THE WITCHFINDER’S SISTER is Beth Underdown’s debut novel. The story is set in England in the seventeenth century, and follows the story of Alice Hopkins. In 1645 Alice is forced to return from London to the small Essex town of Manningtree to her brother Matthew’s house, after the death of her husband. She and Matthew left on poor terms, and she has not spoken to him apart from the letter she received notifying her of their mother’s death. The Matthew Alice returns to is very different from the brother she remembers. He now has powerful friends, and soon Alice hears that he is gathering a list of women’s names.
With the mentioning of witchcraft, witch-hunts and the Witch Finder General, you might be forgiven for thinking of the Salem witch trials – but they happened almost fifty years after the very real events Underdown draws upon to write this book. Matthew Hopkins was a real person who in three years managed to try, convict, and kill around 230 people (and not all of them were women). Going into THE WITCHFINDER’S SISTER I must confess that I knew very little about this period of British history – I did know that there had been a Witch Finder General in the UK, but not where or when.
I can honestly say that THE WITCHFINDER’S SISTER surprised me. Although the subject matter of the book is without a doubt dark and disturbing and therefore hard going at times, by the time I was in the final quarter of the book I just could not stop until I reached the end! Even having some inkling about how the story could go, Underdown provided plenty of surprises along the way, which kept me turning the page.
I found Alice Hopkins to be both a compelling narrator and an interesting main character. When we first meet her, Alice is making the journey from London to Manningtree after the death of her husband. Watching Alice’s journey through this book I have to say that I think she is one of the strongest people I have read about – though I don’t think she would agree with me. In a time when women would have had very little rights or freedoms, Alice really stood out to me and I found myself rooting for her from the beginning.
Reading about Matthew Hopkins through his sister was an interesting experience. Alice still remembers him as the boy she grew up with, and was close to before her marriage. Underdown does a fantastic job at capturing Alice’s mixed feelings towards her brother – and made me feel them too. I thought the story was well told, and flowed really well. To me it felt believable, like we really were hearing Alice’s own words about the events she witnessed and uncovered about her brother. I also enjoyed the almost magical realist elements to the narrative – it helped to create the feeling of unease that must have been prevalent at the time.
It goes without saying that THE WITCHFINDER’S SISTER by Beth Underdown is not a read for the faint of heart. But if you want a gripping read that will keep you turning the pages, whether you’re a fan of historical fiction or not, then I highly recommend giving this book a try. As someone who isn’t particularly a fan, I found THE WITCHFINDER’S SITER easy to get into and easy to follow. The story is compelling and the characters are interesting. If you think this might be your cup of tea, then it is well worth giving this book a go.
 The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica, ‘Matthew Hopkins’ in Encyclopædia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Matthew-Hopkins [accessed March 01 2017].