Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Hear ye! Hear ye!

Newes from the Dead is the kind of book I would have excitedly grabbed off the library shelves when I was a teen reader (in that brief time before I turned to the dark side -- the adult shelves). I loved historical fiction that immersed you in a specific time and place, and -- of course -- you can't go wrong with a wronged heroine.

The full title: Newes from the Dead: Being a True Story of Anne Green, Hanged for Infanticide at Oxford Assizes in 1650, Restored to the World and Died Again 1665. It's by Mary Hooper, who based it on a true event she heard about on the radio. Anne Green was seduced by the grandson of her employer, who promised that he would "raise her" to live as a lady. When she became pregnant, she first tried an herbal abortifacient, and subsequently delivered a stillborn baby in the manor's privy ("house of office" ... I love that expression). She thought to hide the body until she had time to give it a proper burial, but when the other servants saw the bloody condition of her clothing, she was found out. She told her employer, Sir Thomas Reade, who the father of her child was, sealing her doom. Sir Thomas ensured that she was jailed, tried, and sentenced to hanging. At the conclusion of her trial (by a jury of her peers ... not!), physicians at Oxford requested -- as was their due -- her body for dissection.

Anne was hanged, and her family -- following the instruction of the hangman -- hung on her legs and beat on her chest in order to speed the breaking of her neck. She was pronounced dead and delivered to the Oxford physicians. As they prepared for dissection, one student, Robert Matthews, thinks he has spotted a twitch of her eyelid. But he can't be sure, and besides, Robert is a stammerer and tries not to speak in public very often.

We know that Anne is alive, because -- trapped in darkness, unable to open her eyes or move her limbs -- she has begun to tell us her sad story. The book alternates between Anne's first-person narrative, and a third-person description of the events above the apothecary's shop as the Oxonians prepare to dissect and study her remains. This is a very effective literary tool, as each chapter with the doctors draws out the suspense of whether they were going to start cutting before Robert manages to speak. Anne's story was a terrific one as well, full of the juicy details of historical fiction. And who wouldn't enjoy the horror of the world of educated men who all purport to know better than Anne. I mean the poor girl had her baby in a 17th century toilet!

The story drags a bit towards the end. The doctors know that Anne is living, and the lengthy descriptions of the various learned methods of reviving her (bleeding and enemas, called clysters) go on for a bit too long. Needless to say, Anne's future looks bright at the end, as does that of the (I think) fictional Robert Matthews.

A brief riff on the cover. Does she look dead ... or merely uncomfortable? I guess you might pick up the book to check. Far better is the British paperback.

The audiobook is pretty darn good. Anne is voiced by Rosalyn Landor and the autopsy sections are by Michael Page. Landor reads Anne with a slightly high-pitched, innocent voice that has just a trace of an English country servant (she's not reading it with an "educated" English accent). She creates voices for a number of the other characters -- both upper and lower classes -- that are interesting to listen to and consistent throughout the story. I've heard her read a couple other things this year, and this is by far my favorite of her work.

I've heard Michael Page read some adult novels (back when I listened to adult novels). He's got that resonant, confident, slightly superior delivery that was perfect for the pompous physicians. I also liked how both he and Landor voiced the villain, Sir Thomas, with similar tones of menace. Page is also an excellent stammerer.

The audiobook ends with a reading, by Page, of the original Newes from the Dead, by a "Scholler in Oxford for the Satisfaction of a friend, who defired to be informed concerning the truth of the bufineffe" in 1651. Page's reading style is perfect for the ornate 17th century language of this document, although it does go on and on. Hooper's fictionalization of this document is quite similar, though.

There's a helpful author's note as well, which speculates on how Anne actually survived her hanging. Clearly the rope didn't break her neck, so it must not have been placed correctly. Hooper also suggests that the extemely cold temperature on December 14, 1650 may have "frozen" her brain and thus it was prevented from being starved of oxygen. Can the cold penetrate your skull? Hmmm ...

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