A terrified girl is hanged for the murder of a baby. She denies the accusations until the end, when she is hanged. Her body is cut down, one of the five corpses a year that the Oxford physicians are allowed to dissect. As interested scholars and doctors gather, they get a horrible shock. Her eyelids flutter. Could she still be alive? And yet she doesn’t move. The doctors are mystified. Should they try to revive the seemingly dead body? And if they managed it, wouldn’t she just be hanged all over again?
This is a really unusual storyline. It’s rather unbelievable, I agree. But even more unbelievable is the fact that it was based on a true story. As soon as I discovered that I wanted to get myself a copy of Newes From the Dead. Not only is it based on a true story, but it feels accurate. I’m sure Mary Hooper embellished the story a lot, but she did this with discretion. It doesn’t feel sensationalised, just more personal.
We get the narrative split up between Anne and a young scholar, Robert. Anne has woken up not knowing where she is, unable to see anything or move. Afraid that she is either in purgatory or has been buried alive, she distracts herself by going over the events in her head, basically telling her own story. In between these chapters is the account of what is happening in the doctors’ rooms. This works well as the speculation from the doctors regarding her trial coincides with Anne’s own account.
As far as characters, some are interesting and some underdeveloped. Unfortunately, Anne felt too flat. The author apparently tries to make her innocence clear by making her overly naive. This was taken too far, especially for a servant in 1650. On top of this, Anne seemed immature and had little redeeming features. She was simply the embodiment of ‘innocent young girl greatly wronged.’ On the other hand, I loved the dialogue between the scholars and Robert especially. Robert is struggling with a stammer, unable to talk to people but he finds that he can talk to Anne’s motionless body.
Despite some small problems, I enjoyed Newes from the Dead. The time period was realistically portrayed and the lack of justice for the lower classes is shocking. Younger readers should be aware that the book deals with some seduction, hanging and giving birth. These are handled well so aren’t too gruesome, but are integral to the plot. It’s an interesting and well-written read, but not too hard-going.