Friday, 10 March 2017

The Witch Finder's Sister by Beth Underdown

review by Maryom

Following her husband's death, Alice, left pregnant and without means of supporting herself, has to return home to Essex and the household of her younger half-brother Matthew. In the years she's been away things have changed. A tense atmosphere fills the air; children and animals have died, crops have failed, and the talk is of witchcraft being behind it all. Matthew sees himself as the man to track down these witches. He has a book, in which he is noting names, accusations, and the tell-tale signs that mark out a witch, and is determined that none escape punishment. As his scope widens beyond their town, Alice finds herself unwillingly becoming part of his scheme, and soon it seems like no one (or at least no woman) will be safe from accusations ...

Set in the mid-seventeenth century at the time of the English Civil War, this novel is based on the true story of the self-styled Witch-finder General, Matthew Hopkins, who scoured East Anglia rooting out what he believed were sources of witchcraft and putting the practitioners to death. The character of Alice is fictional but gives an excellent way of seeing behind the scenes, of witnessing Hopkins' growing obsession at close quarters, from the point of view of someone who disapproves of the course he is taking but is powerless, as an impoverished female dependant, to stop him. 
The author does a great job of building the tense atmosphere, cranking it up as Hopkins'  pursuit of these 'witches' continues. As in most cases of witchcraft the accused are women - generally old, un-educated, often disliked by their neighbours, and without relatives or friends willing to protect them - and an accusation has very little to do with any real occult practices. Whether the actions of men like Hopkins are down to deep-seated hatred of women, the working out of personal grudges or religious intolerance is something that can be argued over for ever.
Considering the story as fiction, I felt a little frustrated at times that Alice did nothing more practical to try and stop her brother's actions BUT of course a historical novel has to be bound by the facts, so, whatever she may have felt, Alice had to remain powerless. Also I think the story may work better if the reader is unaware of the general history of witchcraft trials and Matthew Hopkins' role in particular - it was knowing a little about him that made me want to read the book but that knowledge pre-empted much of what happened within its pages. I'd definitely recommend it though for fans of historical fiction, particularly those less aware of the period and characters involved.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Penguin Viking 
Genre - historical fiction, witchcraft

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