The Hanging of William Dodd, by Anthony Lynch

Chantelle Lee

Characters are lifelike and well-rounded, and the narrative voice strong and era-appropriate.
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I knew very little about the story of William Dodd before reading Anthony Lynch’s new novel, The Hanging of William Dodd, but I was intrigued from the opening pages. The historical William Dodd was a renowned preacher who was eventually hanged at Tyburn for forgery in 1777. This epistolary novel, however, opens with the revelation that, despite the book’s title, the hanging of William Dodd did not result in his death. Instead, Dodd is alive, but mute, crippled, and hidden with his wife in France, following a ‘successful’ resuscitation. Unable to remember the circumstances that led him to this position, Dodd is persuaded to write his history. He thus takes both the reader and himself on a journey to restore his memory and his voice.

It follows Dodd from his blissful and precocious childhood in Bourne, Lincolnshire, to Cambridge University, where he was a sizar, tutoring and performing menial duties for other students to finance his studies. Here, we see some of the seeds for Dodd’s later dandyism and extravagance planted, most memorably as he comes to resent his status and spends the money designated for a journey home on a fashionable set of clothes. After his studies, Dodd pursues a literary career in London, and is drawn to the underworld of the city, until he impulsively meets and marries Mary Perkins, the discarded mistress of the Earl of Sandwich. He is then pressured by his family to give up his literary pretensions for a more respectable life as a priest.

Dodd’s life is far from quiet. He becomes a popular and powerful preacher, in stark contrast to the diminished, voiceless version that is interspersed throughout the text. He supports charities for repentant prostitutes and draws attention to social ills, preaches for the Queen, and becomes a chaplain to the King. However, he also spends extravagantly and is seen as a dandy, eventually engaging in simony and forgery, where he meets his downfall.

What is perhaps most impressive about this book is that it is actually a work of fiction: the characters are so lifelike and well-rounded, and the narrative voice so strong and era-appropriate, that it’s hard to believe that William Dodd himself is not the real author. Lynch does a remarkable job of presenting his characters, and Dodd most importantly, as complex, nuanced people. He brings to life the vanity and extravagance of the ‘Macaroni Parson’ in a way that is not only believable, but understandable and sometimes pitiable. Equally, Lynch balances Dodd’s many flaws with his generosity and intelligence. It might have been easy to present Dodd as a caricature, but Lynch’s protagonist is instead multi-faceted, interesting, and human. This is a brilliantly reimagined version of an already fascinating piece of history.

The Hanging of William Dodd by Anthony Lynch is out now. Chantelle Lee is an Editorial Assistant at Aspects of History.