Little Dorrit has always been amongst my favourite Dickens’ novels and so I approached Antonia Hodgson’s first novel, The Devil in the Marshalsea, with a mixture of caution and anticipation. I didn’t want to read anything that would detract from my vision of London’s notorious debtors’ prison but equally I was looking forward to revisiting its precincts.
In fact, Hodgson’s Marshalsea is a very different place from that which Dickens describes, both in real life and fictionally. Her novel is set in the Autumn of 1727, almost a hundred years before the 1820s’ setting given to Little Dorrit. The prison that she describes, although still located on Borough High Street, was not on the same site and the conditions in which the prisoners were kept were very much harsher. This latter fact is all the more apparent if you come to this novel after reading Dickens’ work and one of the things that I very soon began to realise as I read what is an excellent piece of historical crime fiction, was just how much I had romanticised the existence that those imprisoned in this goal were forced to endure. Mr Dorrit may lack his freedom and his self-respect but he does not spend each day worrying about whether or not it will be his last and, if he is to die, what horrible torments will precede his final moments.
The same is not true for Hodgson’s protagonist, Tom Hawkins, a young man whose family has destined him for the cloth but whose own plans for advancement are somewhat different. Confined to the Marshalsea after he has been robbed of the money that would have paid off his debts and allowed him to start over, Tom finds himself lodged with the notorious Samuel Fleet, in a berth previously occupied by one Captain Roberts, a prisoner who officially is said to have committed suicide but whom many are certain was murdered – possibly by the infamous Fleet himself.
Roberts’ death has left a sense of unease in the Marshalsea, all the more noticeable because daily so many other deaths go unremarked. His widow still haunts the prison in the hope that someone will help her to prove that her husband was not a suicide and thus enable her to regain custody of their son who has been taken from her by her family. And, those who have power within and over the controlling prison regime are anxious to have it shown that they had nothing to do with a deliberate killing, despite the fact that they are responsible for the conditions and punishments that regularly bring about the deaths of so many others. So, Tom Hawkins is offered a flickering light in the darkness of his despair. If he can find out who did kill Captain Roberts his debts will be paid and he can go free. But, is it possible for him to make such a discovery on his own and in the few days that he is allowed for his inquiries? If he does ask for help then whom can he trust in a society where personal gain is always going to trump communal needs? Loyalty, as he soon discovers, lodges in unexpected places and those on whose support he ought to be able to depend can prove less than steadfast.
In recounting Tom’s story Hodgson shows that she can weave a really convincing plot, including catching the reader out at the last moment, without ever once stretching the bounds of credulity. She held me in the grip of her story telling and carried me relentlessly along with her narrative drive. However, the real strength of this book lies in the author’s ability to recreate the horrors of the world in which Tom finds himself confined and I for one will never see the Marshalsea in quite the same way again. The evils that were perpetrated on men, women and children who, in many instances through nothing more than ill-fortune, found themselves incarcerated in conditions that were worse than in-human are nothing short of demonic. And, once individuals found themselves imprisoned in this den of iniquity they were very unlikely to ever make their way out. The cost of living in the Marshalsea was far higher than it was outside the prison walls, the rents and prices paid for food going, for the most part, straight into the pockets of the governor and his trustees. Rather than being able to pay their debts off the prisoners were more likely to find them growing exponentially. It would seem that the basic strategies employed today by pay-day loan companies are nothing new at all.
The Devil in the Marshalsea is as good a first novel as I’ve read in a long time and I am very grateful to Hodder for having sent me a copy for review. I understand that there is a sequel in hand and I am now looking forward to what I hope will be a continuing sequence of stories from a time in England’s history that has not always been as well served by historical fiction as it might have been.