When I was about nine, I remember my grandma giving me a book about the history of witchcraft in the British Isles. I was a slightly strange little girl and I think that she realised that the book would appeal to me. It did- I remember reading it more than once and looking at the strange figures in the woodcut illustrations. None seemed stranger than the images of Matthew Hopkins, the feared Witchfinder General of the Civil War years. He seemed like an ogre from a story book, a giant of folklore. I was interested, then, when I received a package with this novel, a letter that read as if in some guarded code and some pressed flowers with medicinal properties. (The way to get my attention is with something intriguing…)
In The Witchfinder’s Sister, the protagonist is Hopkins’ pregnant sister Alice, who returns to Essex from London after the death of her husband. Alone in the world, she turns to the household of her seemingly pious brother and observes him as he begins to work for powerful men, hunting out so-called witches. At first, Alice believes that the witch hunts are nothing more than local retribution games, acts of spite that will quickly be thrown out by the courts. She becomes more horrified as she realises that her brother is taking his work seriously- and drawing her further and further into the orbit of his work.
That strange little girl in me was not disappointed by this novel. The paranoia, dread and cruelty of the real-life events jumped from the page and I felt Alice’s pain and angst vividly. She struggles with her grief and depression, as well as a mounting horror at the actions of those around her. Hopkins himself is monstrous, but Alice attempts to piece together the human source of this monstrosity. He is cruel to everyone, including her. The whole novel is claustrophobic and frightening. It also feels timely: the women targeted by Hopkins are old, strange, out-of-place. They do not have a voice and the men in the novel ride roughshod over them. Alice is never allowed to forget that it is a man’s world she inhabits, no matter how hard she fights for herself and the women caught up in the nightmare. There is something potentially rewarding about the ending, but I’ll not spoil that for you here!
Beth Underwood’s great-uncle was an historian of the period and this passion clearly flows from one generation to the next. This is a well-researched, interesting novel.