‘The Witchfinder’s Sister’, by Beth Underdown, comes highly recommended. It is the Historical Pick from the Richard and Judy’s book club, and has received glowing praise from authors and critics alike. It is the story of Alice, the sister of Matthew Hopkins – the titular and infamous ‘Witchfinder General’. Alice is forced to return to her brother’s home in Essex after her husband dies in London, shortly after her mother has passed away. She is in the early stages of pregnancy, and unsure about what her place will be with her brother, as they are not close. He offers her a home with him and she accepts, but over the coming months she grows uneasy with Matthew’s investigations of women in the village. She is drawn further and further into his world of superstition and religious fervour, and desperately seeks the truth while struggling to understand her brother’s motivations.
Underdown’s world is deeply atmospheric; from the beginning, you feel drawn into Alice’s story, and the places she visits feels very real. Matthew himself is also a compelling figure, and not an evil caricature at all. Underdown does well to avoid painting him in broad strokes; he is a complex figure, and it is never entirely clear what his motivations are. At times, though, Underdown neglects characterisation for building up a suspenseful atmosphere. Alice herself is a very reticent person. She does not openly acknowledge her pregnancy, even with those she is close to, and regrets that she did not discuss things with her husband before he passed away. This extends to her narration however, making her seem curiously blank. The book is centred on the religious atmosphere of the period, yet Alice makes no efforts to examine or explore her own views on the topic. She has very little emotional reaction to her pregnancy, simply detailing how others react to it and the physical sensations.
The plot itself is intriguing, and I read the book in a few hours to find out what would happen to Alice. In terms of historical accuracy, the author herself admits that she has taken liberties with the sparse records and a quick Google reveals several discrepancies. The interspersing of historical texts in the writing seemed jarring to me, although that might have more to do with the formatting of my Kindle edition. At times the story feels a little hamstrung by its historical basis; the courtroom scenes seem oddly dry, for example.
There are several threads of the story that seem entirely meaningless. Alice’s pregnancy occupies much speculation but is ultimately meaningless, and Matthew’s engagement could have been excised entirely without any difference made. Throughout the book, an atmosphere of dread is built up, and the ending feels fairly anticlimactic after all this – though it does resolve some dangling plot threads. All in all, Underdown has created a strong atmospherical novel about an intriguing period in history, but it needed some editing and perhaps a more impactful ending.