Beth Underdown’s debut novel, The Witchfinder’s Sister, is a hauntingly chilling tale from a time when being different could very well mean death. Told from the perspective of Alice Hopkins, The Witchfinder’s Sister is a fictional account of the life of Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins, who is believed to be responsible for the deaths of anywhere from one to three hundred women that he deemed to be witches.
After losing her husband in an accident, Alice moves back to Manningtree to live with her younger brother. Alone, with no money, and carrying a child, she is forced to rely on her brother’s good graces if she wants any semblance of comfort or a home – that, or return to London. After hearing rumors that women are being imprisoned and tried as witches, Alice finds herself drawn into the depths of her brother’s sin and eventually finds herself forced to aid in these barbaric hunts. What follows is a deeply disturbing account of the fear women lived in in 17th century England.
The Witchfinder’s Sister is an exceptionally well written and researched novel. Many of the chapters begin with an excerpt or transcript from books, papers, and court hearings from the actual trials that took place, though there isn’t a lot of evidence to be had. While Alice Hopkins is a fictional character, the only information known about Matthew Hopkins is that he was the fourth of six children and this is another fact that Underdown acknowledges at the end of her book. While it isn’t packed with action, The Witchfinder’s Sister does have an eerie way of narrating certain events that actually made my skin crawl, despite the fact that I consider myself a well-seasoned horror fan.
Other reviews that I’ve read mention that “as a protagonist, Alice Hopkins does feel a little flat.” From a reader’s standpoint, I most definitely agree. Historically though, this is fairly accurate. After all, Alice is living in a time period where anything out of the ordinary, any sign of independence, any sign of being outspoken could easily have landed her her very own stool upon the scaffold. For that, I have to give Underdown kudos. She’s managed to keep it rather interesting, despite the protagonist being hampered by society’s norms. In fact, Alice’s own frustration shines through brightly, instilling a feeling of the same in me as I read.
There is no doubt in my mind, after finishing this book, that Matthew Hopkins was a horrible, horrible person. In that regard, I must also commend Underdown for her success at writing him.
I would like to thank Random House for providing me with this copy for unbiased review through NetGalley.