The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

I have read a couple of books about English witch trials, and the history of why they happened, so this book wasn’t entirely new ground for me – but is certainly an original take on the period the events. The Witchfinder’s Sister gives the infamous Matthew Hopkins a fictional sister in the form of Alice, our narrator. She has quite a strong narrative voice and I think you really get a sense of who she is and how she experiences things throughout the novel. For while the novel is about Matthew and his reign of terror, it is really about Alice and her side of the story.

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As Matthew’s sister Alice has an insight into his personality and some of his reasons for persecuting alleged witches with such fervour, and this exploration of their family psychology and history is well executed. Alice revisits several scenes from their childhood and adolescence, trying to get a clearer picture of Matthew’s state of mind and why he is behaving as he does. This was of looking at Matthew’s story, through the eyes of a fictional sister, was a bold choice, but author Beth Underdown creates a vivid picture throughout with excellent characterisation and imagery. I loved the way that she built up Alice’s character throughout the book and revealed more and more as time went on. We learn about Alice’s late husband, her several miscarriages, and her relationships with her parents, as well as with Matthew while they were growing up. These things all feed into her experiences in the novel, living with Matthew and feeling trapped by him, and dealing with past traumas.

One thing I particularly liked about The Witchfinder’s Sister is the depictions of the lives of the women – there is Alice, but also Matthew’s maid Grace and the cook, Mary, along with the women accused of witchcraft that appear sporadically. We see how easy it is for all these women to be persecuted in some way, both publicly and in the home, in small ways and big dramatic ways. We see how they are all trapped in some form, in ways that the men in the novel just aren’t. Matthew runs a strict household, exercising his power over the women. He is able to enact his warped sense of justice largely because he is a man and so people listen to him. His deep-seated resentments and opinions about women are a huge influence on his pursuit and persecution of alleged witches – and the men who agree with him allow these things to happen. Underdown also demonstrates how these attitudes and opinions get into the minds of women too, so that they believe that the accused really are witches, really are deserving of torture and horrific executions – and they do not fight back against false accusations and obvious injustice.

The Witchfinder’s Sister is a novel that explores a well-trodden path through new perspectives, shining a light on women’s experiences and the things that drive people to do terrible things. While imperfect it is still an excellent debut novel, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

*

Published in March 2017 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin UK. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

Purchase from Foyles, Blackwell’s, and Wordery.

Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy by Malcolm Gaskill

I decided I wanted to read this book on a bit of an impulse. I’d read Witches: James I and the English Witch Hunts by Tracy Borman and been left unsatisfied, so wanted to read something else to supplement my knowledge of English witches and those that persecuted them. I love these kinds of old Gothic stories, and the stories of witches are even better because they are real, and happened in England, which makes them seem even more real.

And yet, we know relatively little about these witches – and that is where the problem lies. Those accused of witchcraft left only their confessions and other official documents. We have no records of their actual personal experience – what it felt like to be accused, how it affected daily life and relationships, what happened to those who were acquitted. This is frustrating for the reader, because there is so little room for visceral human experience in this story.

2007 John Murray paperback edition
2007 John Murray paperback edition

Once I was about half way through Witchfinders I knew I wasn’t going to be fulfilled by it. Borman’s book lacked detail and had some storytelling issues, but it was still entertaining, and I wanted to keep reading. Gaskill’s book, however, was just too matter of fact, too list-like. It was interesting, but not entertaining per se. Frankly I got a bit bored.

Even a little speculation would be worthwhile – some examination of the daily lives of the women and what would have happened to them and their families because of the witchfinders. Did those that were acquitted (and there were few) go back to normal life? Were they ostracised?

Basically I felt that this was a rather flat, unemotional book that didn’t cover anything new. If you know nothing about Matthew Hopkins and the witch trials, then it will be very informative; but that’s it. There is little in the way of human experience, beyond the facts of things like watching, the arrests, and trials, and I felt distinctly unsatisfied by the whole experience. This book is good for someone new to the topic and time period, but for nothing beyond that.

*

Published in 2007 by John Murray Publishers.

[I would normally provide a link here to buy this book from Foyles, but it’s not listed on their website.]

Witches: James I and the English Witch Hunts by Tracy Borman

I’d had this on my reading list for a while, and when I decided to sack off TBR 20 (we all knew it was coming – more in another blog post to come) I went to Waterstones in Oxford, and this was one the three books I bought (three! Such a delight. Lots of points for the loyalty card). I’d asked for this for Christmas but not received it, so it was the one I chose to read first. I tore through it over one weekend, getting completely lost in the post-Tudor world with its drama and… well, drama. These people were very dramatic.

I learned a lot about James I, which I enjoyed, and how he came to focus on witches and their prosecution during his reign. His mother was Mary, Queen of Scots, executed over an alleged plot to have Elizabeth I assassinated. Mary’s fate had a huge impact on her son, as expected, and according to Borman he had developed a dislike of women due to the combination of a mother demonised by society, and a queen who was intent on killing her. This, Borman states, contributed to his later suspicion of, and determination to eradicate, witches.

2014 edition (image: goodreads.com)
2014 edition (image: goodreads.com)

James’ negative feelings towards witches were intensified by the storms that prevented his fiancee Anne of Denmark to cross to England. He feared they were caused by treacherous witches, something that was confounded by his research in Denmark (he had gone to fetch Anne) about witches and their powers. He returned to England, newly wed and determined to rid his country of witches. In 1599, after the Berwick witch trials, he produced a book on the subject, Daemonologie, that proves a vital resource to Borman in his attitude, but also in the influence his opinions about witches had on the population. James’ influence is perhaps the best way to characterise his involvement in most of the witch hunting that went on during his reign. Though he was very enthusiastic about prosecuting witches at the start of his reign, his interest seems to have dwindled over time. Borman freely admits this, though it makes you wonder why he needed to be included in the title of the book – seeing that his book plays a bigger role in this story than he does.

This was the first little disappointment for me when reading Witches. The second was that the ‘conspiracy that has remained hidden for centuries’, mentioned on the back cover, isn’t really that big of a deal. It’s a long story, but the gist is: the Duke of Buckingham, one of James’ favourites, may have played a role in the death of the son of the Earl of Rutland, one of James’ friends, and blamed it on witches. This is all highly speculative, and really isn’t that big a plot point in the main story of the book, which is the trail and inevitable execution of the Flower sisters, the supposed witches who were accused of causing the death of the Earl’s first son, and later his second. Even though the second son died after they were executed. Anyway.

The story of the Flower women in undoubtedly fascinating, and demonstrates how witches were identified, their reputations tarnished somehow, and how people came to believe they were capable of dark magic. It is a terrible story of mass hysteria and injustice, as well as the ease with which those in power can take advantage of the vulnerable. It is a tale worth hearing, but given that Borman’s main source of information is a pamphlet about the trial, which was written after the event, it doesn’t really feel like enough material to fill a whole book. Simply it isn’t, and so Borman pads out the pages with theories about Buckingham and Rutland – in fact after the Flower women are executed the book devolves into a family melodrama, and the witchcraft now seems irrelevant to the story. It is a strange shift in tone and so late in the book it confirms the reader’s suspicion that Borman doesn’t really have enough of a solid line of plot. There is a lot of information in this book, but it is too crammed it with not enough time given to any one thing, and too much to things which are insubstantial, such as Buckingham’s story. As with the lack of James as the text progresses, this is not what I expected when I picked up Witches and started to read.

My point is that this book is a little rough around the edges. It is poorly structured, and the elements are not cohesive. The witches, and James’ fascination with them, provide great material, which is well told, but to me it seemed like Borman needed more time to pull everything together in order to create a book that worked as a whole. Witches works well in parts, but not all together. Which is a shame, because it could have been brilliant.

*

Published in 2013 by Jonathan Cape, and in 2014 by Vintage.