The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson

A foul putrid stench poured into the yard — so thick and strong we all cried out as one, turning our faces away. It was the festering, heavy stink of disease, of rotting, infected bodies, of men forced to piss and shit and sweat together in an airless cell. There was no escape from it…

thedevilinthemarshalseaantoniahodgsonIf you got into debt in eighteenth century London, your fate was a spell in the squalid, disease ridden Marshalsea prison. Survival was possible if you could get a friend or relative to pay for your lodging and food. With money you could enjoy a few comforts: half-way decent rooms; meals from the prison’s chop house, drinks in the bar and ready access to the brothel’s services. Without money you would end up in the prison’s most fetid, teeming section, the “Common Side” likely to die from starvation or goal fever.

This is the fate awaiting Tom Hawkins, the protagonist of Antonia Hodgson’s debut novel The Devil in the Marshalsea. Tom is the rakish son of a preacher, a young man with incorrigible liking for gambling, drinking and womanising. His charmed life comes to an end when he’s attacked in a dark alley and all his money is stolen leaving him unable to pay his debts.

His first few hours in the prison are enough to terrify him.  This is a savage place ruled over by a ruthless governor and his equally brutal henchmen who enjoy nothing so much as chaining prisoners to corpses. But the recent, unexplained death of another debtor Captain Roberts, whose ghostly figure has been seen to disappear through walls, has made the inhabitants more agitated than usual. The finger of suspicion falls on Tom’s room mate, Samuel Fleet, know throughout the prison as The Devil. Tom’s choice becomes clear: he has a few days in which to find the murderer or become the prison’s next victim.

Hodgson’s race-against-time narrative is bursting with pace and atmosphere.  It’s set firmly in the period of 1727 but the characters’ dialogue never feels strained by over reliance on 18th century terminology and speech patterns to make us believe in their world.  The notes at the back of my edition make it evident this is a meticulously-researched story, which for me, amplified the horror of the prison world it portrayed. This is a place where people are callously manipulated when they are already in the depths of despair, and where any vestiges of dignity and goodness struggle to survive in the face of a system which is essentially inhuman.  Amid all the trials and misfortunes he experiences himself, it is this inhumanity that Tom finds intolerable:

As we walked toward the prison block a sudden scream rent the air. …

‘God Have Mercy”

In all my life I had never heard such a desperate sound. The man cried out again, joined by another voice and another —  a hundred or more shouting their grief up into the night sky. I caught a few distinct voices

‘Spare me , Lord! Save us. Oh God Save Us’

But the rest was just a heart-shredding din, that seemed to shake the very walls of the prison — the lamentation of souls trapped in a hell on earth.

In short, The Devil in the Marshalsea is a gripping story that propels you forward relentlessly towards an ending that, while wasn’t a complete surprise to me, was nevertheless highly satisfying. It also neatly sets Hodgson up for a sequel (one that’s just been published in fact.)

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on June 9, 2015, in Book Reviews, historical fiction and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. What really struck me about the book was just how different the Marshalsea here is from the one that Dickens portrays in ‘Little Dorrit’. I believe that this is a reflection of fact and that the Marshalsea at this date was actually in a slightly different location to that when Dickens was writing and a very much worse experience.

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  2. Speaking of The Pickwick Papers, Little Dorrit also features a man imprisoned for debt in the Marshalsea (father of the eponymous Amy or “Little” Dorrit). He, fortunately, lives on the nice side of the prison, and becomes a sort of father figure to the institution, but you do get a clear sense of the helplessness of his situation. Dickens’s own father was also imprisoned for debt when he was a child; he would have known the dark side of the Marshalsea that Hodgson describes. Thanks for flagging this book up!

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    • I enjoyed Little Dorrit but did find it surprising that it was so open to visitors. Like the prison in the Devil in the Marshalsea, Dickens’ prisoners were able to buy privileges. I didnt get the feeling it was such a desperate and savage place as in Hodgson’s book Elle.

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      • No, he definitely portrays it as a bit more cozy, the kind of place where you can have a little apartment and basically become institutionalized and never want to leave (which is what happens to Dorrit). I suspect that this is reflective only of the experience of prisoners who could pay; I have no doubt that the seamier side was much closer to Hodgson’s descriptions!

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  3. This sounds like a horrible but fascinating setting. I am currently reading The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens which touches upon the injustices of the debtors prisons.

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  4. I read this last year and thought it was an excellent book. The descriptions of living conditions in the Marshalsea were fascinating – I don’t think I had quite realised exactly how different things were for rich and poor people within the same prison. I have a copy of the sequel, The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins, which I can’t wait to start reading.

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    • I’m waiting for my reservation of The Last Confession to come through Helen. If its as good as her first novel we may have a historical crime fiction series equally as good as Sansom’s Shardlake series.

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  5. I don’t usually read historical books, and I probably won’t read this but it is an interesting premise

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