by R G Wood
I have been meaning to read Beth Underdown’s debut novel, The Witch Finder’s Sister, since I saw her in conversation with Katherine Clements at the Bronte Parsonage Museum for Emily Bronte’s bicentenary in 2018. I was working there on the book stall, and in typical ‘me’ fashion, when all the books wouldn’t fit in the the small cardboard box I had to transport them to the venue, I solved the issue by buying the excess. The Witch Finder’s Sister was among them. Now, don’t think that I only bought it for logistical purposes, I rather think that was just a convenient excuse. So, the book sat on my shelf for a while, giving me the side eye until finally I picked it up.
The novel is written in a diary style, something which I personally enjoy, from the point of view of Alice Hopkins, Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins’ fictional sister. She has been locked up and is passing the time by documenting what happened in the events leading to her incarceration. Gripping to say the least.
Underdown’s writing style is a perfect mixture of easy to read, but beautifully written, it is true enough to the period that it is immersive, yet you can easily glide through it. The way that the events develop is eerie, as it begins with hints as to Matthew’s intentions, but by the time that Alice realises the full scale of his intent, it is too late. Things have been set in motion that cannot be undone.
All throughout the novel we are wondering why and how Alice Hopkins came to be locked up. The payoff happens fairly late in the story, and as suddenly for her as it would for those accused. (I shall say no more.)
In the front and back of the book Underdown has included a list of names of all the women accused and killed in the real witch trials, many of whom are included as characters within the novel. This really brings home the fact that this did happen, and when the details of Hopkins’ witch finding methods are described, it makes for an even more chilling read.
I think that Beth Underdown has done real justice to those accused with this book. It is handled sensitively, but truthfully. It doesn’t glamourize the accused or demean them. It is, as the witch trials were, horrifying, haunting, and worst of all, real.