Historical Fiction: History You Can Live Inside
Do what you like, and teach your reader to like it too

The Itch of Writing Bookshelf 1: The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson

Happy New Year! To celebrate, this is the first of a new series on This Itch of Writing: not exactly reviews, but mini-posts about a book I'm reading which I think would be useful and interesting to us as writers. I'm planning to interleave these with the normal Itchy fare. Click here for the full (or rather, rapidly filling) Itch of Writing Bookshelf, and if you're looking for books to help with your writing directly, then click through to Books for Writers.

Not every book I write about will be one I think is perfect, but I shall be focusing on merits, not failings. That's not just because, as Anne Enright puts it, "In the long run we're all dead, and none of us is Proust", so why not cut each other a bit of slack? It's also because I honestly believe that we learn as much from thinking about how things are working, than how they're not working. Plus, as I've said before, reframing your idea of an apparently "bad" published book, to see how it's a "good" book, is a very important habit to get into.

Not that the first book to be put on the Itch of Writing Bookshelf is bad in anyone's terms - it's a cracker. The Crime Writers Association thought so too, and awarded it the CWA Historical Dagger Award for 2104.


Tom Hawkins is your classic young man who's kicked over the traces of the safe career that his family want to harness him to. But in early eighteenth-century London the gambling and whoring that is so much more tempting all too easily leads to a debtor's prison. And even if you've got enough in your purse to keep you in the relative comfort of the Master's Side for a few days - coffee house, alehouse, rampant smallpox, psychopaths and all - if you can't solve the puzzle of who murdered Captain Roberts before the money runs out, you'll be thrown into the death trap which is the Common Side and be dead in a week or three.

Why I enjoyed it:

Tom's very engaging: it's a bildungsroman, in some ways, and has more emotional depth than thrillers are sometimes given credit for. I found myself thinking of Tom Jones as much as The Beggars' Opera. In a novel peopled largely with extremely dubious characters busy double-crossing each other, I found I really did mind what happened to quite a lot of them, as well as Tom. The grim and gruesome is well-pitched, and balanced with just enough wry humour, and good things - present or latent - that I didn't feel as I do sometimes with historical fiction, that the writer is smugly determined to make things as miserable and revolting as possible. And the ending had some genuine surprises, but also felt earned.

Three reasons for a writer to read it:

1) The sense of the Marshalsea as a world-within-a-world is strong, not info-lumpy. Hodgson has done her research, but in the novel it's embodied in the real, urgent business of storytelling. It helps that Tom is almost as new to this world as the reader is.

2) The plot is complex - all that double-crossing, and things and people not being what they seem - but it's very well worked out, with no loose ends dangling that I noticed. When reversals came along in the nick of time, there was always a good underlying bit of plot to cause them. And the stakes rose, and the danger increased, steadily - or, rather, in satisfyingly dramatic leaps.

3) Tom's voice as narrator is effective - fresh and attractive - and the dialogue is well characterised. There's no attempt to channel the actual prose of the time,  but Hodgson works well with the vocabulary and the mindset, so that the narrative never undermines the convincing world that she has created.