I caught a few distinct voices. ‘Spare me, Lord!’ ‘God help a poor sinner!’ ‘Save us! Oh God – save us!’ But the rest was just a heart-shredding din, that seemed to shake the very walls of the prison – the lamentation of souls trapped in a hell on earth.
It’s an enriching thriller and unsettling description of humanity. It’s of literary purpose and beauty in its entirety. It’s one of the books I find myself destined to read. As a beginner of historical fiction, indeed a rare chance do I find one book centering on poignant living conditions, the pain, mastery of survival, and day-to-day contrivance of plots and schemes totted up in a tangible prison – The Marshalsea – a stultifying fortress erected since the fourteenth century which mainly caged the incarcerated debtors. Seriously, I am much indebted for the author, as well as the novel in letting me fix a glaring gaze on this infamous “Hell in Epitome”.
One doesn’t become warden of the Marshalsea through brute force alone. He was a butcher for twenty years; he knows when to bludgeon and when to fillet. (On William Acton)
Set in eighteenth century (1727, two years after Jonathan Wild’s execution) before the coronation of George II, this novel is divided into three parts, journeying five days (Thursday to Monday) with narration of Thomas Hawkins of his time spent in the Marshalsea, Southwark. On the first day after taking the tour with Thomas Hawkins around the gaol, we are already worried about his unforeseeable future and possible torture in the goal for the next few days – places like Strong Room (a four-walled tinderbox for the tortured and the dead) over the Common Side, sparrow-framed walking corpses, the begging grate, gaol fever, and infectious diseases. Although Thomas stayed in the Master Side, it is not apparently a safe haven – there are rooms on the Master Side called “the Hole” at the cellar of the Lodge, “the Pound” where the governor (William Acton) keeps the grim tools for torture like skullcap (head crusher), spiked collar, thumbscrew, all sorts, you name it, and there is also a place called “Belle Isle” – a room of Samuel Fleet’s abode, and Thomas Hawkins will be fatally sharing with. Samuel Fleet, a notorious inmate, Face and Black Heart of the devil, the murderer whom everyone is talking out, an enigma. Surely there will be countless dangerous denizens, confrontations and unveiling of gaping brutality lying in wait for Thomas. He needs to strike a light to these shadowy silhouettes to ensure his safety, and hopefully, to his soulful release. Faith? Instinct? Honesty? What does he need to preserve and relinquish?
Apart from factual interior descriptions of the Marshalsea, the interesting characters who are accurately and loosely based upon historical references Antonia has gathered (e.g. William Acton, Edward Gilbourne, Joseph Cross, Trim the Barber, and Madame Migault the fortune-teller – from A Journal of My Life while in the Marshalsea, John Grano, 1728-29), and the brutal corruptions as well as ugliness/loyalty in mankind; another endearing quality I am most engrossed in this historical fiction is the intricacy of the plots. Facing the protagonist are layers upon layers of sprawling gossamer of traps, uncanny conspiracy and convolution. Just when you think the resolution to the crisis and the whodunit is soon to be unmasked and revealed, but, BANG! Another unsolved mystery spatters out that leaves you helplessly unconscious. It is invincible! Just so you know, I am all ready for the sequel, and I can’t wait to embark on another “heroic” and “adventurous” journey of crimes and danger with victorious Thomas Hawkins!