The Witchfinder's Sister
By Beth Underdown
The number of women my brother Matthew killed, so far as I can reckon it, is one hundred and six...
1645. When Alice Hopkins' husband dies in a tragic accident, she has no choice but to return 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 witches, and of a great book, in which her brother is gathering women's names.
To what lengths will her brother's obsession drive him?
And what choice will Alice make, when she finds herself at the very heart of his plan?
I have always been interested in the history of Witchcraft, particularly history involving The Salem Witch Trials or the actions of Matthew Hopkins, also known as The Witchfinder General. This novel focuses on the actions of Matthew Hopkins from the point of view of his sister Alice.
This book is full of twists and turns and maintains a suspenseful in tone throughout. Beth Underdown manages to weave an alluring tale whilst managing to remain historically accurate.
The book begins with a quote from Exodus 22:18, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” This passage has been used to justify a lot of wrongdoings in the past, some of which are discussed in this book.
It struck me whilst reading this book that this is the third book in a week I have found myself reading which essentially revolves around powerful men and their dislike for independent women. This book is set in 1645 in the fourth year of the English Civil War, a time when independent women were considered to be a suspicious anomaly.
The first chapter begins with Alice explaining talking about the civil war and saying that the war no doubt contributed to the atmosphere of uncertainty. “Before this, women have seldom been hanged for witchcraft – one or two, every five years, or ten…But now this country is falling apart at the seams. Now, all England is looking the other way: so there is nothing to stop Matthew Hopkins stepping forward.”
Following this is a list of women’s names and the ridiculous accusations made against them, from killing a child to killing someone’s horse. The accused women were outsiders in society on the whole – the lame, poor or the widows who had become a little too independent. “For nine months ago, my brother Matthew set himself to killing women….He took women who did not want their own children, women who wanted other people’s, and at least at first, there was hardly a murmur to prevent him. For a woman is brought up to believe that children are their life’s work…But what happens if you cannot have children? If you have too many? If you have them and they cannot protect you? If you have them and they die? If you weep for your loss too much, or not enough – that is when folk begin to wonder if it is your fault, your misfortune. They begin to wonder how you can have offended God, and their wonderings turn ripe for a man like my brother to exploit.”
Growing up Alice benefitted from her father treating her and her brother equally when it came to education and Alice states within the first few pages of the book, “Once, I scarcely believed in the devil. I scorned the kind of folk who earnestly think he can put on a physical form…Nine months ago I had cause to come back to my own strange corner of Essex; and since I did, things have happened that made it harder to say what I do and do not believe.”
The novel is written as though it were Alice’s account of her brother’s actions. “I will not flinch. I will set it down, the true history of my brother, what he has done. I will set it down the true history of my brother, what he has done. I will set it down in black and white, and my tale will contain more truth than the great dead histories on my on my father’s bookshelves.”
Alice has recently returned to Manningtree from London after the death of her husband Jospeh. She was returning reluctantly to her childhood home, uncertain of her reception from her brother as their last words had been in anger over a disagreement about her marriage to the son of a servant.
We learn that Matthew was left with horrific scars to his hands and face following an accident when he was a baby. These scars meant that growing up Matthew was somewhat of an outsider and Alice was his only friend but she felt no pity for him and she didn’t tease him, “that would have been like making fun of my own right hand, or pitying my left.”
In the intervening years Matthew has gained in popularity with the local landowners, particularly in regards to willingness to take notes on those accused of witchcraft.
Upon returning to her childhood home Alice is also haunted by memories of her mother, “By the time I was old enough to know something was amiss, she had a hundred strange habits that dominated all her hours between waking and sleeping. She was changing her linen twice a day and she would put it on damp if the servants or I failed to get it dry on time.”
We discover she took refuge from her mother at former servant Bridget’s house and that is where she met Joseph. Since returning to Manningtree Bridget is Alice’s source of information about the accusations of witchcraft and her brother’s role in them.
Alice reflects that she was too close to her brother to see what was going on with regards to the witch trials and that is one of her justifications for why she ignored the warning signs.
As the book progresses, Alice looks on in horror as she realises the extent of her brother’s involvement and the lengths he would go to when trying to get a confession. Correspondingly, the freedoms Alice enjoyed in London are slowly taken from her until she is reduced to asking her brother’s permission to leave the house and so that she has no money of her own.
The reason I gave this book four stars is because, although it was an enjoyable and sometimes harrowing read, there were a few areas that left me with unanswered questions.
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