The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

I review The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown.

Before Salem, there was Manningtree. . . . 

“This summer, my brother Matthew set himself to killing women, but without ever once breaking the law.” 

Essex, England, 1645. With a heavy heart, Alice Hopkins returns to the small town she grew up in. Widowed, with child, and without prospects, she is forced to find refuge at the house of her younger brother, Matthew. In the five years she has been gone, the boy she knew has become a man of influence and wealth–but more has changed than merely his fortunes. Alice fears that even as the cruel burns of a childhood accident still mark his face, something terrible has scarred Matthew’s soul. 

There is a new darkness in the town, too–frightened whispers are stirring in the streets, and Alice’s blood runs cold with dread when she discovers that Matthew is a ruthless hunter of suspected witches. Torn between devotion to her brother and horror at what he’s become, Alice is desperate to intervene–and deathly afraid of the consequences. But as Matthew’s reign of terror spreads, Alice must choose between her safety and her soul. 

Alone and surrounded by suspicious eyes, Alice seeks out the fuel firing her brother’s brutal mission–and is drawn into the Hopkins family’s past. There she finds secrets nested within secrets: and at their heart, the poisonous truth. Only by putting her own life and liberty in peril can she defeat this darkest of evils–before more innocent women are forced to the gallows. 

Inspired by the real-life story of notorious “Witchfinder General” Matthew Hopkins, Beth Underdown’s thrilling debut novel blends spellbinding history with harrowing storytelling for a truly haunting reading experience. 

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I decided to download The Witchfinder’s Sister audiobook after hearing about the book, and an event at which Beth Underdown was to speak, from the Colchester Waterstones. I live on the Essex side of Hertfordshire, right on the border between the two counties, and I also lived in Harlow, Essex, for a number of years when I was younger. I remember reading about witches as a child, particularly those that were murdered in the area, and only succeeded in scaring myself stiff. But the fascination never left me.

The thing about witches is this: they were almost always women. Discussing the history of witch trials, and the motivations behind them, is very much a feminist topic. These women – usually old, widowed, ugly, poor, or all of the above – were singled out, accused, and murdered. But why? Did people truly believe in witchcraft back then? I can understand the boredom, perhaps, or the urge to get revenge on an enemy, but did these accusers truly believe what they were claiming? Or did they simply not care about the repurcussions?

It’s a fascinating topic, to be sure, but I’m particularly drawn to the sisterhood that becomes clear during such times as the witch trials. True, women were accusing other women at an alarming rate, but you can almost understand why, for, in some cases, it was to force the suspicion away from themselves – or, indeed, to be pardoned by speaking out against another. Whatever the case, once again, it was men who ran the show, and who decided what would happen to whom. All of the women were simply, desperately, trying to play their part, and do enough to spare their lives.

In The Witchfinder’s Sister, we are told the story of Matthew Hopkins, a very real witchfinder, through the eyes of his -mostly fictional – half-sister, Alice. Matthew is determined to rid the county of witches, riding to and fro, rounding them up and sending them to their deaths. According to Alice, Matthew had killed over 100 women, in the space of just two short years.

Alice, newly returned from London, recently widowed and with child, needs her brother’s protection and charity, if she is to survive. Her brother had spoken out against her marriage to Joseph, the adopted son of the Hopkins’s old servant, but he allowed Alice to return upon Joseph’s death. With no parents or other family around, Matthew is indeed the man of the house, already deep into the witchfinding business, and seeming to enjoy it. Alice must protect herself, but she soon falls in with some other women who are also entwined with Matthew – Grace the servant, Rebecca West the old nemesis, and Bridget, Alice’s mother-in-law.

What particularly struck me was Underdown’s perfect portrayal of sisterhood. All of these women – downtrodden, less than – put aside their differences and joined together, if only to provide comfort. None of them were in charge of their own destiny, let alone anyone else’s, but they stood as firm as they could, and drew strength from one another. Class, status, history – all of that meant nothing when they were faced with a common enemy. Underdown’s characters are intricate and true, excellently crafted, and absolutely believable.

Underdown has given us a wonderfully enchanting, horrifically realistic debut, which captures the essence of the time – the religion, society, fear – and reminds us that the witch trials were not confined to the US, and it wasn’t that long ago, either. And how far have women’s rights come since Hopkins’s day? We may not be regularly burned or drowned or hanged for imagined slights, but we are still overwhelmingly the victims of male violence, and so, I say, I don’t believe that things have changed very much.

In the end, Alice sets off for Massachusetts, ready for a new beginning, for “new work in an honest place. I like the sound of it, where I am headed. It is a quiet village, a place of little consequence, but they have named it Salem, which, as you know, means peace.”

The Witchfinder’s Sister is available to buy now. If you’re partial to an audiobook, this one does not disappoint – Lucy Brownhill is an excellent narrator.

Amazon | Goodreads | Audible

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