Regular readers of my blog will be aware that I am a fan of historical fiction, with several historical novels featuring amongst my all time favourites. With this in mind I was thrilled to have the opportunity to take part in the blog tour for The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown, and the chance to read it ahead of its publication date on the 2nd March.
‘The number of women my brother Matthew killed as far as I can reckon it, is one hundred and six.’
Beth Underdown’s debut novel is one inspired my true events which I always find makes a story all the more fascinating. It is based on the life of notorious witchfinder Matthew Hopkins, a man responsible for the deaths of over a hundred women in the 1640’s. Beth stumbled across Matthew whilst reading a book on midwifery in the seventeenth century, which led her to search for the truth about his life. In The Witchfinder’s Sister, Matthew’s extraordinary life is re-imagined through the eyes of his sister, Alice, who narrates his story. From the opening chapter, we gather that Alice is being held, confined to a chamber and writing to distract her from her hunger and discomfort. From here Alice recounts the details of Matthew’s behaviour, and what led him to be the person he becomes. It follows Alice from her arrival in the small town of Manningtree in 1645, returning to see her brother, minus her husband, but with the expectation of a child. From the opening paragraphs I was immediately intrigued by Alice’s plight, and desperate to find out more about the events leading up to her current predicament. There was a sense of unease throughout, as we begin to unravel the truth of Matthew’s volatile nature.
‘Until this moment, our history has lived in the dark. But now it is time to turn over the stone: that you might see it, wriggling to escape.’
I enjoyed the evocative writing and the way it helped to create an image of daily life in the seventeenth century and the challenges faced by people living at that time, particularly the women. I was shocked and horrified by some of the behaviours towards the women, and how tragic occurrences such as the loss of a child can be considered a sign of something far more sinister. We see how Matthew becomes obsessed in his pursuit of witches, and his interrogation of the women he deemed to be practicing witchcraft. And it was frightening to see how quickly others in the town could turn on their neighbours, how quickly superstitions can be spread and how past allegiances can be broken through fear of repercussions. There was plenty of intrigue throughout concerning Matthew’s formative years, and his relationships. There were questions as to how he really obtained the burns that have scarred him since childhood, and his feelings towards Alice and how he wanted her to feature in his plans. And throughout I was rooting for Alice, a woman of good intentions who finds herself at the heart of her brother’s disturbing pattern of persecution and execution. I read on with interest as to what Alice may do, and whether she could find the strength and courage to put a stop to the violence.
‘I found myself thinking of how as a child I had always wanted to read the books that Father said were too hard for me, not realising yet that understanding a book is not the same as being able to spell out all the words.’
The Witchfinder’s Sister is a compelling story rich in historical detail. It provides fascinating insight into a disturbing chapter in our history. It is a novel which examines just how far one may go when they develop an obsession, one borne out of the superstition and folklore which became integral to daily life in the seventeenth century.
The Witchfinder’s Sister was published on 2nd March by Penguin Viking. Many thanks to Josie Murdoch and Penguin Viking for providing a proof copy for review.
This review was written as part of the blog tour for The Witchfinder’s Sister. You can follow the rest of the tour on the dates and blogs below.