Fictional history

· review ·

I’ve read some amazing books recently, but I wanted to focus on just two of the works I’ve enjoyed, or am in the process of enjoying.

The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson

I seem to have hit a seam of interest in historical fiction recently (as you’ll see with my other choice), and have swanned about from Tudor London (the wonderful Shardlake series by C. J. Sansom) to 1930s Berlin (with Philip Kerr’s Private Investigator, Bernie Gunther). So the idea of a grim detective story set in the Marshalsea debtors’ prison in early 18th Century London really appealed to me.

It’s a first novel by Antonia Hodgson, but I’m eagerly awaiting her next, because I couldn’t put this book down. It pulls off the difficult balancing act of having a gripping plot with believable characters, and yet also being an accurate representation of an historical period. There’s a fascinating section at the end on the history behind the book, in which Antonia reveals that much of the detail (and several of the characters) were taken from a diary written John Grano, who was an inmate of the prison. Even more alarmingly, she writes that the conditions portrayed in the gaol were taken from contemporary accounts (like Grano’s diary and Parliamentary reports) and “if anything the reality was even worse”. I think it’s safe to say that the prospect of ending up in a debtors’ prison would have terrified everyone.

The story is a kind of ‘Rake’s Progress’ combined with a detective story: our hero (though he is an exasperating character at the start) Tom Hawkins ends up in the prison when he gambles the last of his money away. His only prospect of gaining his freedom is if he manages to solve the recent murder of one of the inmates. There are all the twists and turns you would expect of a detective story, with the added claustrophobic element of the ‘detective’ being literally locked in with all the suspects.

The vivid portrayal of life in the gaol is fascinating. It seems very strange to us now that people ran businesses (including pubs!) in gaols, which were almost little cities within cities. But then you realise that for most of the inmates, the superficial freedom and comfort on offer (at least on the ‘Master’s Side’) was an illusion. In theory, you could pay off your debts to be released, but since you were charged (and doubtless overcharged) for everything from bed to board, making enough money to be freed was an uphill struggle on a slippery slope (to mix my metaphors disgracefully).

While certainly not a horror book (remember, it was even worse than portrayed!), there are some fairly horrific descriptions in it, particularly if you are not a fan of rats. If you’re sensitive about those kinds of things, it may not be a good idea to read it before bed. Otherwise, I thoroughly recommend it.

The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth

Unusually, I’m writing a review of The Wake before actually finishing it. Indeed, I’m less than a quarter of the way in. However, this is such an unusual and wonderful novel that I can’t restrain my enthusiasm any longer. The first unusual element is that the first, special edition of the book was directly funded by readers through Unbound. I think I remember hearing about it at the time, but I missed that initial funding drive and so got the commercial version when it came out. The second unusual thing is that the book is written in an invented version of Old English, which Kingsnorth describes as a ‘shadow tongue’. It uses a vocabulary of words that originated in Old English, and many Old English spellings, with some inventions and adaptations to make Old English readable by those who haven’t studied it.

The reason for this is that is that the novel is set in 1066 and the years following it, and is a first person account by ‘buccmaster of holland’, a man living in the Lincolnshire Fens. Through his testimony, we see the world he knows and sees as timeless start to come apart. As I said, I haven’t finished it yet — so no spoilers — but I have a horrible feeling that Guillaume le Bâtard is going to kill Harald, and it’s all going to go wrong…

The language does take some getting used to. There’s a glossary at the back for the more obscure words, but otherwise, you have to learn the pronunciation as you go, which happens remarkably quickly. Old English has fewer letters in the alphabet than modern English, but the pronunciation is quite similar for many words, such as ‘daeg’ (day) or ‘deorcness’ (darkness). You have to read with a certain fluidity, but you find yourself reading with great intensity, pronouncing all the words, even if only in your own head. The strangeness, and yet odd familiarity, of the words and the syntax, along with the rhythm of the language, seems to immerse you in the time. Paul Kingsnorth has said that language speaks of its time, so you can’t truly get a feel for a period without the medium of the language of the time. Certainly, it’s completely involving.

While you sympathise with buccmaster and his exasperated, cynical view of those in his village, you are often jolted into remembering that 11th Century standards of behaviour are quite different from our own. He beats his wife and sons, which increases the feeling of otherness of the time and induces a bit of cognitive dissonance because you want him to be the hero of the novel. Still, there are beautiful, lyrical descriptions of his world (particularly a wonderful passage about him eel fishing at night on the Fen with his grandfather when he was a boy), as well as passages of dialogue that remind you that people don’t really change.

For example, I loved this exchange when buccmaster goes to the village to discuss a great black bird (‘fugol’) he has seen, which he considers a bad omen:

what of this fugol i saes what of this fugol thu has seen this yes
fugol they saes fugol. dumb lic hunds was these men
this fugol i saes this great blaec fugol cuman ofer
oft i lost my mynd with them

You can hear his frustration, and almost see his eyes rolling. I can’t wait to get further — it’s certainly not a quick read, but it’s incredibly rewarding.

I should also say that the book itself is a beautiful thing, from the cover to the lovely typeface (Jenson). It’s definitely one to get in dead tree format rather than as an ebook.