Purely by coincidence, I read this just after Emma Flint’s excellent Little Deaths, and despite the two very different settings, I was struck by the similarities. Both books are about men pursuing women at all costs, stopping at nothing to see them locked up, and both explore how easily mob mentality becomes whipped up. Increasingly, both of these themes seem disturbingly prescient.
In The Witchfinder’s Sister, Beth Underdown takes the historical figure of Matthew Hopkins, the self-proclaimed ‘witch-hunter general’ who records say sent at least 300 women to their deaths in just a couple of years. His motivation is mainly unknown, with the financial recompense from the villages he rid of witches suggested by some historians and his opponents as a key factor. With few records to give us any clues about Matthew Hopkins, and how he came to flourish, the author has invented Alice Hopkins, Matthew’s sister, who returns to Manningtree in Essex from London, pregnant and alone following the death of her husband. When they were growing up, Matthew was bullied by other children and shunned for the disfiguring burn marks on his face from a childhood accident. But now, he assists a group of powerful men who have suffered grievances, and have come to suspect witchcraft as the cause – and he enjoys this proximity to power. Alice watches, unable, or unwilling, to stop him, despite the urging of those around her. Penniless and with a baby on the way, she is dependent on Matthew’s charity. Anyway, witchcraft accusations are nothing new, but they’re usually thrown out before anything can happen. Also, she isn’t particularly fond of one of the accused women, having long worried that her late husband held a candle for her… but she has underestimated her brother’s zeal. As the number of women in gaol increases, Alice is no longer allowed to stand and watch, and is instead forced to take a more active role.
Whether Beth Underdown intended for modern parallels to be drawn between the witch trials of the 1600s, and the increasing polarisation of views of today, I don’t know. But as one of the accused muses ‘I suppose a person will confess to anything if they have not slept’, I found impossible not think of Donald Trump’s insistence that ‘torture absolutely works’. Initially convinced that ‘that can’t happen here’, Alice becomes increasingly complicit in her brother’s crimes, initially wanting to keep her head down, attempting to offset his mania through small acts of kindness, and only finding the will to stand up to him when it is too late. And that surely is the scariest bit – the age-old question: what would you do?
The book also subtly if intrinsically ties class and gender into the fear of witchcraft, with Alice’s mother in law theorising that rich men always expect those around them to resent their possessions and good fortune, and send ill-wishes their way. Alice herself ponders about how even insane and homeless men can be found gainful employment, but a lonely woman is a target. And Matthew’s witch-hunting zeal has as much to do with his hatred of women, as his piety, his unpopularity as a child, and his disappointment at not following his father’s footsteps to the ministry.
Well-researched, and genuinely unsettling, The Witchfinder’s Sister is a convincing, gripping and affecting account of the witch trials, exploring how fear and scapegoating spreads, why innocently standing by can never be so innocent, and how power becomes impossible to relinquish.
The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown is published 2nd May by Viking