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Blending Fact and Fiction: Beth Underdown on The Witchfinder’s Sister

Writing.ie | Magazine | Historical Fiction | Interviews
witchfinders sister

By Margaret Madden

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Early Modern History is something we are all taught in school. From its cultural and intellectual life; society and religion; through to politics and the quest for power. There are battles, wars and outstanding scientific and technological discoveries. One of the lessons that is most repeated, and indeed remembered, is the era of witch trials.

It is estimated that between 100,000 and 200,000 were tried for witchcraft with approximately 40% of the accused being executed. There are horror stories of burnings, beatings, tortures and drownings. I think we all remember our teachers telling us about the bizarre notion of ‘dunking’; where if the accused floated, it was seen to be proof of their witch status; whereas if they drowned, they were considered innocent. A lose/lose scenario no matter what the outcome.

Debut author, Beth Underdown, has written a fascinating historical novel, based around the real life witch hunter, Matthew Hopkins, and I was curious as to where her inspiration came from. “What happened first is that I got interested in the seventeenth century and the English Civil War in general. I had a great uncle who was a history professor, and I read one of his books, which is set in the 1600s. It’s about the town of Dorchester, which burned to the ground in this period, and my great uncle used this event to write about the lives and beliefs of ordinary people at the time. I was really struck by it – I don’t think I read much history that told a good story before (or told a story about ordinary people).” When she read more about the era, she came across a book about seventeenth century midwifery where she first encountered Hopkins and his witch hunts, and “the whole thing grew from there. I read Malcolm Gaskill’s book about Hopkins, and thought, ‘this needs to be a novel’.

But how can you bring history to life, with limited original sources to guide you and without it becoming too staid? This is the joy of historical fiction. By using a ‘removed’ character, the story can unfold in a more fluid style, whilst preserving some of the historical accuracy. Underwood explains how her protagonist, Alice, was the ideal vessel for Matthew’s story; “I knew early on that I wanted a female narrator for the book, and that the narrator needed to be someone close to Matthew. So it felt as though good options were his wife and his sister – and wife didn’t feel quite right somehow (plus, there’s no evidence that he was married). Sister felt right, because then you’ve got someone who knew him very well as a child, but possibly less well as an adult, and that interested me.” It did not take long for the narrator to find her way into the author’s work. “Alice’s voice came to me very early – the first bits of the book written down were scraps of things she thought or said, that arrived by themselves really. So it was just a matter of figuring out who Alice was.”

When reading The WitchFinder’s Sister, it is hard not to notice some parallels with the paranoia in today’s world. I wondered if this was intentional on the author’s behalf, or a side effect of bringing history to life?  “It’s interesting, because a lot of people have noticed parallels between what goes on in the book and some of what’s going on today. But I think those parallels really happened by accident – or maybe because those parallels are just there in human history. But I definitely noticed some similarities in terms of how poor people are treated and blamed for society’s problems. [By the 1640s] various Poor Laws were passed – but some of these were as much about controlling poor people as helping them (for instance, restricting how they could move around). This reminded me a lot of some of the laws on homelessness and anxieties around immigration today.”

There is also a recurring theme of targeting women, specifically. This may be traced back to the 1486 publication of the Malleus maleficarum, which was basically a manifesto written by a Dominican called Heinrich Kramer, in which he emphasized gender in witchcraft: “a greater number of witches is found in the fragile feminine sex than among men […] All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable.” But it may also have been a convenient excuse to rid towns of independently-minded females, women with mental health issues or even those who were a perceived threat to patriarchal societies. Underdown explains this idea; “I think a lot of poor women were targeted because they were inconvenient and without power of their own (or powerful protectors). I think it’s also probably linked to some of the anxieties of the well-off middle class men who carried out the witch hunts. They were very powerful outside the domestic sphere – successful in their businesses, respected in their communities. But ultimately there were some things they couldn’t control – from whether their milk would stay fresh or turn sour to whether their children would survive or their wives die in childbirth. Women had more influence and control over domestic processes like childbirth, and so it could be argued that this was frightening to men, and that it then felt natural to blame women when things started to go wrong in a domestic setting.”

I have often become so involved in a novel, that I have been left with a ‘book hangover’ upon turning the last page. I ask the author how hard it was to let go of Alice, Matthew and the era they were based in? She tells me just what I want to hear; “It was definitely hard – especially because towards the end of editing the book, I really felt myself losing a sense of Alice’s voice! Through the intensive phases of writing, I had this anthology of seventeenth century personal writings – letters, diary entries etc – which I would read every night last thing before I went to sleep. By the time we were finishing edits, I’d stopped that, so I think just as the book was done I was already losing a reliable sense of Alice’s voice – which was a bit scary! But I managed to keep hold of her for just long enough, I think. In terms of letting go, the book I’m working on right now is a bit different (and later in history). But I think there’ll be a sequel one day to The Witchfinder’s Sister – and anybody who reads to the end might guess what it’ll be!”

Blending fact with fiction must be a daunting task. Adding a voice to a long-dead past is a brave move by any author; one that leads to massive amounts of research and yet requires the writer to cease reading around the subject and instead, commence the novel.  I am certainly grateful for the range of historical fiction available to us. Studying history can be an arduous experience, at times, and by bringing the (imagined) voices of our past to life, it can add that special something that may lead to further readings on a specific topic, or era. Through literature, theatre and cinema we can imagine the world as it was.  We may even spot some parallels.

(c) Margaret Madden

About The Witchfinder’s Sister

‘VIVID AND TERRIFYING’ Paula Hawkins, author of The Girl on the Train
‘If you loved The Essex Serpent…then you may have met your new favourite’ Apple Books

‘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?

The Witchfinders Sister is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here!

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