Book review: The Witchfinder’s Sister

Beth UnderdownThe horror which man can visit on his fellow man, or woman, on anyone slightly different or strange, is explored in this richly-written debut novel. The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown is a fictional telling of a real seventeenth century witchfinder, Matthew Hopkins, and his invented sister Alice. It is a novel steeped in historical fact, with excerpts of documents including real people and trials.

It is 1645 and the Civil War in England is into its fourth year. There is a sense of brooding danger from the very beginning, and not just because of war. It is a time of religious fervour. A short prologue contains a list of women named as witches, their descriptions and accused crimes. Then in chapter one we meet Alice who is confined to one room. This novel is the account of her life.

When Alice’s husband dies in London in a work accident, she returns home, newly pregnant, to the Essex village where she grew up. Upon entering the home of her younger half-brother Matthew, she discovers he has become obsessed with punishing women for witchery. As her worry about his activities turns into fear, she is unable to escape his influence and is pulled into complicity with his acts. Despite attempts to break free, she too is under his power.

It is a fascinating historical read, the sort of book where you feel assured the author’s research is authentic. Told completely from Alice’s point of view, the other female characters are deeply drawn. The servants in her brother’s house, the creepy Mary Phillips and young Grace; Bridget, her step-mother’s former servant; and Rebecca West, accused of witchery. Some of it is difficult reading, particularly the Watching and Searching of suspects, who are subjected to difficult and demeaning conditions. The power of a few men over so many is frightening. With relevance to today’s society are the big issues of man’s inhumanity to man, intolerance and that ability to inflict cruelty which seems always to lurk just beneath the surface of civilised society.

A book that will stay with me for a long time, and which will be re-read.

More information about Beth Underdown at her website.

If you like this, try:-
‘Orphans of the Carnival’ by Carol Birch
‘The Miniaturist’ by Jessie Burton
‘The Penny Heart’ by Martine Bailey

‘The Witchfinder’s Sister’ by Beth Underdown [UK: Viking] Buy at Amazon

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