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Antonia Hodgson Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Antonia Hodgson
Photo: Charlie Hopkinson

Antonia Hodgson

An interview with Antonia Hodgson

Antonia Hodgson discusses her first two novels set in 18th century London: The Devil in the Marshalsea and The Confession of Thomas Hawkins.

Your first two novels are both set in London in the late 1720s. What drew you to this place and time?

I'd written a previous novel that didn't work out, but a small part of it was set in early Georgian London. It's such a lively, fascinating period and I couldn't understand why it had been so neglected, especially in fiction. London was the greatest city in the world at the time, with a population of over 600,000. There were pockets of elegance, but it was a filthy, drunken, chaotic place - with no police force. The English were fiercely protective and proud of their unique liberty: they had a constitutional monarchy, no standing army, no Censorship Act. Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin both lived in London in the 1720s - and the freedoms they witnessed certainly informed their revolutionary writings. 

There was a very dark side to this society of course – including the rise of the slave trade and brutal punishments for minor crimes. And while it's easy to associate the age with fun-loving gin drinkers, in truth it was more like a crack epidemic. Gin - closer to poorly distilled moonshine than what we add to our martinis today – was in part responsible for the drop in life expectancy over this period.

In your first book, Thomas Hawkins was thrown into a debtors'prison and had to solve a murder in order to survive. This time he's on the way to the scaffold. What's he doing wrong?

In The Devil in the Marshalsea, Tom mistook a long stretch of good fortune for personal skill. He thought he was invincible - an easy mistake when you're young, privileged and untested. He learned a lot from that experience, but he's also a restless soul. If he doesn't have something to do, he becomes bored and despondent. Then he gets drunk, and makes unwise choices. In this case, he agrees to take on a small job for the most dangerous villain in London. It doesn't go well.

We see both the criminal underworld of St Giles and the glittering court of St James in this novel. Which did you enjoy writing the most?

I must admit I am naturally drawn to foul, rat-infested alleyways. (When I'm writing, that is.)  I couldn't wait to write about the 'rookeries' of St Giles, the most dangerous streets in London. I loved creating the world of gang captain James Fleet. Men like him lived short, brutal lives, but they also had a certain swagger and freedom to
live as they pleased. You see it in the criminal biographies of the time, and plays such as The Beggar's Opera. There was a reason why Londoners saw Captain Mackheath - a highwayman - as a hero.

That said, the court was also fascinating to research and to write. And I was very moved by the story of Henrietta Howard, the king's mistress. In the winter of 1728 she was, effectively, kept a prisoner in the palace, because of terrible threats from her abusive husband. It's a shocking story, which is interweaved through the novel. Charles Howard really was a monster – I didn't have to invent him. In fact I had to search quite hard for something positive to say about him, just to round out his character. The best I could say was that he had been a talented soldier.

We meet Queen Caroline in The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins - could you tell us a little bit more about her?

When I was researching The Devil in the Marshalsea, I read a lot about Queen Caroline. I never planned to write about the monarchy (see my note about rat-infested alleyways), but I was really drawn to her. She was an extraordinary woman - an intellectual who took tea with Sir Isaac Newton, exchanged letters with philosophers and loved reading and the arts. Unfortunately, she was married to a philistine. George II thought reading was a complete waste of time. He also suffered from terrible tantrums, when he would kick his wig about the room in a fury. Caroline loved her husband, but had to expend vast amounts of energy pretending to be less clever than him. I loved writing her: she was funny, politically astute, playful, manipulative and (on the sly) extremely powerful.

What are the biggest differences between 1720s England and today?

I believe that - as people - we share huge similarities. This is most noticeable when you read private letters. Mothers are affectionate towards their children. (Surprise!) People conduct feuds, fall in love, make jokes, worry about a friend's illness. They even doodle in the margins. But there are some areas that do feel absolutely alien - most notably attitudes to slavery, cruelty to animals, the lack of any welfare support, and domestic abuse. That's not to say we are perfect now - very far from it - but there was a widespread acceptance of these things, which we would find shocking today. For example, Daniel Defoe was one of only a tiny handful who spoke out against violence towards women.

What are you working on next?

I've just finished the first draft of my new novel, which I'm excited about. I can't go into too much detail here, but it's set in the same period, on a country estate in Yorkshire. Landscaped gardens, wild moors, a ruined abbey... and murder. Obviously.

In a 2014 Q&A Antonia Hodgson discusses her debut novel, The Devil in the Marshalsea, an atmospheric novel set in 18th century England.

As the editor-in-chief at Little, Brown UK, how has your role as an editor influenced your writing process?

I've tried my best not to let it influence me at all! Editing is an entirely separate process—it requires objectivity. While I'm writing I need to be completely immersed in the story, the characters. If I stopped to edit I'd lost my flow. Of course once the first draft is done I can then go back and edit and rewrite. But I still need an editor—very much so.

Have you always wanted to write a novel? Why did you choose to do so now?

I've always loved writing. I wrote a previous novel—it didn't work but I learned a lot from writing it over the course of about four years. So it wasn't really a matter of choice. I would feel unhappy if I didn't write.

How did the idea for the novel originate?

I had an idea for a time (the 1720s) and a character, Tom Hawkins. He's a bit of a bad boy, though fundamentally decent. He's a gambler who never prepares for tomorrow, relies a bit too much on charm and luck, and is terrible with money. In other words—bound for a debtors' prison. After that I quickly discovered a fascinating story about the Marshalsea debtors' gaol. So what began as an opening idea became the main setting for the novel. Also, I loved the idea of setting a murder mystery in a prison.

The novel takes place in a debtors' prison in 18th century London. Tell us about your research.

I spent a lot of time in the British library reading contemporary accounts. There was a poem called 'The Marshalsea—or, Hell in Epitome', for example. A musician and debtor called John Grano wrote a diary during his stay in the Marshalsea between 1728 and 1729 and there was also a government enquiry into London's prisons. This led to the keeper, William Acton, being put on trial for murder. The accounts of his trial also provided a lot of useful information.

Beyond that, there were all sorts of fascinating documents including the confessions of men about to be hanged. They would tell their story to what we would now call a ghost writer, and these would be printed up and sold at the hanging.

Is there anything you came across in your research that you found surprising?

If anyone tells you that early-eighteenth century London was polite and civilized, don't believe a word of it.

Are any of the characters in the book based on real people?

Yes, many of the minor characters really were living in the Marshalsea at the time. The gaol was like a (very dangerous) village, with its own pub, coffeeshop and chophouse. There was a barber called Trim, a French fortune teller called Madame Migault . . . And of course the keeper, William Acton, was very real. But my main characters are all fictional.

What do you hope readers take away from the novel?

A lot of early readers have said how much they enjoyed being transported to London in the 1720s. It was a thrilling and fascinating time. Others have particularly liked the plot twists. A couple quite fancy my main character, which is fine as he's not married.

Are you working on anything now?

I've nearly finished the first draft of a sequel. More murder, betrayal and injustice. And the odd joke.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins jacket The Devil in the Marshalsea jacket
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