Today I’m absolutely delighted to be taking part in the blog tour for Beth Underdown’s debut novel, The Witchfinder’s Sister.
When Alice returns to her home of Manningtree, Essex from London following the death of her husband, she isn’t sure of the reception she will receive. Her parents have both passed away, and she is unsure of how her half-brother, Matthew, will react. He never approved of her marriage, deeming her husband to be beneath her, and so Alice isn’t entirely surprised by the somewhat cool reception she receives, and is relieved that he is willing to take her in.
But Alice soon finds that Matthew’s status has changed since she was last in Manningtree, and he is now an important man who is often consulted upon various matters by men of standing in and around the area. And then she begins to hear rumours of witchcraft, and learns of accusations that have been made against many of the women in and around Essex. And of a book, in which Matthew writes the names of the accused, and the evidence against them.
Initially dismissive of the gossip, Alice becomes increasingly concerned as more women are incarcerated, and as Matthew begins to involve her in his activities…
The Witchfinder’s Sister is a stunning work of fiction, based upon the actions of Matthew Hopkins, the so-called Witchfinder General. It opens with Alice locked in a room. The reader doesn’t initially know why she has been locked away, and the novel then returns to a point nine months earlier and Alice’s arrival in Manningtree. Underdown has done a fantastic job of slowly building up the tension throughout the novel, and what begins as a woman concerned with little more than how she will be received by her brother soon descends into fear on her part as she realises the activities he has become involved in. I really enjoy novels that share a part of the ending with the reader at the outset – knowing the destination and not the path that lies between here and there can be fascinating, and so it proves to be the case here.
I thought that Underdown successfully evoked both time and place throughout the novel, both in terms of the culture and the way of life, but also the superstitions that were rife at the time. Accusations of witchcraft were not new during Hopkins’ time, and would often be made for the most frivolous of reasons:
Talk of witchcraft was often resorted to when other charges were hard to prove. Women were taken up for it… it was done to teach them a lesson
And so Alice is initially dismissive of the gossip – such accusations happened occasionally, but the women involved are usually released after a relatively brief period in prison. She soon comes to realise that the situation is much more serious, however, and that the evidence that Matthew collects may result in a much harsher sentence than she would expect:
Suddenly I feared that I had been part of something that could have nothing but the reddest of ends.
The characterisation in The Witchfinder’s Sister is also excellent. Alice is a strong individual, but very much aware that she has limited options available to her following the death of her husband, and she is almost entirely reliant upon Matthew’s kindness. Her initial disbelief at the rumours and her situation put her in an extremely difficult position, and it was hard not to empathise with her tale. Matthew is also a fascinating character, and I enjoyed Underdown’s dissection of what drove him to take the actions that he did. I don’t know how much truth there is in this aspect of the novel, but I found the reasons provided to be both fascinating and plausible.
I found this to be captivating fictional account of the actions of an infamous individual, and fans of historical fiction will lap this up – I absolutely loved it.
Many thanks to Katy Loftus for providing a copy for review, and to Josie Murdoch for inviting me to take part in the blog tour. The Witchfinder’s Sister was published by Viking on 2 March 2017 in eBook and hardback.
About the Author
Beth Underdown lectures in Creative Writing at the University of Manchester. Her first novel, The Witchfinder’s Sister, is based on the life of the 1640s witchfinder Matthew Hopkins. Beth’s interest in seventeenth-century England was sparked by the work of her great-uncle David Underdown, one of that period’s foremost historians. She came across a brief mention of Matthew Hopkins while reading a book about midwifery, igniting an interest which turned into an all-consuming hunt for the elusive truth about this infamous killer.
Make sure you check out the other stops on the blog tour!