The thing I enjoy most about reading historical fiction based on true events is the blend of fantasy and reality. Although only an interpretation, it gives you a far greater sense of what it was like (taken with a pinch of salt of course) to be alive during a particular time in history than any textbook could. And that’s exactly what The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown does.
The Witchfinder’s Sister brings to life the terror of the witch hunts during the 17th century. Set in Essex in 1645, the story is told from the perspective of Alice Hopkins, the fictional sister of the notorious real-life “Witchfinder General” Matthew Hopkins.
Recently widowed and pregnant, Alice has no choice but to return to the small town of Manningtree where she grew up to live with her younger brother. She finds Matthew much changed since she left five years ago. He’s gone from being a timid, slightly strange outsider to a man of influence and wealth in the town.
There are also frightened whispers spreading like wildfire behind closed doors in Manningtree and they all go back to one person; Matthew. Alice is shocked to hear that her brother has become obsessed with hunting down women suspected of being witches and has compiled a book where he meticulously notes down their names. She’s desperate to intervene but terrified of what he might do if she does. As she tries to find out what is fuelling his ruthless mission, a web of secrets unravels that puts the lives of innocent women at risk, including her own.
Beth Underdown paints a vivid picture of the 17th century witch trials; a dark time when women weren’t respected within society. Masking misogyny with religion, women were tortured and persecuted for being “witches” on the slightest, most irrational suspicions. Matthew’s sinister control over Alice illustrates how women were manipulated by men. Alice’s fear of Matthew is palpable and there’s a strong sense of claustrophobia as she is stuck under her brother’s thumb.
The Witchfinder’s Sister is an uncomfortable, uneasy read but that’s what makes it so addictive. It’s even more haunting when you remember that it’s based on true events. There is a strong sense of place and time, which is a result of Beth Underdown’s thorough research and lyrical, highly atmospheric prose.
Filled with suspicion and tension, The Witchfinder’s Sister culminates in a chilling twist which gave me goosebumps. It also made me grateful that I wasn’t a woman in the 17th century, but it’s not without holding some relevance to our times. A wonderfully vivid, unsettling debut, I’m looking forward to reading more from Beth Underdown in the future.