Tom Hawkins needs to grow up. Three years before Antonia Hodgson’s The Devil in the Marshalsea begins, Tom refused to be ordained and ran away to London. Since then, he’s been living the life of a gentleman—which he defines when asked as “doing as little as possible.” He drinks. He whores. He gambles. He’s the despair of his friend, Charles Buckley, and his estranged family. And in the London of 1727, it’s only a matter of time before his luck runs out.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (and probably before), people could be imprisoned for very small debts. Tom Hawkins owed £20 (which was a fair amount in those days) and all his notes come due. He manages to win enough money to stay out of prison at the card tables, but he’s robbed of everything when he’s led into the rookeries on the way home. In the morning, Tom is led off to the notorious Marshalsea Prison to wait until someone pays off his debts and gets him out.
Until 1869, when debtors’ prisons were abolished, running a prison could be a very profitable racket. Prisoners were charged rent for better rooms and food. Jailers even charged a fee to remove prisoners’ chains. It was possible at the time for prisoners to run up even more debt in prison, between the various fees and rents in the prison and sponging-houses. If you couldn’t pay any of these, you were tossed over to the “Common Side,” where you ran a real risk of dying of disease or starvation before you could be bailed out.* Tom is understandably terrified of ending up on the Common Side.
Just a few days before Tom is imprisoned, another debtor is murdered in the prison. The murderers tried to make it look like suicide, but no one is buying it—especially not the man’s widow. Now the murdered man’s ghost has been making appearances around the jail and riling everyone up. The jailers are annoyed that all the fuss is cutting into their profits. When Tom befriends (sort of) and bunks up with the murdered man’s roommate, the mysterious Samuel Fleet, Tom is given the task of finding out what happened to Captain Roberts in exchange for his freedom. Of course, he has to survive the prison before he can learn anything and everything and everyone around him seems bent on thwarting Tom’s efforts.
The Devil in the Marshalsea is a nail-biting mystery. There were times I honestly thought Hodgson was going to kill off her main character because there was no way he could survive the threats and the torture and misery. Tom is such a naif that I wondered that he hadn’t landed in prison before this point. His stint in the Marshalsea is a brutal lesson to look out for himself, to question others’ motives, and to learn how to find real friends.
The real star of The Devil in the Marshalsea is the prison itself. Hodgson shows a deft hand when displaying the amount of research she did. Historical details are everywhere, but Hodgson never lectures or bogs down the fast-paced narrative. This is the kind of historical fiction I adore.
* Hodgson did a lot of research for The Devil in the Marshalsea, some of which is based on this 1729 report, “A Report from the Committee Appointed to Enquire into the State of Gaols of this Kingdom.” The report describes the shocking conditions of the Marshalsea and other prisons of the time.