Monday, June 5, 2017

The Witchfinder's Sister by Beth Underdown

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: December 1, 2016

Essex, England, 1645. With a heavy heart, Alice Hopkins returns to the small town she grew up in. Widowed, with child, and without prospects, she is forced to find refuge at the house of her younger brother, Matthew. In the five years she has been gone, the boy she knew has become a man of influence and wealth--but more has changed than merely his fortunes. Alice fears that even as the cruel burns of a childhood accident still mark his face, something terrible has scarred Matthew's soul. There is a new darkness in the town, too--frightened whispers are stirring in the streets, and Alice's blood runs cold with dread when she discovers that Matthew is a ruthless hunter of suspected witches. Torn between devotion to her brother and horror at what he's become, Alice is desperate to intervene--and deathly afraid of the consequences. But as Matthew's reign of terror spreads, Alice must choose between her safety and her soul. Alone and surrounded by suspicious eyes, Alice seeks out the fuel firing her brother's brutal mission--and is drawn into the Hopkins family's past. There she finds secrets nested within secrets: and at their heart, the poisonous truth. Only by putting her own life and liberty in peril can she defeat this darkest of evils--before more innocent women are forced to the gallows. Inspired by the real-life story of notorious "Witchfinder General" Matthew Hopkins, Beth Underdown's thrilling debut novel blends spellbinding history with harrowing storytelling for a truly haunting reading experience.

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Frontispiece from Matthew Hopkins' The Discovery of
Witches (1647), showing witches identifying their
familiar spirits.
The New York Times Book Review says Beth Underdown’s The Witchfinder’s Sister is “a novel for our times…” and if that is true, I fear for both our times and the quality of literature it produces. I mean no offense to the reviewer or to the author for that matter, but I wholeheartedly disagree with the assessment and am not inclined to pretend otherwise.

The novel centers on the fictitious Alice Hopkins. For those who aren’t aware, publishers don’t like narratives about men, so to tell stories like that of Matthew Hopkins, authors are forced to rely on gimmicks that allow them to approach male characters from female points of view which likely explains how the historic headliner of this particular publication came to occupy a supporting role in his own story. I find the trend annoying as all hell, but that’s a tirade for another day.

I obviously understand why Underdown required a female protagonist, but why she chose to create one is beyond my comprehension. Matthew had at least five siblings according to his father’s will, but only three are ever named: James, Thomas, and John. Could a sister have existed? It’s certainly plausible, but filling the void wasn’t entirely necessary. Matthew’s mother, Marie Hopkins, seems a prime candidate in my eyes, as does Mary Phillips, a midwife who partnered with Matthew in the course of his investigations. Then of course, there’s the hundreds of women he persecuted…

Now I don’t believe it fair to rake a book across the coals for the inclusion of a fictional caricature, so please don’t conclude that Alice’s presence in and of itself factors in the lukewarm rating above. I’ve lots of complaints about the narrative, but Alice’s lack of a historic counterpart is simply not among them. Her mouse-like demeanor bored me to tears, the fact that she is a witness rather than an active participant in much of the narrative inspired a number of yawns, and her inexplicable episode of courage in the final chapters struck me as contradictory to her nature, but I do not discriminate because she lacks real life inspiration.

Those familiar with Matthew’s legacy understand that his victims were largely comprised of the old, the poor, the feeble, the disabled, the defenseless, those who fell victim to the suspicion of their neighbors, and those upon whom others held grievances both real and imagined. Underdown chronicles this moderately well. She also offers up some great details about the realities of witch hunting over the course of the novel, but there is almost nothing about the politics or ideology behind the practice. I am not a writer, but I think the novel would have been stronger if she’d emphasized how Matthew’s ideas, which he recorded in The Discovery of Witches (1647), built on those of James I as recorded in Daemonologie (1597). Underdown’s fiction implies that Matthew was a fanatic which is entirely possible, but it fails to relay that much of what he believed was in line with both common thought and the beliefs of a king only two decades in his grave.

In my eyes, The Witchfinder’s Sister boasts tedious pacing, yawn-worthy characters, a gross underuse of historic fact, and an anti-climactic finale, but I’m not above giving credit where due. Underdown’s choice of inspiration had merit, but the execution paled in comparison to the portrayal offered by Vincent Price in Witchfinder General, a 1968 film based on Ronald Bassett's novel of the same name. I firmly believe Matthew’s is a tale worth telling, but when I’m entirely honest with myself, I don’t feel The Witchfinder’s Sister capitalized on the material and have to concede I’d have difficulty recommending it forward.

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“These last months, I have learned that the acknowledged history that belongs to the daylight, that is not the only history. Turn over the stone and you will find another history, wriggling to escape.” 
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