Readers who love the Brontë sisters will adore The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown.
This unique novel is set in England in 1645. A civil war rages, destabilizing the country. Throughout history, evil men have manipulated the chaos of such eras in order to project their sadistic, psychotic delusions with impunity. These cowards often go unpunished because they choose to victimize marginalized individuals who are among the poor, physically different, mentally deficient–and of course, women. Some things never change.
The antagonist in this tale is a fictionalized version of the legendary Matthew Hopkins, Witch-finder General who hunted down and executed over two hundred witches. The protagonist is his fictional sister Alice who has recently been widowed and is penniless. She is forced to go to her loving brother for support. It is her only option.
The dark and brooding plot is extremely complex and convoluted. There are numerous surprises. It could be said the most important unraveling concerns Matthew’s past–a magical past that augurs his twisted behavior. And of course, there must be a mad woman locked away from the world.
This is not a tale of the supernatural, but a hint of it does creep in on a couple occasions. When Alice first spends the night at her brother’s inn, she cleans her comb and carefully places the hair into a fire, to be sure it cannot be used against her, magically. Is there a hint of witchfinder hibernating within her? At another time, a dark presence rubs against her as her brother enters their mother’s house. It is evident that both Alice and Matthew believe in the supernatural. Some readers might wish for more of this. However, such a turn might subvert the message that lurks in the subtext.
Underdown does a masterful job of creating a sense of place. Readers are gifted with a virtual tour of England in 1645, right down to the chamber pots. Every scene rings with authenticity. It is obvious that she is an expert on the era. Readers interested in period novels will not be disappointed.
Alice Hopkins might remind readers of Jane Eyre since she comes off as rather contained and a bit too calm in the face of danger. Like Jane Eyre, she knows her place, so this is to be expected. In addition, readers do not view her directly; instead, they read her journal which at times seems disjointed. Not to worry–at the end it all comes together and makes perfect literary perfect sense.
The Witchfinder’s Sister is more than a surprising, satisfying novel. It is a commentary on evil and how it can be institutionalized and made acceptable. Perhaps there is a tiny bit of the witchfinder in each of us, and we need to be reminded of the evil that lurks within, waiting for the right circumstances to render it acceptable.