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The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

Writing.ie | Book Reviews | Historical Fiction

By Swirl and Thread

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‘The number of women my brother Matthew killed, so far as I can reckon it, is one hundred and six…’

The Witchfinder’s Sister is a novel by Beth Underdown. Loosely based on the life of Matthew Hopkins, a renowned witch hunter during the English Civil War in the mid 1600’s, The Witchfinder’s Sister revealed some frightening barbaric behaviour that I had previously known nothing about.

Alice Hopkins returns home to her place of birth in Essex, mourning the loss of her husband after a fatal accident in London. For Alice, it is a very difficult period, as her mother had also passed away in the previous months and Alice had been unable to be there for her in her dying days. With her father already in the soil, all that is now left for Alice is her brother, Matthew Hopkins.

On arrival, Alice’s nerves are palpable. She is almost afraid of Matthew. Although her brother, she draws no comfort from his company, and waits for his coming with anxiety in her heart. When she finally comes face-to-face with him she soon comes to the realisation that her feelings toward him were correct. Her brother, although always different due to a childhood injury, has now become someone she doesn’t recognise anymore. He is the master of the house, he invokes fear wherever he goes, Matthew Hopkins is the Witchfinder.

‘For nine months ago, my brother Matthew set himself to killing women….but without ever breaking the law.’

Sometimes it can be good to pick up a book blindly without having any idea what the book is about. This was one such read for me. I was expecting sorcery, spooky tails and witchcraft, especially as it was to my Halloween read. What I got instead was an almost insider account of a time in history when one man took it on himself to play God and executioner with the lives of many women.

The Witchfinder’s Sister immediately takes the reader to what appears to be a gaol, with Alice writing her story, for the world to understand the treachery of the events that unfolded under her brothers command. Alice is incarcerated and as a reader we have no idea why. Alice begins to explain her story and takes us back to the day she arrived home, the day she discovered that the world was changing.

Matthew Hopkins targeted women from across the surrounding areas like a man with a personal vendetta. He insisted that Alice travel with him and over time he coerced her into assisting in his heinous activities.

Women were put through torturous pain and degradation as Matthew’s means of witch detection grew more barbaric. I have researched this a little since, as I found some of the atrocious acts that were carried out in the name of the law to be quite outrageous. Beth Underdown has recreated this frightening time in our history in quite a graphic manner as the book progresses which really, though stomach churning, adds to the whole realism of the novel.

To be a woman at that time was difficult. To be a woman who unwillingly had caused insult or had spoken out of turn, or a woman who, for whatever reason, was just not liked, then life could suddenly become a hell on earth….

The Witchfinder’s Sister is a fascinating account of Matthew Hopkins. Although wrapped up in a fictional story, Beth Underdown has conveyed, through her words, a time where fear was the norm as neighbour quickly turned against neighbour. A wrong word, a wrong action and a life was ended at the end of the hangman’s rope.

An intriguing novel, The Witchfinder’s Sister is a perfect read for all historical fiction fans. I took my time reading this novel as I felt it was a novel that required my attention. By no means a spooky read, The Witchfinder’s Sister is very frightening read, as it shows the power of one man with very strong beliefs and how easily it can be for others to get swept up in the hype and be carried along on a wave of lies and untruths….unfortunately something we see and hear about too often in today’s society.

I’ll leave you with the words of Scottish poet Robert Burns ~

‘Man’s inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn!’

(c) Swirl and Thread

Order your copy online here.

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