Today, Nathan’s on the blog to take us a little bit deeper into the weird and wacky history behind his new book (including the true story of the meaning of the phrase “double cross”). Read on!
In early 18th century London almost one fifth of the population subsisted from crime. In a class based society, it was one of the few ways that you could rise above your station.
There had been waves of migration both externally from Europe and internally from returning soldiers and other parts of Great Britain (as it would be known following the union of 1707). There were simply not enough jobs. The enterprising nature of the English saw the growth of street trade (street hawkers were often specialists, selling everything from mineral water to sheep’s feet), street prostitution and street crime. Despite the prevalence of lawbreaking, there was no police force.
Policing, as we now know it, was not invented until five decades later. There was simply a system of reward and punishment, to be administered by the citizens themselves and overseen by magistrates. If I stole your pocketbook, it was up to you to perform a citizen’s arrest, gather evidence from witnesses, and present your case to the magistrate. Or you could engage a bounty hunter or ‘Thief Taker’ to do it for you. Rewards for a successful conviction were as high as £40, enough to live off for a year. As for the punishment of the felons, sentences ranged from a financial fine to transportation or execution. There were over 200 crimes punishable by death, including theft of a candlestick or dressing like a poacher.
Jonathan Wild, a young man from the small town of Wolverhampton, came to London to seek his fortune. He saw this less-than-effective criminal justice system as a market opportunity to be exploited. As it was illegal to deal in stolen goods, Jonathan Wild became a dealer of information only, connecting thieves and their victims, who were often happy to buy back the items at a premium. This was especially the case when they’d been stolen while the owner was engrossed by the services of a brothel. He developed an unparalleled network of thieves and strongmen, together with prostitutes and highwayman, and became known as a man who could find anything (for a fee, of course). Soon enough, he expected every criminal to pay for his services. And if you didn’t, he used his position as “Thief Taker General” to have you arrested and sometimes executed, thereby adding reward money to his already substantial profits. According to legend, he kept a ledger containing the names of everyone in his network. If you were one of his employed criminals your name was marked with a single cross, but if you were troublesome, disloyal or simply dispensable, you got a second cross, which indicated his intention to have you arrested. Hence the etymology of the double cross.
I first learned of Jonathan Wild’s bold and cunning tactics while reading Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore. Wild’s story was remarkable and, I thought, perfectly suited for an adaptation to screen. Though once I commenced my research, I became more and more interested in elements that I couldn’t sufficiently indulge in by writing a screenplay alone: the patois, the psychology of ambition, the historical detail, the absurdities. I decided to write a few chapters, just to explore the language and treatment. The narrative soon broadened to Wild’s surrounding cast – Daniel Defoe, the pamphleteer and failed businessman, Elizabeth Lyon, a prostitute and criminal accomplice, Jack Sheppard, the young jailbird and Wild’s nemesis – and before long, it was evident that I was writing a novel.
It was at first both seductive and accurate to focus on the perennial chaos and upheaval of those living in the England of Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Wild. The country had been through regicide, a failed republic, a revolution, a union with Scotland and several wars. In London, a quarter of the population died from a plague epidemic in 1665, and then one year later, 15,000 dwellings, along with St. Paul’s cathedral and other major institutions, were razed in the Great Fire. However, reading the journals of people like the naval administrator Samuel Pepys, or the Sussex shopkeeper Thomas Turner, or the adventuring showman Thomas Hammond, I became more occupied by the inconsequential trivialities that were indistinguishable from those that occupy our lives in 2019. Of a barking dog keeping you up at night. Of a cousin who makes a song and dance of serving venison pasty when it’s obviously beef. Of the arguments between a wife and husband over a mess about the house. Of the anti-ageing cream advertisements in the local newspapers.
In writing historical fiction, one might choose to focus on the extraordinary circumstances of the chosen period or on the extraordinary character who preponderates over them. I presume it’s not advisable to do both. (I was never a tertiary educated student of writing, so I do not know the prevailing opinion.) I think I have done both. And couldn’t really help it.
An absolute romp, lead by Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Wild, through the criminal underbelly of thriving 17th century London.
Jonathan Wild knows power like almost no one else in London. He arrived as a wide-eyed young man in 1703, dazzled by a metropolis brimming with trade, immigration and crime. With a combination of greed, arrogance and ambition, Wild stopped at nothing to secure his place in this great and monstrous London and within a few years, he became the city’s Thief-Taker General, one of the most feared...