Spring 1728. After eight painful years, Georgian England is still reeling from the disastrous effects of the South Sea Bubble, the first financial crash of the modern age. For all this time, former Chancellor of the Exchequer John Aislabie has remained in exile, banished to his grand country estate in Yorkshire, close to the majestic ruins of Fountains Abbey. He believes it’s time he was forgiven and restored to power. Someone disagrees with him. Violently.
Following a series of terrifying threats to his family, Aislabie demands help from his former ally Queen Caroline. She agrees – but has her own ulterior motives. Aislabie has kept a secret accounts book, detailing all the insider dealings of the ‘great and the good’. If published, it could bring down the government – and an already weak monarchy.
So the queen sends a reluctant Tom Hawkins to Yorkshire on a double mission: help Aislabie and find the ledger – or lose his beloved Kitty for ever.
In a seemingly pleasant world of water gardens and deer parks, it would be easy to become complacent. But as events take a deadly turn, Tom soon discovers that the country can be even more dangerous than the louche streets of London. Luckily he has brought his ward Sam Fleet with him – a boy who is quite at ease among thieves and murderers…
We knew reviewer Nicola Smith was a fan of the previous two books from Antonia featuring Thomas Hawkins so sent her an early copy and asked for her verdict:
I love this series of books. Antonia Hodgson weaves a fantastic tale of both fact and fiction and emerges with a thoroughly enjoyable romp of a story. Told in the first person by Tom himself, I can’t help but like him. He gets into all kinds of scrapes, both humorous and dangerous. Hodgson really brings to life the era but writes in a very accessible style. Whilst Tom is very much a London rogue, it was nice to move the action to Yorkshire and the beautiful backdrop of Fountains Abbey.
Nicola also had some questions for Antonia…
NS: I understand that you submitted your first book anonymously to your publishers because you are known in the industry. Do you think your career in publishing helped you in (a) the writing process and (b) getting published or did it put more pressure on you?
I’ve worked as an editor for many years, and before that I studied English at university. And before all that, I spent great chunks of my childhood reading. There was a library at the bottom of my road, so every Saturday I would take out as many books as I was allowed and devour them – often before the weekend was over. My work as an editor is part of a lifelong obsession with reading, writing and – specifically – storytelling. Consciously and subconsciously, I’ve learned about structure, pace, character, voice, atmosphere, everything from my reading. So the short answer to a) is, yes – absolutely. All reading helps with the writing process.
As to b), knowing the mechanics of the publication process certainly helped. I was also prepared for some of the challenges. It’s the bits I’ve never experienced as an editor – for example handing in my first draft – that turn me into a nervous wreck.
Regarding the publishing process and the book industry, I think someone should write a book for authors: What to Expect when You’re Expecting (to be Published). It takes about the same amount of time as a pregnancy, though regrettably you’re not offered gas and air at the critical release stage.
One of the things that really stands out for me with your books, especially The Devil in the Marshalsea, is how atmospheric they are. How much research did you have to do to capture exactly what it was like in the prison?
I was lucky to find some very good and evocative primary sources for the Marshalsea in the late 1720s. There was a prisoner’s diary, which gave me a useful bank of day-to-day details, along with portraits of some of the key characters. There was also a government report into the state of London prisons. The descriptions of the Marshalsea were absolutely harrowing: I’ll never forget reading them in the British library and putting my head in my hands in horror. This report led to the prison governor, William Acton, being charged with murder in August 1729. The transcript of this trial provided further colour and dialogue – especially as Acton defended himself.
But once all the research was done, I had to step back and let my character, Thomas Hawkins, discover the prison for himself – to see it with his own eyes. It’s no use presenting it from my own twenty-first century perspective. And – it’s a cliche but true – less is more. I see it like this: you need a deep well of research to draw from, but you only need to use a thimbleful.
Some of your characters have been based around actual people. Whilst I enjoy fiction with ‘real’ people and events featured in it, I sometimes find it can make for a rather dull story (not in your case, I hasten to add!). How much fleshing out of these characters did you need to do? Or were they already so interesting that you didn’t need to do very much?
One big difference with real people is that some of their actions are known, fixed points. So you are working back from this information, trying to understand their character from their actions and their words (if you have them). This can put certain limitations on what you can do with them. At the most basic level, you can’t bump off a character if history tells you s/he lived for another thirty years!
In almost all cases, the real characters I write about are long forgotten. Many weren’t even well known in their own day. I write about them because they were there, or because they did something that connects very closely to the story. There are no cameos just for the sake of it. In the first draft of The Devil in the Marshalsea I toyed with the idea of having William Hogarth wander by, because he was such an important influence on the tone of the book. It didn’t work. I’ve stuck to that ‘no cameos’ rule ever since.
What made you decide to write historical fiction, and about this period in particular?
I’ve written about this elsewhere, so apologies for repeating myself a bit here. Basically, I wrote an earlier novel that didn’t work out. A small part of it was set in the 1720s, and I became fascinated with the period, in part because it was so little studied. I’m drawn to neglected things, to the false generalisations this neglect creates. I love the surprise of discovery, and then surprising others with it.
At about the same moment (and I can’t really remember now which came first), I came up with the character of Tom Hawkins. Then I discovered the true story of the Marshalsea, and it all came together.
Some characters in the Marshalsea made it their home. How do you think you would have fared there?
SO badly! The brutality, the cruelty, the constant threat of violence. The people who did stay were entrepreneurs – barbers, tailors, coffee shop owners. I’ve a horrible feeling I would have had to cut a deal with my conscience and suck up to the governor, just to survive. Of course this is assuming I could afford the Master’s Side of the prison. More likely I’d have been on the Common Side, and died within a few weeks.
Why did you decide to shift the action from London to Yorkshire in A Death at Fountains Abbey? And why there and Studley in particular?
I wanted a fresh setting, and I liked the contrast after two books set in London. I have a close family connection to Yorkshire (my dad’s from Barnsley) and I’ve always felt drawn to West Yorkshire in particular. And it is spectacularly beautiful, of course.
At the same time, I’d been looking into the story of John Aislabie, the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time of the South Sea Bubble – the first great financial crash of the modern age. He was forced into exile, and spent the rest of his life creating these incredibly beautiful and elaborate water gardens at his seat in Studley. He refused to accept that he’d done anything wrong – in fact he considered himself a victim – which I found intriguing. That inability to accept responsibility.
I also liked the idea of drawing on the tradition of the country house murder and focusing as much on the servants as the family. And then there’s Fountains Abbey itself, which is a dream setting.
Writing in the first person works really well in your books. What made you decide to use this narrative device and do you find it hard to tell the whole story from Tom’s viewpoint?
It was perhaps the biggest decision I had to make with The Devil in the Marshalsea – first person or third person. There are limitations with first person, but that can be helpful. It’s like having a short menu at a restaurant – it saves you from having to discard long lists of other options.
And of course there’s no law that says you have to stay in the first person all the time. The prologue of The Devil in the Marshalsea appears to be in the third person until the last line. And in The Last Confession the first person narrative is interrupted from time to time with a third person narrative of Tom being led to the gallows.
There seem to be quite a few strong women and weak men in your books. Was this a conscious decision on your part?
Absolutely not, and I wouldn’t see them in that way. Kitty, to be sure, is very determined and will fight to protect her freedom. Tom has had a much easier life, and takes his freedom for granted – at least when we first meet him. He doesn’t realise how privileged he is, how comparatively free he is, until that privilege and freedom is taken away from him. I don’t think that makes him weak, he’s just never been challenged before, never been forced to discover where his strengths really lie.
Kitty had to learn how to survive on her wits from a young age, and that has made her protective of what she now has, and more alert to threat. In some ways, it’s a sad lesson to learn. Tom begins with a fundamentally cheerful attitude to life. The question is whether he can retain it, in the face of the horrors he’s experienced. That takes strength.
Do you enjoy reading other fiction set in the 18th century? What do you like to read?
When I’m in my ‘lost in writing’ phase – particularly towards the end of the first draft – I find it quite difficult to read fiction. I’ll read popular psychology, science, music memoirs, history. Beyond that I have quite a wide reading taste. For example I love science fiction and fantasy and wish I had time to read more. Two of my favourite novels of recent times are The Girl with all the Gifts by M.R. Carey and Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie. At the same time, my agent has just set up a reading group focused on classics in translation, which I’m really enjoying.
What’s next for lovable rogue, Thomas Hawkins? Will we see more of him? Or are you planning something quite different for your next work?
I’m plotting my fourth book at the moment. It’s set back in London and I’m really excited about it. I like the fact that I’m writing a series, but that each one stands alone, even in the way the story’s told. I can’t really say any more than that without creating spoilers!