Published by Viking
ebook, hardback & paperback: 2 March 2017
approx 368 pages
The number of women my brother Matthew killed, so far as I can reckon it, is one hundred and six…
1645. When Alice Hopkins’ husband dies in a tragic accident, she returns to the small Essex town of Manningtree, where her brother Matthew still lives.
But home is no longer a place of safety. Matthew has changed, and there are rumours spreading through the town: whispers of witchcraft, and of a great book, in which he is gathering women’s names.
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?
When I received this book unsolicited in the post, I was so thrilled. I had already seen it mentioned on Twitter and immediately put it on my wishlist. It was almost as if the book fairies were watching as soon after it arrived through the letterbox!
I may be showing my age here, but I’m sure I can’t be the only person who immediately thought of the 1960’s film ‘Witchfinder General’ with the sinister and creepy Vincent Price in the role of Matthew Hopkins. It’s so many years ago since I last watched it but I swear that film gave me nightmares.
Beth Underdown’s version of Matthew Hopkins, whilst not as gratuitously violent in its presentation, is no less compelling and shocking. I live in Essex and I am familiar with many of the locations referred to in the book – in particular Chelmsford, and the main setting of the story – Manningtree. I’ve always loved history, especially local history and the story of the witch hunts that took place in Essex and Suffolk have both intrigued and shocked. After reading the book, I was interested to find out more. It would seem that more witches have been hung in Essex than in all of England.
This fictional account based on a real event in history is told through the eyes of Alice Hopkins, Matthew’s sister (or half-sister to be exact). Matthew’s mother (by now recently deceased) was her father’s second wife and with her older brothers having left home, Alice and her younger sibling formed a close bond with Alice being protective of Matthew. Badly scarred from fire burns as a baby Matthew’s life was not an easy one but he had seemed to find his own way as an adult and was well respected, working for the well to do Essex gentry as a scriber. When Alice’s personal circumstances change, she returns home to Manningtree and hopes to find compassion and assistance from her brother. However what she actually finds turns into a nightmare. For Matthew is not the kindly and sympathetic brother that she seeks but is hell bent on his own mission. To rid Essex and the surrounding towns and villages of women that have been named as witches.
The story begins with an intriguing premise. It is 1645 and Alice appears to be imprisoned but we know not why or by whom. We then learn of her arrival back in Essex nine months previously and of the events that led to her present predicament.
It is clear that the author has meticulously researched the period and events and the evocative description of the landscape and the way of 17th century living, bought the story to life. The sounds and smells; the clothes and living conditions – all were so well described with an excellent sense of place.
The story is a mixture of history and fiction but there is also a little bit of a suspense element too with secrets of the past slowly being revealed and the feeling of fear as to what was about to happen next. It was clear that Matthew was a man obsessed with his mission and the cruelty dished out to such women suspected of being witches showed him to be utterly heartless. A woman could be accused of witchcraft by a neighbour or any other person with a grievance – for the most spurious of reasons and in many cases, ‘confessions’ were garnered through torture.
Matthew was in many ways a fascinating character and rather contradictory. At times he appeared vulnerable and scared; there were occasions when he seemed to treat Alice with brotherly consideration but despite this I always had the feeling that he was storing away the words and actions of others that later could be used for his own benefit. He was not a man to let resentment go but instead harboured it and let it fester, perceived slights would be remembered for later. His disfigurement surely played a part here but so did parental influences. He held this belief that women were to be regarded as sinful creatures and of far less importance than men. “….I thought, surely she cannot be soft for him – for my brother, who had always looked at a girl as at some strange item brought in by the tide”.
Alice was the star of the book for me. She wasn’t perfect by any means but she was the counterbalance to Matthew’s obsessive and pious nature. Where he appeared to be devoid of any human feeling or empathy, she was kindly and sympathetic and wanted to help those she believed had been unjustly treated. When she was taken to a ‘watching’ – where an accused woman was tied in a painful position to a stool for hours on end and suffering whatever other indignities could be thought of to try and make her confess her sins, she did what she could to comfort and treated the women with as much gentleness as she could get away with.
This is an excellent debut novel and one that I am sure many fans of historical fiction will love. I was completely engrossed throughout – it is not a particularly fast paced story but that is not a criticism; rather, its gentle flow allows the reader to fully savour the unfolding story, and to get to know the characters. I felt as though I were by Alice’s side and felt every emotion and experience with her. I very much enjoyed this and looking forward to reading more from Beth Underdown.
My thanks to the publisher for inviting me to take part in the blog tour and for the ARC paperback to review, which as you can see came beautifully presented.
About the author:
Beth Underdown was born in Rochdale in 1987. She studied at the University of York and then the University of Manchester, where she is now a Lecturer in Creative Writing.
The Witchfinder’s Sister is her debut novel, and is based on the life of the 1640s witch finder Matthew Hopkins.
She first came across him while reading a book about seventeenth-century midwifery. As you do.