The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown
1645. When Alice Hopkins’ husband dies in a tragic accident, she returns to the small Essex town of Manningtree, where her brother Matthew still lives.But home is no longer a place of safety. Matthew has changed, and there are rumours spreading through the town: whispers of witchcraft, and of a great book, in which he is gathering women’s names.To what lengths will Matthew’s obsession drive him?And what choice will Alice make, when she finds herself at the very heart of his plan?
I found this book distinctly unsettling, not least because I am distantly related to one of the so-called Salem Witches – Sarah Good. She was one of the first three women to be accused of witchcraft in the Massachusetts town in 1692. Sarah was convicted and hanged, but not before telling her chief prosecutor: ‘You, sir, know that I am no more a witch than you are. And you sir, will drown in your own blood.’ (He did too, years later, suffering an aneurism in the night and choking to death as a major artery in his neck ruptured. Weird.)
Beth Underdown’s novel is set on this side of the Atlantic, almost fifty years before the deadly hysteria in Salem. It is 1645 and England is in its fourth year of bloody civil war. Until now, relatively few women had been hanged for witchcraft; two or three per decade. There had been the Pendle mass executions thirty years earlier in Lancashire where eight women were convicted, but things had calmed down since then.
Matthew Hopkins is the self-appointed witchfinder. He has begun to compile a great book, in which he is meticulously noting down the names of women he suspects of witchcraft. The accusations, to our modern eyes, are ludicrous.
‘Mary Starling of Langham, for the keeping of imps… Helen Leech of Manningtree, for sending an imp against the Parsley child… Margaret Moone of Thorpe-le-Soke, for causing Phillip Daniel’s horse to break its neck while pulling a cart downhill.’
Ludicrous, yes. But deadly serious – and for these poor women, the hangman’s noose is as good as around their necks.
Alice Hopkins’s husband has been killed in a violent accident and she’s returned to her home town of Manningtree in Essex. She has no choice. Virtually penniless, she is forced to throw herself on the charity of her brother, Matthew, who still lives in the rural backwater.
But everything has changed since she was last there. Manningtree, once a happy, settled community, is now at odds with itself. Rumours of witchcraft sweep through the little town like cold autumn gusts. People whisper of unnatural deaths, perplexing accidents – and of a book. A secret book, being compiled by Alice’s brother.
Matthew has changed, too. He is formal; cold; pre-occupied. Not surprising. He is about to embark on his notorious career as the Witchfinder General, rounding up, trying and executing more than one hundred entirely innocent women. Alice herself will be caught up in his crazed accusations, which were often based on perverse superstition.
If you stole a piece of thatch from a suspected witch’s cottage and set it alight, she would come running. If you cast a witch into deep water and she floated, she was guilty. If she drowned, she was innocent (some acquittal!) If you tied her to a chair in the middle of a bare room, her imps would eventually appear to suckle her. And so on.
By telling this hideous true historical story through the eyes of the fictional Alice, Beth Underdown brings us up close and personal to the madness and horror.
Not a book to be read by candlelight.
Read an Extract from The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown
The fifth day of Christmas, this year of our Lord 1645
Once, I scarcely believed in the devil. I scorned the kind of folk who earnestly think he can put on physical form, like a coat, whether that form be like a cat or a dog or some warped combining of the two; those who have it that the devil can enter a person in such a manner that he can be deftly taken out again, like a stone from a plum. I scorned those who believe such things. I lived in London once: I can remember how to sneer.
But I am not in London any more. Nine months ago I had cause to come back to my own strange corner of Essex; and since I did, things have happened that make it harder to say what I do and do not believe.
My coming home at the end of March, those first few days are still sharp in my mind. Each day, each of those first hours, is preserved like an etching, separate and clear. But the later days, those later weeks as matters progressed, they are already starting to become somewhat bleached, somewhat blurred, like faces seen from a cart as it gathers up downhill speed
Now it is Christmastide: I know it is, for I have been notching a floorboard each day, as prisoners do in tales. I have kept my count faithfully, showed myself methodical for once, like my brother. While I have been counting, the weather has changed and changed again: the pricking heat of late summer, and then the autumn chill. Today I can see my breath, and as I finish each line I have to break off from writing to curl my cold fingers into the neck of my gown. Soon I will have to lay aside my pen, and walk up and down to keep warm.
But I will not think of that. I will not flinch. I will set it down, the full history of my brother, what he has done.
This chamber measures six of my paces along, though I must change direction slightly at one end to avoid my small bed and the things next to it – my chamber pot, a pitcher for water and a flimsy bowl for washing. Up and down I pace, back and forth in front of the chamber’s sturdy door. I try to avoid the sight of the keyhole, to resist the urge to stop and look through it. I never see anything, only the patch of wall across the passage as some slow movement of air dries my eye, but I cannot stop myself looking. I cannot shake the feeling, when I put my eye to the gap, that what I will see is another eye, looking back.
So, you see, I am glad to have the distraction of writing. I need distraction, not least from my stomach, for this now is my third day without food. Though perhaps it is apt that I should be hungry: since the King fled his palace, Christmas is a time for fasting, rather than feasting. But I am resolved to mark the season in the old way, by making a Christmas gift, and my gift will be to myself. It will be the chance to tell the truth. I will set it down now, while my memory holds. There is nothing to prevent me, for though I am imprisoned, I am not forbidden writing materials: ink, and pens, and paper have been brought to me without complaint. I fear it means they do not intend to let me go.
But I will not think of that. I will not flinch. I will set it down, the full history of my brother, what he has done. I will lay it out in black and white, and my tale will contain more truth than the great dead histories on my father’s bookshelves. For they say what happened, but not what it was like. They say what happened, but they do not say why.
In these middle days of Christmas, when I was a child, everything would stop. The whole world would grow still. You would venture out for an hour to take the air, and coming in again you would stamp your feet, knock yourself free of snow. Then later, because it was a holiday, someone would tell a story: some tale, invented wholly or in part, but always full of dread and death and strangeness. This tale of mine, for certain it contains its share of those things, but though I wish to God it was invented, my tale is true.
For nine months ago, my brother Matthew set himself to killing women. He took women from houses never quiet from the sound of waves, from inland places by damp tidal creeks where the salt on the wind is a reminder of their men – husbands, sons – who never came back from the sea or the war; who didn’t want to come back, or could not. Matthew took those women and he killed them, but without once breaking the law. He took women who did not want their own children, women who wanted other people’s, and, at least at first, there was hardly a murmur to prevent him. For a woman is brought up to believe that children are her life’s work – to make them and feed them and kiss their hurts. But what happens if you cannot have children? If you have too many? If you have them, and they cannot protect you? If you have them, and they die? If you weep for your loss too much, or not enough – that is when folk begin to wonder if it is your fault, your misfortune. They begin to wonder how you can have off ended God, and their wonderings turn ripe for a man like my brother to exploit.
I will write the whole sad business down, for no one living knows as much of Matthew’s reasons as I. Though they do not excuse him, Matthew has his reasons, and they are there for the finding, in his past; in our past. You might wonder why I did not prevent him from what he embarked upon. Well, I will set that down, too. These last months, I have learned that the acknowledged history that belongs to the daylight, that is not the only history. Turn over the stone and you will find another history, wriggling to escape.
Book Club Questions for The Witchfinder’s Sister
1. Beth Underdown chose Alice Hopkins, a woman, to tell this story. Why do you think she chose to do this?
2. It wasn’t always men that accused women of being witches; it was sometimes other women. Why do you think this might have been, and do you think it would be different now?
3. The story suggests many reasons why Matthew Hopkins became the person he did – what do you think?
4. Discuss the ending of the novel.