Published by Ballantine Books
Publication date: April 25th 2017
The Witchfinder’s Sister is Beth Underdown’s dark novel of dark times. It’s 1600s England and Alice is pregnant, her husband is dead and she must return to live with her brother whom she hasn’t seen in five years. Her brother who wanted to become a minister, but due to their father’s death had to earn a living as a scribe. Now grown, he has become the man charged with rooting out witches in the south of England. With patience and smooth strokes of prose Underdown builds a story of a woman caught in circumstances she cannot control as she tries to unravel family mysteries of the past and stop their impact on the present.
The Witchfinder’s Sister is fiction, but of the type I call ‘fiction-not-fiction’ because it did happen. The easiest way for me to approach it is to break it down. Fact: Matthew Hopkins was a real person credited with finding witches and with the deaths of almost 300 women between 1644 and 1646. He was 25 years old at the time.
The fiction is the scaffolding Underdown builds around him. The destitute sister Alice with nowhere to go and utterly dependent on him. A childhood accident that may have left him with psychological scars as deep as the physical ones. Even further back—his mother had difficulty conceiving and may have turned to unorthodox help from a healer.
My brother buried his resentment that day. But resentment buried is not gone. It is like burying a seed: for a season it may stay hidden in the dark, but in the end, it will always grow.
The facts about this fiction? The Witchfinder’s Sister feels a bit like The Handmaid’s Tale in that it will evoke strong reactions about the treatment of women. For me this meant I spent a fair amount of time either talking to the pages or clenching my jaw while reading. Mostly because Underdown does such a good job with her characters and the dynamics between them. She disguises Matthew’s path to dominance over Alice by giving him an innocuous surface. He does not relish his work, he does not wish to hurt these women, but if they have been accused he must determine if they are in league with the devil. There are no raised voices or overt violence, simply sitting.
But it is not simple. It is hours upon hours on a wooden stool with wrists bound to ankles. No food, water or sleep and the release of walking only allowed after passing out. Yes, they must be intimately examined, but he would never degrade a woman that way. No, other women must do that. Women like Alice, after her covert efforts to try and help the accused fail. Matthew exerts his will over her survival by pulling her inexorably into his work.
How could anyone let such filthy proceedings go forward? How could it be made to stand in court? But I saw at once how it could be done, how my brother might make it stand: using delicate hints, using sad, reluctant shakings of the head.
That these women have done no more than live independently, practice herbal healing, flirted or speak their mind in opposition to a man ratchets my anger up to stabby. Thankfully, Underdown is able to adhere to the historical, but still use the fiction to great effect, making The Witchfinder’s Sister compelling reading.