Reviewed by Alice Farrant
The number of women my brother Matthew killed as far as I can reckon it, is one hundred and six.
When her husband dies Alice is forced to move home to live with her brother, Matthew. The year is 1645, the civil war rages on, and Matthew hasn’t spoken to Alice since she disobeyed him to marry beneath her.
The Witchfinder’s Sister follows Alice as Matthew spearheads the Manningtree Witch Trials, where by Alice’s count, 106 women were killed by his persecution.
Alice is a refreshing narrator, poised, compassionate and sharp-witted. While at first it feels as though she was gifted by Underwood with slightly more knowledge that you may imagine contemporary women of the age, Alice’s characterisation soon evens out and Underdown never reduces her other female characters to compensate. The female communities and relationships depicted feel very real, whether supportive or corrosive. For every negative female relationship there was a positive one, whether in friendship or between mistress and servant.
Matthew is the dark to Alice’s light, a complicated and troubled man. Burnt at birth by his mother and unable to face the truth of her ‘madness’ (depression, I would guess, were these modern times). Set with unbridled determinism for his cause, he appears to have a lot of anger and fear, and uses his cause to rationalise it. Matthew finds communicating with women on a romantic or sexual level difficult, which it is suggested is due to his scarring. Unable to channel this frustration Matthew became angry at women, and when finally Alice highlights his insecurities he becomes angry at her too. He begins to control and punish women, channelling his anger into his militant witch hunts, and punishment of the immoral and heathens.
In favour with the men in the town for his level of education, Matthew has gained a position of importance and respect when Alice arrives in Mannigntree, performing the actions the townsmen are unwilling to execute.
They believed in witchcraft, and yet they didn’t; it was one of several convenient labels to put upon their fear.
Yet where the townsmen use witchcraft to rationalise their fear while also disbelieving it, Matthew falls for his own lies. These actions poison the town, turning neighbour against neighbour and kin against kin.
The women of the town live in fear of being called a witch, shifting the blame by accusing others – women of ‘unconventional’ circumstances. Tortured to confess, they make claim to possessions, forincation with imps and being in league with the devil; anything to escape eventual death. You can feel their fear in the writing and that’s the beauty of Underdown’s writing, you feel connected with these women although they are so different from your own circumstances.
1645 was the 4th year of the English Civil War, and many men would be gone from villages fighting for Parliament or King, leaving an increase of women living apart from men. East Anglia, where Manningtree is located, was predominantly puritanical and anti-catholic. It is easy to see how that at a time of political upheaval and strong puritanical beliefs extremist views rose to dominate and bring ‘reason’ to an illogical world. We can see the same reflected in our world today with Brexit and Trump.
Interestingly, Matthew Hopkins was a real man, and you can research the Manningtree Witch Trials online. Though he was only active between 1644-47 his work went on to influence the Salem Witch Trials in Salem, Massachusetts in the 1690s. Underdown first came across him while reading a book about seventeenth-century midwifery and, though The Witchfinder’s Sister revolves around Matthew’s work, the the brilliance of novel lies in its name. The focus of the novel is told from an entirely female perspective, a narrative I can only assume was predominantly excluded from early-modern records.
Underdown’s weaving of the historical and fictional to change the telling of this story from male dominance to female defiance brings the tale to life. If you only read The Witchfinder’s Sister for one reason, read it for that.
Remembering how Father had said to me once that the most fearful thing you could meet down a dark lane was another person. But it is not so, I thought, as we rode towards Thorn: what you meet here in the dark is yourself. And that, that is truly a thing to be feared.
Beth Underdown The Witchfinder’s Sister, (Viking, 2017). 978-0241978030, 368pp., hardback.
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