Book review: The Witchfinder's Sister by Beth Underdown

Thirty years after the notorious Pendle witch trials in Lancashire, a new and even more vicious witch hunt spread like a stain across a quiet corner of England.

Thursday, 9th March 2017, 2:55 pm
Updated Friday, 24th March 2017, 11:10 am
The Witchfinders Sister by Beth Underdown
The Witchfinders Sister by Beth Underdown

As civil war raged throughout the land and thousands died on the battlefield, self-styled Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins and his associates launched a terrifying witch hunt in East Anglia, despatching an estimated 300 hundred women to the gallows in the the space of just two or three years.

That was more than the total for the previous 160 years.

Very little is known of Hopkins before his witch-finding career began in the Manningtree area of Essex in 1644 and apart from his own book, The

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Discovery of Witches, there are no surviving contemporary documents about him or his family.

Born not far from the brooding shadow of Pendle Hill, Beth Underdown uses her haunting and atmospheric debut novel to exploit those gaps in Matthew Hopkins' life, and to explore what could have motivated this cruel, complex man's brutal killing spree.

Viewed through the prism of a fictional sibling, The Witchfinder's Sister is an extraordinary flight of literary imagination, a subtle, intelligent and exquisitely written study of obsession, fear and the exploitation of power.

When Alice Hopkins' husband dies in a tragic accident in London in 1645, she is left alone and pregnant. Her straitened circumstances mean she must leave London to return to her small home town of Manningtree in Essex where her younger brother Matthew still lives.

In the five years she has been gone, the boy she knew – the child who had a ‘strangeness’ that made other children laugh at him - has become a grain merchant, a man of influence and wealth, but more has changed than merely his fortunes.

The cruel burns of a childhood accident still mark his face but Alice fears something even worse has scarred Matthew's soul. There is a new darkness in the town too. Rumours are spreading and there are whispers of witchcraft and of a great book in which Matthew is gathering women's names.

And it doesn’t take long for Alice to discover that Matthew is a ruthless hunter of suspected witches. Every sudden death, every accident is now someone’s fault. ‘And once you have said a name, there is no unsaying.’

Torn between devotion to her brother and horror at what he has become, Alice is desperate to intervene but as Matthew's reign of terror spreads, Alice starts to feel ‘the low simmer of threat.’

To what lengths will Matthew's obsession drive him? And what choice will Alice make when she finds herself at the very heart of his plan?

Underdown plays a clever game in her remarkable first novel, melding a feminist-inspired narrative with a classic slow-burn thriller as Alice gradually awakens to the realisation that what she had thought was her brother’s eccentricity is something far more sinister.

As secrets from their family past are revealed and Alice is drawn ever deeper into the awful truth of Hopkins’ menacing mission, the threat to her own life increases.

Vivid, visceral and cloyingly claustrophobic, The Witchfinder’s Sister is a gripping and startling story, reminding us that even after nearly four hundred years, Hopkins’ savage purge still has the power to shock.

Religious fervour, the vulnerability of women in a male-dominated society and the terrifying realities of 17th century witch hunts all come under the author’s watchful eye as we journey with Alice into the heart of darkness.

Intense, disturbing and with a hint of the supernatural, this is a rich and rewarding read and marks out Beth Underdown as one of 2017’s most exciting newcomers.

(Viking, hardback, £14.99)