The Damnation of John Donellan: A Mysterious Case of Death and Scandal in Georgian England by Elizabeth Cooke
|The Damnation of John Donellan: A Mysterious Case of Death and Scandal in Georgian England by Elizabeth Cooke
|Category: True Crime
|Reviewer: Susmita Chatto
|Summary: An aristocratic family with a colourful history find themselves torn apart by the poisoning of a young lord.
|Date: August 2011
|Publisher: Profile Books
Truth is stranger than fiction - but it is not always this gripping. The Boughtons of Lawford Hall, Warwickshire, have a colourful history, including the ghost of One-Handed Boughton, who haunted their land long before this new misfortune befell them. With marriages creating more branches of family, delicate relationships abound and help to shape the complex events detailed in the book. We begin with Sir Theodosius Boughton, heir to the estate when he comes of age, suffering from venereal disease. He is obliged to take medication and is well known for neglecting the recommendations of physicians. One fateful morning, he takes a new medicine, and dies in agony.
The resultant rumours spread fast around the county, and the reputation of the extended family depends on the fullest investigation of the circumstances. This investigation follows a number of twists and turns before coming to rest on John Donellan, Theodosius’ brother-in-law, who was residing under the same roof.
Cooke has taken a tale from Georgian times which provides insights into many aspects of the period, including the practice of medicine, which was unregulated at that time. It was also very far from being the science that we know now, and much influenced by superstitious beliefs. These included the idea that a corpse could in some way infect and harm the living, an idea which surely did not do John Donellan any favours.
The focus of the book also gives us some history of law; although trial by jury was in place at the time, the jurors had to be men of property. However, some things don’t change; some of the chaos presented by human fallibility, with errors and failures in communication, are not too far from the problems that trials can still face in the present day. The book also gives details of the press reporting news in entirely different ways, so that reader of one newspaper has a vastly different perspective than that of another. In spite of being a history book, the modern-day parallels are key to making the book such interesting reading.
Cooke presents her chosen story so well, it reads, in parts, almost as a work of fiction. Indeed, the only real compromise in style are the chapters detailing the background to the tale. Cooke tells us about history with such a strong creative bent, it’s a surprise, and something of an adjustment, to suddenly find yourself approaching a few chapters like this, but once again Cooke’s creativity comes to the fore, and this documentary writing is just as cleverly assembled as the rest of the work.
Cooke is clearly a talented storyteller as well as historian; readers who are not terribly keen on history books but who enjoy a good mystery might want to add this to their reading lists. This is history brought to life with the detailing of a fascinating tale told in a highly creative writing style.
I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.
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