Review published on May 22, 2017.
To many modern readers, the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison is something that appears in the writings of Charles Dickens, fresh off the pages of books such as Little Dorrit. What one needs to understand is that the shame of the debtors’ prison was all too real for the young Dickens, as it was for many during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Mansions of Misery is written and researched by the excellent London historian and Professor Jerry White, an expert on London from 1700 to the modern day. He has taken a forensic insight into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and applied it to a prison that would have feature large as a dark shadow over London for all those who were in debt.
White explains that the Marshalsea, while still being a prison, was, unlike criminal gaols, more like a lodging house for debtors who would reside within its walls until they had repaid their debt. To describe the old Marshalsea, White uses the diary of a former inmate who was a well-known musician of the time, John Grano.
While White effortlessly describes life and the machinations of life in the Marshalsea, something that does particularly register with the reader is the reality of debt, how debt seemed inescapable and would grind down the debtor. What I felt while reading this excellent history is the crushing hopelessness of debt and for many it would be a reoccurring theme throughout their lives.
What the diary of John Grano does do is show the distinct difference between the two halves of the prison. There was the comfortable side and the poorer side. It is strange how some could live in relative comfort while in the Marshalsea, while others really did suffer, so much so that a jailer was brought before the courts to account for the deaths of four inmates.
The way White has written this book, it is as if the Marshalsea is a microcosm of life outside the walls in the London area. He shows that there was a complete mixture of inmates, rich and poor, fraudsters and hucksters, and many other colourful characters filled the prison. I found this to be a fascinating and engaging read about a place that people often forget was a dark shadow over many lives.
Jerry White has written an engaging and very readable account of life in the Marshalsea and of London during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I am sure it will be a must read for all those interested in the social history of London for many years to come.
Paul Diggett 5/5
Mansions of Misery: A Biography of the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison by Jerry White
Bodley Head 9781847923028 hbk Oct 2016
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