Rakes and the Condemned Hold

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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…

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Life in London series, Cruikshanks with Pierce Egan
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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.

ApNewgate Prisonart 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.

Georgian Costumes

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.

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The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson

9781444775433I 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”.

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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)

F3.largeSet 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?

9AprilLastConfession_royal_hb.inddApart 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!

Affinity by Sarah Waters

affinity-bookFantastic novel! It is my first try on Sarah Water’s works, I wouldn’t want to share the feelings at first as it is just fantastical; but then after my thinking and rumination of the novel being done a week later, I decide to write some words about it (though not comparably descriptive and beautiful as Affinity), and I recommend this novel strongly.

1874. London. Margaret Prior, determines to shake off her agony of her father’s death which happens two years earlier as well as her unpleasant memory of the suicidal attempt, she embarks on the journey of being a Lady Visitor at Millbank prison. Not only she is to be held responsible, in the eyes of matrons, to educate the female prisoners and restore them in moral rights, but also as desperate remedies, “to look on women more wretched than her, in the hope that it will make her well again”. However there is no turning back as she slowly be of acquaintance and confidence of Selina Dawes, the spirit-medium, who is to be held in the cell for two awful long years…

To me, it may not be a good idea to make a comparison with Sarah Waters and other authors that I admire all through my reading experience, but it has got all good elements of a typical Victorian sensation novel (like the ones of Wilkie Collins’s, but in a different technique; this one does not make your head come clear until you have reached the end, so excuse me, I have much more pleasure from reading WC’s!) : (1) a poignancy touch of fatality and sympathy of the poor and the condemned who live in hostility and harsh conditions, provided with the rich details and research by Sarah Waters (great knowledge of history regarding Millbank prison); (2) psychological and physical incarceration of women in 19th century (which is a good decision to set the novel with homoerotic affections; for me it underlines this issue perfectly); (3) scientific doubt (results from Darwinism and industrial revolution) vs. restrained superstitions; and (4) the clever plays on puns which are also the messages and themes of the novel.

It is a very imaginative but convincing story that hooks you on and keeps you staying up in bed all night in finding out what would possibly happen next. You will find the novel a bit depressing with the atmosphere of the octagon-shaped prison; it is nonetheless thought-provoking along the read. To be said it all, It drags you in a “drugged and dreamy sense of self-loss” (from The Happy Reader)! If you feel happy to analyse the novel, get yourself a copy, it’s well worth it!

For the next read, I might get myself to read some psychological thrillers. It seems to be the genre I’m interested in at the moment!