The Witchfinder’s Sister. By Beth Underdown. Ballantine Books, 2017, 336 pages.
Americans reflexively think of Salem whenever witch trials are conjured. We forget that the Puritans that conducted Salem's horrors were Englishmen, just as we forget that (by some estimates) 50,000 Europeans were executed for witchcraft from 1500 to 1800, 80% of them women. A half century before Salem (1692), witchcraft hysteria swept East Anglia, particularly Essex, Wessex, and Suffolk.
The most notorious of England’s witchfinders were John Stearne and Matthew Hopkins, both of whom figure prominently in Beth Underdown’s gripping debut. Bear in mind that this is a historical novel. Very little is known of the historical Matthew Hopkins (?1620-47), other than the fact his father was a clergyman, and that Matthew moved to Manningtree, Essex sometime around 1640. From there he launched a two-year reign of terror in 1644-46 that saw more 300 individuals arrested, around a hundred of whom were executed. We don’t know if he had a sister, let alone one named Alice, Underdown’s protagonist and narrator. Moreover, Hopkins probably died of TB, not the more satisfying ending Underdown provides. So bear in mind as you read that the story is “true” in its essence, but not in its particulars.
They are mighty fine particulars, though. Underdown gives us a portrait of how hysteria begins small—whispers, gossip, grudges, innuendo—and gathers steam when embraced by bullies, demagogues, and fanatics. She imagines Hopkins as more complex than a monster, a true believer who justified doing unspeakable things as advancing God's work. Alice and her associates represent the voices of reason. And never shall the twain meet, especially in a climate rent asunder by the English Civil War. Alice also represents a protest against misogyny, but that too was a cry in the 17th century social wilderness. Thus the catastrophe that unfolded. Underdown uses her invented characters to personalize the tragedy and give us entrée into specifics. Her description of a "swimming," a watery test for malevolence, is particularly vivid and makes us shudder. Ditto her depictions of witch "detection" tactics such as sleep deprivation, walking, watching, and examining for imps.
Most of all, though, the clash between Matthew and Alice over the unfolding events gives us both a micro and macrocosm perspective on the witchcraft trials. It is easy to forget that both accusers and victims were also ordinary people who prepared meals, emptied chamber pots, tended their gardens, mourned lost loved ones, courted, and conducted business. Underdown does a nice job of capturing the rhythms of everyday life without getting bogged down in minutiae that would detract from the central plot. She's also good with suspense. We, the readers, can see Alice's options melt and the walls begin to close in around her. It is to Underwood's credit that we feel like screaming out for Alice to run and keep turning the pages to see if she does.
To be objective, this book also bears some of the weaknesses of a debut novel. Several of the characters are drawn a bit too broadly; others (too) conveniently appear and disappear. Stylistically, I wish Underwood and her editors would learn when to use "her" and when to use "she." You can decide for yourself if she went over the top with her ending. I understand the allure of delicious irony, but sometimes it's better to leave things understated. You will also have to decide whether our narrator, Alice, is credible for the time period, or if she is a 21st century feminist in 17th century drag. For the record, I think Underwood wanted to have her both ways, hence I was willing to suspend disbelief in passages I found ahistorical.
The Witchfinder's Sister is a chilling tale that most readers will rip through. We should remember, though, that Matthew Hopkins was a real person and that his The Discovery of Witches was widely consulted as a go-to guide for more than a century. Salem loomed in the future, but European witch trials continued into the 19th century. England had a case of witch swimming as late as 1863, even though it repealed its witchcraft laws 127 years earlier. Underwood's novel ultimately made me think upon how easily hysteria forms and how hard it is to vanquish. Maybe the 17th century lurks closer than we might imagine.