About The Author
Jake Arnott was born in 1961 and lives in London. He is the author of The Long Firm, published by Sceptre in 1999 and subsequently made into an acclaimed BBC TV series. His second novel, He Kills Coppers, was also made into a series by Channel 4. He has since published the novels Truecrime, Johnny Come Home, The Devil's Paintbrush and The House of Rumour.
In his new novel, The Fatal Tree, Jake Arnott does for the 18th century what he did for the 1960s in The Long Firm. A seductive, clever tale of crime, punishment and love among thieves, it is set in 1720s London in the underworld of 'Romeville' ruled by Jonathan Wild, self-styled 'Thief-taker General' who purports to keep the peace while brutally controlling organised crime. Only two people truly defy him: Jack Sheppard, apprentice turned house-breaker, and his lover, the notorious whore and pickpocket Edgworth Bess. From the condemned cell at Newgate, Bess gives her account of how she and Jack formed the most famous criminal partnership of their age: a tale of lost innocence and harsh survival, passion and danger, bold exploits and spectacular gaol-breaks - and of the price they paid for rousing the mob of Romeville against its corrupt master.
Exclusively for Foyles, we talked to Jake about the real-life Edgworth Bess, the secretive world of the molly-house and the rough poetry of 18th-century slang.
Plus: see a glossary of flash here
Questions & Answers
The Fatal Tree is set a little further back in history than you’ve been before. Did you enjoy immersing yourself in the scandalous world of the eighteenth-century demi-monde?
I had a great time with the period. London in the 1720s was such a wild and decadent place with corrupt ‘thief-takers’ struggling for supremacy, gang-warfare on the streets and rough justice in the courts. It was a time of great pleasure as well, life could be short so it was worth making it sweet.
Is it fair to say that you are drawn towards the underworld, to the margins of society in your work?
Yes, but I always want to explore how the so-called ‘underworld’ impinges on ‘legitimate’ society. Jonathan Wild is a wicked gang-boss yet he operates with the front of respectability as ‘Thief-Taker General.’ I’m always interested in comparing the crimes of the poor with those of the rich.
Am I right in thinking that Edgworth Bess is your first female main character? What, in particular, made you centre the tale on her, rather than, for example, Jack Sheppard?
Most of my novels have multiple narrators (even The Fatal Tree has a double narrative) so I have had female protagonists before but, yes, this is the first time that a woman is at the absolute centre. About time, some might say. I knew the tale of Jack Sheppard before, it’s been told many times but when I came across Edgworth Bess I knew I was really on to something. As usual for women in history, her story had never been told and she really called out to me.
I loved the use of flash, the slang of the underworld, in the novel. How difficult was it to incorporate this vocabulary into your writing?
I found a dictionary of flash slang from 1725 so that became my main source for the flash words. I would spend a long time working out what to use and where but it was never laborious. There’s a rough poetry to this strange language with words like ‘glim’, ‘darkmans’, gape-seed’ and ‘sky parlour.’
I was also very taken with some of the names the characters go by, such as Punk Alice and Poll Maggott. Were these real people or from your imagination?
Along with the slang I loved the street names of that period. There really was a Poll Maggot. Punk Alice is a character from Ben Johnson’s Bartholomew Fair. Johnson had a real ear for street names too so Alice might well have existed. Jenny Diver from John Gay’s The Beggars Opera was a real pickpocket. The time fairly bristles with a folk mythology and sometimes its hard to tell the truth from the fiction – and that’s a ripe harvest for any novelist.
Do you find working with a mix of real and fictional characters a liberating or constraining experience?
You find such richness in real lives, I never find them constraining. I’m always looking at hidden histories and untold stories so the real joy is using the imagination to fill in the gaps. With Edgworth Bess there was scant evidence to go on but I always knew this was a story worth telling. Little clues from her brief court testimony or how she was described by her contemporaries were enough for me to construct an imagined life. I hope I’ve done her justice in fiction as she was unfairly treated in real life.
In The Fatal Tree you give a glimpse into the necessarily secretive world of the molly-house. Can you tell us a little about these establishments?
I’m indebted to Rictor Norton whose book Mother Clap’s Molly House provides a wonderful history of this subculture. The astonishing thing is how familiar a molly-house is in its similarity to a modern gay pub. They had drag shows, called ‘festival nights’ and back rooms known as the ‘Chapel’. They are part of a tradition that continues, and if a molly from the 18th century went to Duckie at the Vauxhall Tavern on a Saturday night now I doubt if they’d feel out of place.
You’ve written stories set in many different time periods now, has any one of them claimed your heart?
Well I thought it would be the 1960s – the age I was born into. But I got so engrossed in 18th London that I’m now fascinated by it. It’s a forgotten era (the nation seems constantly obsessed with the Tudors or the Victorians these days) and maybe that makes it a bit special. But I love the style of the period, particularly its writing – so arch and satirical.