Book #69

The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

1645. When Alice Hopkins' husband dies in a tragic accident, she returns to the small Essex town of Manningtree, where her brother Matthew still lives.
But home is no longer a place of safety. Matthew has changed, and there are rumours spreading through the town: whispers of witchcraft, and of a great book, in which he is gathering women's names.
To what lengths will Matthew's obsession drive him? And what choice will Alice make, when she finds herself at the very heart of his plan?

This novel is based on the true story of Matthew Hopkins, a man who tried women as witches in the seventeenth century, and sent over one hundred of them to their deaths. Realising this fact makes the novel all the more harrowing, despite Underdown having fictionalised his personal life somewhat.

Witches were identified by completely ridiculous measures; is your neighbour a wee bit eccentric, likes solitude a bit too much, maybe she has some mental health problems? Witch. Has she wronged you in some way, leaving you with a debt to settle? Call her out as a witch!

Hopkin’s reign of terror left Essex excited and terrified. It’s unsettling to think how this could be allowed to happen, yet Underdown highlights the power of hysteria, rumour, and religion very well. There’s a constant dark undertone throughout the novel which doesn’t allow the reader to relax for a moment. And in no way does Underdown shun the idea of the supernatural; there are some inexplicable moments which only create more doubt and dread, in both the characters and ourselves.

Although the first and final thirds of the novel were perfect in setting up and boxing up the whole ordeal, there was something lacking in the middle third which I just can’t really put my finger on. Perhaps I would’ve liked (and I use the word very lightly) more information on the accused women and what they were going through; some more depth in the townspeople and their reactions to the situation. In historical novels focusing on this type of barbarism, I think it’s important to focus on the human element as much as possible - the further away we get, the more difficult it is to understand these unspeakable acts happened to real people, the same as any of us.

I enjoyed this, and it’s clear to see Underdown has done extensive research on Hopkins and his campaign. The final sentence of the novel dropped my heart to the floor so quickly, I thought I’d lost it. Very, very clever.