their mind.
I don’t want to glamorise the age or overstate its similarities with today – but it does strike me that it’s a surprisingly direct, opinionated, satirical, fearless period. And very, very different from the Victorians and Edwardians. They were horrified by the early-Georgians. And anything that horrifies the Victorians and Edwardians has to be worth a look.
As for what surprised me… it tended to be the similarities, or little moments that felt incredibly modern. Plus I did discover a description of a brothel that specialised in fetishes. Final proof we can take to all those baby boomers who are convinced that they invented sex in the 1960s.
The follow up for The Devil in the Marshalsea is slated for March 2015. Can you tell us what Tom Hawkins might be up to next? Are there any other projects you’re working on that you’d like to share?
I’m just working on the second draft at the moment. I don’t have a final title yet, so that’s my next project. It’s set a few months after The Devil in the Marshalsea, in the winter of 1728. Again, it’s based in part on a real situation. Tom makes a couple of bad decisions that have some really terrible and long-reaching consequences. He’s on a dark path, that man.
Click here to read my review of The Devil in the Marshalsea
For more information about Antonia Hodgson and her upcoming projects, please visit her website: www.antoniahodgson.com
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