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…
If 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.)