The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown
This historical fiction follows the career of self-styled (and real life) Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins, as told by his sister, Alice. In the 1640s, during the English Civil War between the Catholics and Protestants, Hopkins gained infamy for his dogged pursuit of witches in the Southeast of England. It is estimated that anywhere from 100 to 300 women perished due to his work. Like the witch hysteria of Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, Hopkins focused his attentions on independent, outspoken, and/or unpopular women. And, the times being what they were, a good deal of anti-catholic hatred also informed his persecutions.
This book is told from the point of view of Matthew Hopkins’ older sister, Alice, recently widowed and returned to her hometown. Through guile and intimidation, Matthew enlists Alice to help him in ferreting out witches, which she does with increasing reluctance. As Matthew’s obsession grows in intensity, so does the menace Alice can sense underneath his brotherly affection.
The Witchfinder’s Sister is a carefully researched and intricately detailed historical fiction. Underdown does a great job conveying the sense of claustrophobia and dread that haunts the main protagonist. There are no (real) witches or demons here; the horrible things humans are capable of inflicting upon one another more than serve to provide horror.
I will say, however, that as a protagonist, Alice Hopkins does feel a little bit flat. She seems to have no agency or larger sense of herself beyond what others want of her. Rather that being an active part of the story, she seems to simply drift from plot point to plot point. While this may be intentional on the part of the author (a more spirited woman would likely have fought more), it does make her a bit dull and frustrating as a narrator. By contrast, Underdown did a wonderful job with Matthew Hopkins, he is terrifying and broken, a source of horror and begrudging pity.
Fans of darker historical fiction, or those interested in the histories of witchcraft hysteria will likely enjoy this book. Underdown does a fantastic job of bringing England in the 1640s to life, and her sense of pacing palpably increases the reader’s sense of dread as the narrative unfolds.
An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.