The Witchfinder’s Sisters by Beth Underdown
Published: April 25th 2017, Penguin UK
We all heard of the Salem Witch Trials, but long before there were the Manningtree Witch Trials in Essex, England — a time of pure terror. The year is 1645, and pregnant Alice Hopkins finds herself returning to her hometown of Manningtree after the death of her husband. To make Alice’s circumstances even better, she’ll be moving in with her young brother, Matthew. The two were never really close during childhood — Matthew was always different and unique. But now he’s grown into a cruel, troubled man who has absolutely no respect for women.. He has also become deeply involved in the local community and county on the growing obsessive topic about witchcraft and witch hunting.
The Civil War of England is raging on, and so is the hunt for witches. Women are arrested and persecuted for the most ridiculous reasons — of course proof is not “necessary” needed. Apparently this is the way to worship and govern — to hang and burn hundreds of women. And for what? Being different? A little eccentric? Being a lonely individual who was unable to fend for themselves or was the report sent in by a scorned neighbor trying to settle a score? This is what they were accused of; these accusations were enough to get people killed. Think about that — think about how crazy that would appear in today’s society.
No woman is safe from Matthew’s obsession, and soon Alice discovers that her brother goes by the alias ‘The Witchfinder General,’ who has incited terror through out the town and countryside while being a man of influence. Alice does her best to try to reason with her brother, but he makes it very clear that he will not be distract from his quest to bring these so called witches to trial. While trying to understand his motives, she also uncovers some dark family secrets, but in doing so, she puts her own life in danger, and becomes embroiled in Matthew’s continuous and unceasing hunts.
What makes this novel chilling is the fact that Matthew Hopkins, the man who took the office of Witchfinder General upon himself, actually really existed!
Whether or not Matthew had a sister named Alice, we do not know, but not much is known about his life outside of his witch trials. By the end of his life Matthew would be responsible for the death of over one hundred women accused of witchcraft or consorting with the devil. He and his henchmen would see them off to the gallows.
The Witchfinder’s Sister is a tense, highly atmospheric historical drama based on fact that reads as a psychological thriller. In this novel the author attempts to give us a reason why Stafford acted and believed as he did. This can be a rough book to read because we know this really happened and there were few to zero attempts to stop it or even reconcile afterwards.
Kirsten Lowe studies at Athabasca Univesrity.