Set in Essex in 1645, the story is told from the perspective of Alice Hopkins, the fictional sister of the notorious real-life “Witchfinder General” Matthew Hopkins. Recently widowed and pregnant, Alice has no choice but to return to the small town of Manningtree where she grew up. She finds Matthew much changed since she left five years ago and there are frightened whispers spreading like wildfire behind closed doors in Manningtree. Alice is shocked to hear that her brother has become obsessed with hunting down women suspected of being witches and has compiled a book where he scrupulously notes down their names. As she tries to find out what is fuelling his ruthless mission, a web of secrets unravels that puts the lives of innocent women at risk, including her own.
Beth Underdown told us that the decision to tell the story from Alice’s point of view was pragmatic; “I knew that I didn’t want to tell the story through Matthew himself – I didn’t want the reader to sympathise with him that much, and I didn’t think that to tell it all through him would leave enough room for the stories of his victims. So I needed an onlooker, but one close enough to him to know a lot about what was happening. I knew I wanted my protagonist to be a woman, and reasonably likeable – so that ruled out telling it through his wife (I feel that having a nice wife would’ve made it slightly less plausible for Matthew to act as he did – plus, there’s no evidence that he married). So that left a sister. And the sibling element interested me, too – the idea that you can grow up with someone, know exactly how to push their buttons, but then as an adult they can become a relative stranger.”
A woman chained by her circumstances, Beth found it natural to find Alice’s “restrained, slightly no-nonsense, but sensitive” voice but putting herself in Alice’s shoes wasn’t without its challenges and she notes how it was tricky “figuring out how a personality like Alice’s would respond to the circumstances in which she finds herself – and how to bring a reader into that. Apart from when she’s on the road with Matthew, Alice is in this quite restricted domestic sphere, so there was a challenge there – both about the amount she could know about what was going on, and how much she would feel she could have any influence over events. I didn’t want her to be unrealistically modern, and that affected how overtly I could have her oppose Matthew – but I needed her to have some agency, so that the reader would be able to identify with her. All of that was a balancing act. I had to create a very contained world, which still felt dangerous.”
As you’d expect, there are some harrowing moments in The Witchfinder’s Sister and Alice herself experiences a great deal of loss and pain, which Beth found emotional to write; “it was heartbreaking to write about the loss of Alice’s husband. Some of this was cut from the book to create a tighter story, but everything I wrote about Joseph felt very raw to do. At the same time, I was interested in how grief interacts with survival – she’s devastated when he dies, but at the same time she’s afraid, and newly vulnerable. Beyond that, I don’t want to give too much away for new readers – but there is another moment later in the book that was also challenging to write. When I was a bit younger, I wanted to be a midwife, and actually went as far as doing some work experience, and so some of what’s in the book was very much drawn from what I learned at that time.”
As well as drawing on her own experience, Beth did a lot of research to authentically portray what it was like to live in the 17th century; “I looked at the politics and society of England at the time the witch hunts were happening, and of course I looked a lot at the events of the witch hunts themselves. But a lot of my research time also went into researching the domestic sphere of the seventeenth century, and what these parts of Essex and Suffolk specifically might have been like at the time. I looked at what the rivers are like, what would have been farmed, which industries were declining and which gaining ground. I wanted to know what colour the soil is, because that would have been the colour of deep mud on the roads in bad weather. I looked at food and accounting, which domestic jobs were considered male and which female (and some of the answers might surprise you). I also looked at women’s personal writings – they often kept daily books in which they noted personal news alongside national, so you might get a woman writing about being worried that her baby isn’t teething properly, alongside news of the execution of an archbishop. It was about getting myself into a mindset.”
Beth’s stunning prose and meticulous attention to detail is what makes her novel so hauntingly vivid and she even visited Manningtree to soak up it’s still very spine-chilling atmosphere; “on one of my visits there, when the book was just complete, I managed to reach the site of the deconsecrated church where Matthew Hopkins is said to be buried… I guess in some ways I had started to think of Matthew more as my character than as a real (and potentially malevolent) presence. The abandoned church at Mistley Heath barely exists now – there’s a sort of oblong of rubble obscured by thorn trees, marking where the walls would have stood, and, even more eerie, the broken stumps of gravestones protruding through the grass. I was there with my family and they were stomping about, exploring and calling out to each other, and for a minute I was alone among the trees – and I got a very distinct sense of someone standing just behind me. Obviously, when I turned around no one was there…but I’m not sure I’d go back to that spot on my own!”
Despite its title, Beth describes The Witchfinder’s Sister as being about “serial killers” just as much as it is about “witchcraft”; “I think of the book as being about how and why a big group of people can come to be suddenly and viciously victimised. Clearly, it is about witchcraft in a sense – it definitely deals with fear and superstition, and I wanted the reader to never be quite certain that uncanny stuff wasn’t going on. But the book is really about what drives the psychology of someone who carries out a large-scale persecution of a minority group (in this case, poor women), and about how others come to support the persecution or stand by while it goes on. In that sense, the book probably has a bit more in common with novels about the Holocaust than it has with other novels about the supernatural.”
With that in mind, The Witchfinder’s Sister is not as removed from the modern world as you might think. Dark and disturbing, it is not only historical fiction but also a psychological thriller as Beth explores what motivates someone to lead a malicious campaign against a minority group. Filled with suspicion and tension, The Witchfinder’s Sister culminates in a chilling twist, which is guaranteed to make the hairs on your arms stand on end and serves as a thought-provoking reminder that history has a tendency to repeat itself.