I’m taking a different approach to literary festivals this year. Pre-festival I’m going to read some of the books I’ve bought in previous years. That way new festival purchases won’t simply get added to the old ones, and the overall effect on the TBR should be a zero increase rate. That’s the theory anyway. I’ll test it out with Ayewrite! which is just one month away.
First up is the book I bought following one of the best events I’ve ever attended at Ayewrite. The year was 2015 and Chris Dolan chaired an event entitled My Era is better than Yours! 3 authors were asked to pitch their chosen eras to the audience, which then voted on the one which appealed most. The choice was between Tudor England (Rory Clements), The English Civil War (Michael Arnold) or Georgian England (Antonia Hodgson). I forget the way the public vote went but I came out and bought Antonia Hodgson’s debut, for which she won the 2014 CWA Endeavour Historical Dagger.
I was intrigued by a crime novel set in the notorious debtors’ prison, the Marshalsea. Not the Marshalsea brought to life in Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit, but the previous iteration – a place where the governor was so violent, he could act with impunity, (whipping prisoners to death, chaining them to corpses as punishment, etc) because as long as the place made a profit, its aristocratic owner didn’t really care what went on behind the gates.
So how could anyone make a profit in a debtor’s prison? Because the debtors had to pay for food and lodgings and any other services that might be rendered. If they couldn’t, they were removed from the gentleman’s area and thrown into The Common Side, a squalid hell on earth, where gaol fever (typhus) ran rampant and survival was improbable.
When Tom Hawkins lands in the Marshalsea for a £10 debt, it is a place in crisis. The recent death of debtor Captain Roberts has been deemed a suicide (although his hanged body bears evidence of a severe beating), and now his ghost haunts the place. His widow remains in situ, determined to discover her husband’s murderer. This is not good for the reputation of the prison’s aristocratic owner. So when Tom, having made an enemy of the governor, finds himself almost at death’s door, he is happy to come to an arrangement with the authorities. If he can identify Captain Roberts’s murderer, his debt will be repaid and he will find himself a free man once more.
Little does he know what he’s let himself in for ….
The danger to Tom’s life and limb in the Marshalsea is palpable – whether it be from smallpox or typhus, corrupt officialdom, government spies or his roommate , Samuel Fleet, widely suspected of being the murderer. Not that I cared much for Tom at first. He’s the malcreant son of a vicar, reaping what he has sown through wine, women and gambling. Though not yet entirely without conscience, he hasn’t forgotten the meaning of charity and loyalty. Personal betrayal was not a word in his vocabulary, but 4 days in the Marshalsea will etch it on his soul forever.
While the plot is good, the historical detail is a masterclass. Hodgson shows how the Marshalsea had a microcosmic economy of its own. There were those who, having established successful businesses which enabled them to pay off their debt, chose to remain within the confines of the prison walls. The mix of fictional and historical characters is interesting also: the governor and most of the wardens and lawyers were real enough and their histories are included in an appendix. So too was the infamous Moll King, mistress of the
den of iniquity coffee house Tom chose to frequent, which featured in the painting Morning by William Hogarth. That’s the world waiting for Tom, should he escape the Marshalsea: dirty, ribald, just as immoral and treacherous. Hodgson paints the reality of that Hogarthian London too. It’s somewhat of an eye-opener to say the least!