Magazine article The Spectator

'Mansions of Misery: A Biography of the Marshalsea Debtors' Prison', by Jerry White - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Mansions of Misery: A Biography of the Marshalsea Debtors' Prison', by Jerry White - Review

Article excerpt

The Marshalsea was the best and worst place for a debtor to be imprisoned. From 1438 until its closure in 1842, there was dishonour in its name, contagion in its air and cruelty in its very premise: once detained, debtors could take no action to improve their lot. Instead, imprisonment was meant to serve to 'rally friends and family'. Where none were forthcoming, many inmates died of starvation. The ancient barbarity of the system was redressed in 1729 when an inquiry revealed that medieval instruments of restraint were still in use -- as well as a 3ft-long whip that terrified the debtors, fashioned out of 'a bull's pizzle, dried as hard as teak'.

Even after the prison's reform it was a death sentence to be on the 'common side'. But on the 'master's side', better-off inmates found themselves in comfortable purgatory. More than any other prison, it seems to have bred camaraderie, offering 'festive meetings in seasons of gaiety and opulence' (as a report in 1815 found) and even a sense of peacefulness, summed up by the lassitude of William Dorrit, played by Alec Guinness in the wonderful 1988 adaptation of Little Dorrit . Known as the 'Father of the Marshalsea', he is permanently clad in his dressing gown, preserved beyond his creditors and other such worldly cares, indulged by visitors and mothered by his daughter.

He is a version of John Dickens, of course, imprisoned there in 1824, when his son Charles was 12. In this excellent, detailed book, Jerry White sensitively traces Dickens's relationship with the Marshalsea, from his first childhood encounter with it in the pages of Smollett's Roderick Random (an adored book he was forced to pawn) to his later struggles with the constitutionally insolvent John Dickens, who hoped his successful son's publishers would pick up his debts. Incensed, Dickens placed an advert against him in all the leading London newspapers, warning that bills placed by 'certain persons bearing or purporting to bear the name of our said client... will not be paid'.

Dickens could never speak easily about the Marshalsea, and his autobiographical writings on it, given to his biographer, were lost except for a fragment. But The Pickwick Papers , The Old Curiosity Shop, David Copperfield and of course Little Dorrit are all rich with the pathos and comedy of debt culture, such as the antics of Dick Swiveller, blocked from walking down streets where his creditors have shops: 'There's only one avenue to the Strand left open now, and I shall have to stop that up tonight with a pair of gloves. …

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