Antonia Hodgson’s advice on getting an honest, unfiltered view of a society? Look at its porn.
The Little, Brown editor-in-chief has turned novelist and her first book—the cracking thriller The Devil in the Marshalsea—is set in the hubbub of London in the 1720s. One of characters is a scurrilous publisher/bookseller and spy, who specialises in what we might now term pornography. So Hodgson spent some time in the British Library’s rare books room, researching the top-shelf libertine literature of the era.
“It was absolutely filthy,” she says, laughing. “When you read that kind of literature you probably see how people were, unencumbered by guilt and inhibition. It’s so different from the over the counter literature that survived—even Fielding and Defoe, who were quite earthy—and it’s probably closer to how people behaved.”
Certainly Hodgson’s main character, 25-year-old Tom Hawkins, at first seems taken from those libertine stories: a whoring, gambling ne’er do well cast out of his respectable middle-class family. One night, Hawkins is mugged after winning big at cards, a pot meant to clear his considerable debts. Unable to pay his creditors, he is thrown into Marshalsea, the dreaded debtors’ prison.
Once inside, he becomes enmeshed in the recent murder of another debtor, Captain Roberts, and quickly Hawkins’ freedom—and his life—becomes dependent on finding the killer. There are no shortage of suspects, including Roberts’ widow, the cruel warden of the gaol, and Hawkins’ sinister cellmate, Samuel Fleet. And as Hawkins investigates, even more bodies start to drop.
The Devil . . . succeeds with its intricate plotting and atmospheric depiction of riotous, boozy, pipe smoke-filled Georgian London. Yet it is Hawkins who truly compels, a man once destined for the clergy, who is as much the vicar as rebellious rake. Hodsgon says: “I really like the idea of a character who thinks he’s naughty and mischievous but is struggling with his own goodness.”
Playing a blinder
Across 19 years in various roles in Little, Brown, Hodgson has edited both fiction and non-fiction, working with some of the publisher’s biggest authors including Nora Roberts, Elizabeth Kostova and Sharon and Ozzy Osbourne. Her own book went to Hodder in a blind submission; her editors only knew that its author worked in publishing. “That was terrifying with a capital "T". I recommend [going through the submission process] to every editor, just to understand the stress. I couldn’t sleep for a week.”
Hodsgon, currently finishing writing the sequel, thinks her chosen era is underwritten, especially in fiction—”I think it might be the ridiculous wigs”—but hopes that will change. “You have this explosion of the coffee house culture and ‘new media’ with newspapers. London was going through massive growth, but before it solidified into Empire. There was this odd mix of a very polite society with extreme danger: you just didn’t go out at night in most areas. It’s a time both familiar to us and foreign, but fascinating.”
1971: Born in Derby
1991 - 1994: Studied English Literature at Leeds University
1994: First permanent publishing role with Harcourt Brace and Jovanovich
1995 - Present: Various roles at Little, Brown: authors include Stella Duffy, Tina Fey, Anthony Kiedis
The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 27th March.