A year ago, we were introduced to an educated rogue named Thomas Hawkins from The Devil in the Marshalsea. Despite being born into a parsonage in Suffolk and graduated from Oxford majoring in theology, Thomas Hawkins was reckless in action, indulged himself in debauchery and accumulated insurmountable debts among the London filth. The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins is yet again another adventurous novel centering the voyage of the eponymous protagonist after his liberation from the excruciating Marshalsea Prison. Bearing in mind, readers who had read the previous episode would be constantly reminded of a letter written by mystified Samuel Fleet (Thomas’s inmate in the Marshalsea (Belle Isle in the Hell of Epitome) on how eccentric in character and miraculous Thomas Hawkins is surviving in the Georgian London while devouring the juicy content of the sequel –
“Given that he is not a Lunatick (so far as I can tell), here follows my Conclusions, after Three Days of Close Study:
(i) He is a man of Instinct more than Reason;
(ii) He is drawn to trouble;
(iii) He believes – at heart – that God will Protect him.
An Unfortunate Recipe for Disaster…A man of true Faith in this City is like a Naked Man running into Battle, believing himself fully Armed. Diverting and alarming in Equal measure.”
The Peculiar Smell of London…
Life in London series, Cruikshanks with Pierce Egan
John Gonson in the background. A Harlot’s Progress by William Hogarth (1732)
Through the ramblings of Thomas Hawkins, we are led through every street and location dwelt by the depraved and privileged in the 1828 London. It is a city saturated with corruption and wilful misconducts; some of which include printshops and molly-houses along Russell Street and Fleet Street; St Giles for the luscious strumpets and mutilating snakesmen, not without mentioning the dangerous cockpits full of women warriors and bawdy audience (on a side-note, Antonia Hodgson has written an article on Cock-fighting and Animal Cruelty of the 18th century in relation to her latest novel). To strike a balance between the daunting walks of life, we also get to visit St James’s Palace where George II, seductive Henrietta Howard, Queen Caroline and other royal courtiers reside in, and overhear plans made by John Gonson as the Chairman of the Society for the Reformation of Manners (flourishing during the 1820s-1830s). However, at the end of the day, it is the unreliable good and bad, rags and riches all converge together to pull off an unmistakably brilliant theatrical performance with each of its own darkest secrets.
Crime, Confession, Repentance, Death, Salvation…
Rewse had allowed dozens of curious souls to tramp past my cell. They’d peered in through the grate, eager to see the gentleman as beast, trapped in his cage. They gossiped about me as if I could not hear or understand them. If I turned away it must be out of shame. If I held their gaze, they swore they saw the devil in my eyes. If I covered my face, or paced about the cell, or stared gloomily at the cold stone floor, then I must be in despair at my guilt, and the wretched state of my soul. Not one of them thought I looked innocent.
Apart from running into twists and turns and observing the voyeuristic lives of the rakes and riches, we peek into the interior of the Newgate Prison and the fatal route to the Tyburn Tree. As the title suggests, the Confession does have a lot to say about what Thomas Hawkins has embroiled himself into: a Crime. The Newgate prisoners who are to be executed would compose confessions or hire a ghost writer based on lucrative purposes of decent burials as well as averting the fates to be met in the hands of the anatomists. On a humorous note, through the origins from a respectable family, Tom gets an offer from Daniel Defoe, whom also believes Tom’s innocence, to write about a picaresque story about him (Daniel Defoe is a member of the Society for the Reformation of Manners) that is as colourful as Jack Sheppard’s.
Crocheting a fictitious story out of real names and locations, there are quite a lot of historical backgrounds I have learned in relation to that era. Mischievously I need to be thankful to the animated bed scenes existing throughout the Novel because it is an interesting way of probing into the Georgian costumes for both men and women. For example, in the case of women, I cotton on the notions of the garments like stomacher, back, front, and outside petticoats, as well as fichu and mantua gowns etc. Here is the link which shows you how to dress in the 18th century way!
Overall, The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins is a plot-driven story that continues seamlessly from The Devil in the Marshalsea, which satisfies my curiosity in historical knowledge as well as entertainment. On a thematic note, both also have brought out an issue concerning questions of exterior religious devotion against inner morality. My next move would be to read some picaresque novels by Henry Fielding and Daniel Defoe.