‘D’you know, there’s some say the devil lives in the Marshalsea. And – forgive me, sir. I’m not sure you’re ready to meet him.’
The sir in question is Tom Hawkins, eldest son of a Suffolk gentleman, Oxford graduate, set to join the clergy and inherit his father’s position in due course.
Three years ago – following an unfortunate incident in an Oxford brothel – I had abandoned that path. Now here I was, five and twenty, with no family, no prospects and no money. True, I had Greek and Latin and could dance a passable gavotte, but a man cannot survive on such things, even in London.
It’s 1727 when we meet Tom with his oldest friend, Charles Buckley, celebrating in Tom King’s coffeehouse where, apparently, there are ‘only two reasons to celebrate […] a win at the tables or a full recovery from the clap’. Tom’s reason is the former. That morning an action’s been placed on him by his landlord and three others for twenty pounds in unpaid rent and other debts. He has one day to pay. He calls in favours, pawns everything of value he owns, borrows from Charles and then gambles the lot. The win will keep him out of debtor’s prison.
Leaving the coffeehouse, Moll, who runs the place, calls Tom a link boy to guide him home. But the boy takes him deep into St Giles, ‘the most infamous slum in London’, where Tom’s robbed and beaten.
The following morning, he’s arrested in the coffeehouse. His landlord is adamant he’s done with Tom following a letter sent to him that morning suggesting Tom’s been having an affair with his wife.
‘Mr Fletcher, sir. We are men of reason, are we not?’ I waved the note limply. ‘You must see that this is no more than malicious gossip? I mean no dishonour to your good wife, but…’
Behind me, Moll gave a little cough. ‘But he’d rather fuck his own sister.’
A man named Jakes takes Tom to Marshalsea. On the way, he tells Tom he reminds him of his old army captain, Captain Roberts, both in looks and behaviour. Roberts died in the Marshalsea. It looked like suicide but Jakes is convinced it was murder as is Robert’s widow who has determined to remain in the jail until her husband’s killer is caught.
Top of the suspects list and former roommate of Roberts is Samuel Fleet. Middle-aged, eccentric, fearfully intelligent, Tom ends up sharing Fleet’s cell, much to the disgust of the rest of the jail. Soon he has to decide who he can trust.
Hodgson does a superb job of conveying the sights, sounds and smells of the time, whether in the coffeehouses or the streets or the jail. The Marshalsea is fascinating in that those of a certain class, with access to money, were able to live on one side of the jail in relative privilege and luxury. Some were even allowed to leave for short periods. On the other side, however, the Common Side, disease, violence and death are rife. Part of Tom’s time in the Marshalsea is spent discovering how these people are treated and how William Acton, former butcher and deputy warden, runs the jail through fear and brute force. It’s difficult not to make comparisons to the current class divide.
Hawkins is an interesting character. Privileged but sensitive, ultimately he’s a good guy. Hodgson also does a great line in female characters, particularly Kitty, Fleet’s ward, who he’s educating. ‘He’s promised me that when we’re done there won’t be a single man in England who’ll marry me.’ And Fleet is one of the best characters I’ve come across; captivating, educated, conniving, he also gets one of the best lines:
‘I can count the number of men I like on one hand. Without letting go of my cock.’
The Devil in the Marshalsea is intelligent, packed with period detail and plot, bawdy, has a social conscience and some hilarious lines. I enjoyed it so much, the minute I finished the final page I ordered the sequel.
Antonia Hodgson appears at Jersey Festival of Words on Saturday 1st October, 10am, in the Arts Centre, along with Rachel Abbott. They will discuss crime fiction and routes into being published. Tickets are available here.