The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

This title may be purchased from Amazon

“This summer, my brother Matthew set himself to killing women, but without ever once breaking the law.”

Essex, England, 1645. With a heavy heart, Alice Hopkins returns to the small town she grew up in. Widowed, with child, and without prospects, she is forced to find refuge at the house of her younger brother, Matthew. In the five years she has been gone, the boy she knew has become a man of influence and wealth–but more has changed than merely his fortunes. Alice fears that even as the cruel burns of a childhood accident still mark his face, something terrible has scarred Matthew’s soul.

There is a new darkness in the town, too–frightened whispers are stirring in the streets, and Alice’s blood runs cold with dread when she discovers that Matthew is a ruthless hunter of suspected witches. Torn between devotion to her brother and horror at what he’s become, Alice is desperate to intervene–and deathly afraid of the consequences. But as Matthew’s reign of terror spreads, Alice must choose between her safety and her soul.
Alone and surrounded by suspicious eyes, Alice seeks out the fuel firing her brother’s brutal mission–and is drawn into the Hopkins family’s past. There she finds secrets nested within secrets: and at their heart, the poisonous truth. Only by putting her own life and liberty in peril can she defeat this darkest of evils–before more innocent women are forced to the gallows.

Rating: B-

I’ll admit right out of the gate that one of the reasons I picked up The Witchfinder’s Sister for review is because the real-life events that play out in the novel took place in the area in which I now live – North East Essex and South Suffolk.  Matthew Hopkins is a well-known historical figure in the UK; the self-styled Witchfinder General – a title he was never officially granted – lived in the small Essex town of Manningtree, but his influence was felt across all of East Anglia.  Between 1644 and 1647, Hopkins and his associates were responsible for the executions for witchcraft of over three hundred women.

In spite of his notoriety, very little is known about Hopkins’ personal life, but author Beth Underdown has painted an intriguing and menacing picture of the man and the events he set in train as seen through the eyes of his (fictional) sister, Alice, who, we learn at the beginning, has been imprisoned – we don’t know why or by whom – and who is using her time to record the full history of my brother, what he has done. 

In 1645, Alice returns to Manningtree following the tragic death of her husband in an accident.  She is apprehensive; her Mother (who is actually her stepmother, her father’s second wife) has recently died, and Alice is not sure if she will be welcomed back at home.  She is closest in age to her younger brother Matthew – the only child of her father’s second marriage – and they were close as children, but he did not approve of her marriage to the son of a family servant and they have not been on good terms ever since.  Yet Alice has nowhere else to go, and is relieved, on reaching the Thorn Inn – now owned by Matthew – that he is willing to let her stay with him.

It’s not long before she starts to hear odd rumours about her brother and to realise that he’s a very different man from the one she’d left when she got married and went to London.  In the intervening years, it seems that Matthew has become a man of some influence in the area, but Alice soon begins to hear some very disturbing things about his involvement in the accusations of witchcraft levelled at several local women.  At first, she is reluctant to believe it, but when she discovers that he is making lists of women suspected and accused, collecting evidence and convening trials, Alice reluctantly has to accept that her brother is a dangerous and unpredictable man.

One of the things the author does very well is to chart the very uneasy relationship between Alice and Matthew; there’s a real sense that Alice is permanently treading on eggshells around him, expecting at any moment for him to look at her and work out that she is defying him in small ways, by visiting her mother-in-law, whom he has forbidden her to see, or in trying to help the women who are being accused.  She paints an intriguing picture of Matthew through Alice’s eyes, as Alice recalls various incidents from their childhood, remembers the boy he was and then, in an attempt to understand his motivations, begins to delve into long-buried family secrets which could threaten her own life and liberty.

There is definitely an air of subtle menace pervading the book, which is as it should be, given the subject matter.  But while I enjoyed reading it, it was slow to start and Alice’s frequent reminiscences in the first half tended to interrupt the flow of the present day story being told.  These passages do help to build a picture of Matthew as Alice had known him, and also to give some insight as to the actions and events that have made him into the man he is, but there’s no denying that their positioning affects the pacing of the novel in an adverse way.

But with that said, there’s no doubt that Ms. Underdown’s research into the period and her subject matter has clearly been extensive, because her descriptions of the sights, sounds and smells of 17thcentury England are very evocative, enabling the reader to really put themselves in the middle of those muddy streets and swirling mists or sniff the smells of roasting meat and hoppy ale.  She does a splendid job of creating an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty as the accusations spread and shows just how dangerous it was to be a woman in those times, when the most innocent look or word could be deliberately misinterpreted by someone who wished you ill; and the scenes and descriptions of some of the ‘tests’ the accused women are put through are harrowing in their matter-of-factness.

I enjoyed the story, but there were times I wanted just a bit… more.  I found it quite difficult to get a handle on either Matthew or Alice, and this is, I suspect, in part due to the fact that Alice is mostly a passive narrator, a witness to events or on the periphery of them, which creates a degree of emotional distance between the characters and the reader.  I felt for Alice and what she went through and admired her determination to do something to help those she believed were unjustly accused. She’s the counterbalance to Matthew’s obsessive piety, but she’s also a woman alone with no-one to turn to and faces some very difficult choices.  Her decisions aren’t always the best, but they are human and it’s easy to understand why she makes them.

The last part of the book is the strongest, as this is where Alice finally – and unwillingly – starts to take part in the events she describes.  This brings an immediacy to the narrative which was lacking before, and serves to ramp up the tension and to thicken the all-pervasive atmosphere of oppression.  The ending is suitably shocking – and I give substantial props to the author for the last line, which is an absolute zinger.

This is Ms. Underdown’s début novel and is, all in all, a well-researched piece of historical fiction told in an engaging way.  It wasn’t a book I found difficult to put down, but the subject matter is intriguing and the author has constructed a perfectly plausible account of Hopkins’ life given the paucity of available material.  I’m going to give The Witchfinder’s Sister a qualified recommendation; if you’re not familiar with this particularly dark period of English history and are interested in learning more, it’s not a bad place to start.

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