Friday, June 20, 2014

Interview with Antonia Hodgson, author of The Devil in the Marshalsea

Following upon my earlier review of Antonia Hodgson's twisty debut thriller, The Devil in the Marshalsea, today I'm speaking with the author about her characters and setting as part of her blog tour. 


Historical crime novels set in Georgian England, especially during George II’s reign, are comparatively rare things for some reason, so I found the timeframe a refreshing change. What possibilities did you see in the historical setting?

It’s curious, isn’t it, how certain periods have a glamour and popularity while others are so neglected. I think it’s a fascinating time—and strangely familiar, too. London in the 1720s was a bit like Rio or Mumbai today—a huge, expanding city. The greatest city on earth, in fact, with a population of 600,000 souls. At the same time, there was no police force and corruption was absolutely rife. Extreme wealth sat alongside the most desperate poverty. All of these things create tension, suffering... and opportunity.

In the past there was a tendency to see ‘Georgian England’ as steady, pastoral, polite. I blame the wigs—it makes everyone look a bit pompous, even when they’re doing something outrageous. London was glamorous, dangerous and full of contrasts. And very funny too—there was a satirical bite to the age.

As a narrator, Tom is greatly entertaining—he’s willful and rather cheeky, but also honest and honorable. How did you develop his voice?

Tom developed quite naturally, because his character inspired the whole story. It’s very hard to describe the process because it wasn’t a step-by-step, conscious creation. I could say that I started with this idea of a young man who has rebelled against his father... or that he’s a gambler who likes to win without cheating. The truth is I can’t tell you how he developed—it was intuitive. I might as well say he sauntered into my consciousness and put his feet up.

I’m very glad you found him entertaining—Tom has lasted so long in a dangerous world partly because he is good company. But that’s also a curse. Charm alone can get you a long way... and ultimately nowhere.

Obviously nobody expects prison life to be pleasant, but the conditions within the filthy hellhole that was the Marshalsea’s Common Side were shocking. How widely known at the time were the realities?

The information was there, if people wanted to know. Certainly anyone from the ‘lower orders’ could have told them the truth. People used to fight bailiffs in the street—to the death in some cases—rather than be dragged off to gaol. In 1718 a prisoner wrote a poem about the Marshalsea called ‘Hell in Epitome’—it describes the Common Side in detail. It even claims that prisoners were chained to rotting corpses as punishment. I didn’t put that in the novel because it may have been an exaggeration. I have a horrible feeling it wasn’t, though.

In the end it was a government enquiry that forced the truth out into the open. It described the beatings, the starving prisoners, the number of dead bodies pulled out of the cramped and suffocating cells each morning. The enquiry was set up by an MP called James Oglethorpe, after a good friend of his died of smallpox in a debtors’ prison (he’d been forced to share a cell with someone already dying of the highly infectious disease). Oglethorpe campaigned for the report and led the investigation. Sometimes it takes that personal connection to make the truth sink in.

Your female characters can easily hold their own with the men. Are there any whose personalities and stories you especially enjoyed crafting?

I enjoyed writing Kitty Sparks, who is an entirely fictional character. She is a sharp-witted, spirited eighteen-year-old girl trapped in an age where women were considered second-class citizens. Permanently furious and frustrated, in other words.

A lot of the female characters are based on real people who were living in the Marshalsea at the time. Mary Acton, the governor’s wife. Sarah Bradshaw who ran a coffeeshop within the prison. The Marshalsea was a mixed prison, which led to some interesting opportunities.

During your research, did you come across any interesting tidbits or historical characters that you thought about including in the story but were unable to?

Absolutely! But writing historical fiction is as much about what you leave out as what you put in. It can be tempting to find some fascinating detail and reach for the crowbar.

Tom Hawkins narrates The Devil in the Marshalsea. He is a man of his time, writing—as far as he knows—for a reader of his own time. He’s not going to spend five paragraphs describing how a clockwork spit works. More than that, he’s twenty-five and easily bored. This was helpful, in the end. It forced me to make the historical details flow naturally from the story.

No research is wasted however. Even if you don’t use 90% of it, it gives you a confidence and authority when you write.

What was the experience like, working with two editors at different publishing houses (UK and US) simultaneously?

It was great—I’ve thanked them both in the acknowledgements and with good reason. I’m an editor myself (at Little, Brown UK) so naturally I think it’s a vital part of the process! The best editing notes are ones that make you think ‘aha! yes, I did wonder about that…’ Both my editors are very experienced, very perceptive and very thoughtful. I’m extremely lucky, in other words.

Can you reveal anything about the adventures Tom will encounter in the next installment of the series?

I have just handed in the first draft of the new book. It’s set in London again, a few months after The Devil in the Marshalsea. I’m afraid he’s in even worse trouble this time round. He has a talent for it.


Antonia Hodgson is the editor in chief of Little, Brown UK. She lives in London and can see the last fragments of the old city wall from her living room. The Devil in the Marshalsea is her first novel. For more information please visit Antonia Hodgson’s website. You can also find her on Goodreads and Twitter.


  1. I am reading this right now, only just got into it though so it's too soon to comment except to say I'm enjoying it.

    1. Good deal - I found it got even better as I read but will be interested to hear what you think later on.

  2. "I blame the wigs" is funny. Has anyone ever written an essay on that bizarre custom? Something Freudian going on there....

    1. It made its way across the Atlantic, too! (Fortunately they've gone out of fashion...)

  3. Anonymous6:26 AM

    I read this book whilst on holiday and I couldn't put it down a thoroughly excellent read looking forward to the next one.

  4. Anonymous12:15 PM

    On the last few pages, have enjoyed it immensely. Keeps you guessing all the way through.