“What you meet in the dark is yourself. And that is truly a thing to be feared.”
— The Witch Finder’s Sister
Historian Malcolm Gaskill notes in his 2005 book Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy that the infamous Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins “lives on as an anti-hero and bogeyman — utterly ethereal, endlessly malleable.” (1) It is precisely this malleable quality that inspired Ronald Bassett’s 1966 novel The Witchfinder General, Michael Reeves’ 1968 cinematic adaptation of the same name starring Vincent Price (a.k.a The Conqueror Worm), and now, Beth Underdown’s debut novel The Witch Finder’s Sister.
A website devoted to historical information and essays about the Essex Witch Trials states: “The origins and early life of Matthew Hopkins had for centuries been a complete mystery, no factual evidence about him had ever been uncovered, no birth certificate, no educational records and no death certificate existed.” (2) Such an enigmatic figure would, no doubt, inspire the curious to attempt to fill in the blanks. Although more details about Hopkins and his methods would come to be unearthed in the 350-plus years since his death in 1647, what prompted Hopkins to embark upon his reign of terror is still the source of much speculation.
In The Witch Finder’s Sister, Underdown paints a haunting portrait of not only the circumstances that gave rise to a terrifying figure like Hopkins, but also how the intersection of class conflicts and misogyny played an essential role. It’s a book that is as sobering as it is enthralling, lingering in the mind like a painful memory that refuses to remain in the shadows.
The novel is told from the point of view of Alice Hopkins, Matthew’s fictional half-sister. In between her first-hand observations of the events leading up to and including the witch trials and executions that took place between 1644 and 1645 in East Anglia, Alice intertwines various flashbacks to her life before: from her childhood with Matthew through the time she fell in love with and married her now-deceased husband Joseph and the couple moved to London. Despite the book’s fictional trappings, Underdown has meticulously researched period details so that the story Alice tells feels utterly tangible. Her straightforward, intimate prose means that Alice inhabits the pages as a full flesh-and-blood character, as if she had actually existed.
The Witch Finder’s Sister also proposes the existence of a central mystery, one that is presented as being the real reason Matthew transformed from a shy, pious child into a monstrous avatar of evil. This mystery is teased out bit by bit throughout the novel, creating its own locus of suspense, even while the reader endures the also-unbearable suspense of wondering who will be the next woman to be accused of witchcraft and subsequently tortured and convicted. This aura of apprehension is exacerbated as Alice at first refuses to believe that her brother could be so cruel — that such heedless and horrifying deaths could take place under his orders — but eventually comes to learn exactly what is being done to these women to exact such unbelievable confessions.
The possibility of such a smoking gun regarding Matthew Hopkins is not without some precedent in historical speculation. Wikipedia notes that, according to both Gaskill and historian Wallace Notestein (A History of Witchcraft In England from 1558 to 1718, published 1911), “Hopkins was asked if methods of investigation did not make the finders themselves witches, and if with all his knowledge did he not also have a secret.” (1)
There are other narrative threads in The Witch Finder’s Sister, and these offer deeper insights into the root causes of the witchcraft hysteria of the time. The Essex Witch Trials site notes that “advertising openly [Hopkins] exploited the Puritans’ hatred of Devil worship and the villager’s fear of witchcraft, and what with the political turmoil of the Civil War, he had no shortage of business.” While such circumstances allowed these atrocities to flourish, it is Alice’s descriptions of her former life with Joseph and her relationship with witness for the prosecution Rebecca West that underscore how easy it was for Matthew Hopkins’ particular brand of fear-mongering to take hold.
Although it is never stated as such, it is clear that Underdown intends Joseph’s past flirtation with both an evangelical-style Papist (Catholic) church as well his possible romantic interest in neighbor Rebecca West to reveal things about the character of both Matthew and Alice. Both Joseph and Matthew are in search of a relationship with God; this helps the reader understand how someone could be seduced by a fringe belief.
Alice’s longstanding envy and dislike of Rebecca West plays directly into the reasons that women might accuse other women of witchcraft. Underdown ends Chapter 13 with a guilty confession from Alice: “The rumours spread and Rebecca was taken off to Colchester gaol, and I have racked myself over whether I did not feel a small kind of triumph when I heard of it. Whether I did not feel that she had got what was in some way coming to her.” It also allows the reader to understand how women were pressed into service as “prickers,” those who pricked the accused with sharp objects in order to find “the Devil’s mark,” even though most of the prickers throughout history were men. (3)
This internalized misogyny is not depicted to excuse the behavior of men, whether they existed in the fictionalized world of The Witch Finder’s Sister or the real-life world of East Anglia in the mid-seventeenth century. Although at first it is only a suspicion, eventually the reader feels the full weight of Matthew’s hatred for what is referred to in the 1968 film as “the foul ungodliness of womankind.” (4) The Essex Witch Trials website astutely observes that Hopkins’ “’modus operandi’ was to turn gossip and innuendo into formal accusations of Witchcraft and Devil worship,” but Underdown brings to life an environment in which women — especially those who are poor, mentally deficient, and/or physically unattractive — are seen as enemies.
Early on in the book, before the reader understands the full depth and breadth of what Alice has witnessed, she says, “These last months, I have learned that the acknowledged history that belongs to the daylight is not the only history. Turn over the stone and you will find another history, wriggling to escape.” This seems to refer to the untold history of the victims in the witchcraft trials as well as the impetus for the hysteria. Bridget, a former servant at Alice and Matthew’s childhood home (and also Alice’s mother-in-law) tells her something rather revealing:
“But a rich man, the misfortunes that befall him are dwarfed by the ones he fears. He feels guilty at having so much, yet defiant. A certain kind of poor woman, she is at once a reproach to his good fortune and a threat. Even if he does not know it, such a man lives in expectation of a leveling, and rather than wait for one, he strikes first.”
Such strikes would result in unspeakable horrors for the allegedly guilty parties. While Reeves’ 1968 film was decried by critics as “filled with gratuitous sadism” and “peculiarly nauseating” (5), Underdown holds back on the (literally) gory details until Alice herself becomes aware of them. The methods used to extract confessions were known as what Wikipedia describes as “crimen exceptum: a crime so foul that all normal legal procedures were superseded,” something that might sound frighteningly familiar to the more modern term, “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
It isn’t just the torture described in The Witch Finder’s Sister that shocks and horrifies, it’s also the way that truth becomes malleable and thus meaningless. This is similar to what took place in the real-life world of Matthew Hopkins.
When discussing the conviction and execution of minister John Lowes of Brandeston (an incident depicted in The Witchfinder General), the Essex Witch Trials website notes that Lowes was subject to sleep deprivation and intense questioning, both of which led him to confess that “he had also caused a ship to sink off Harwich, on a calm sea, with the loss of fourteen lives.” The site follows up with this troubling bit of information:
“As well documented as the infamous trial at Bury St. Edmond is, it is also perhaps, the best illustration of just how the prejudice and hysteria against witches during those times, affected even the high courts and justices of the land. No record or suggestion was ever made to check whether a ship had floundered off Harwich.”
In The Witch Finder’s Sister, Alice’s scrupulous and risky detective work at uncovering the mystery in Matthew’s past means nothing to the men who are his true believers. She confronts her brother with what she has learned and is met with his pity and rapid agreement from his assistant: “A weak mind like that, in a woman, it can be bent so easily to vice.”
The western world of 2017 may not resemble the war-ravaged environment 1645 England, but reading The Witch Finder’s Sister exposes some ugly parallels. A widening gap between the haves and the have-nots combined with bigotry, sexism, and ignorance are not situations limited to 1645, especially when these things seem to proliferate in a post-truth environment, one in which people seem increasingly unable to differentiate fact from fiction. Eventually, Alice realizes that “evil does touch our mortal lives from time to time, but not, I am given now to think, in such a way as can be explained. Not, perhaps, in such a way as it is possible to know who to blame.”
Such an assertion may provoke much introspection from readers, and rightly so. Yet despite the bleak tale it tells, The Witch Finder’s Sister also offers hope. As Alice remarks near the end of the novel, “it is a choice, I think, to close the heart, just as it is a choice to open it.”
The Witch Finder’s Sister was published on 25 April 2017 by Penguin/Random House.
Wikipedia, “Matthew Hopkins,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matthew_Hopkins. Accessed 17 June 2017.
Knowles, George, “Matthew Hopkins Witchfinder General,” Documents and Pamphlets, Essex Witch Trials, http://www.witchtrials.co.uk/matthew.html. Accessed 17 June 2017.
MacGowan, Doug, “Witch Prickers of 17th Century Inquisition,” History, Historic Mysteries.com, https://www.historicmysteries.com/witch-prickers-inquisition/. Accessed 17 June 2017.
Reeves, Michael, Witchfinder General (The Conqueror Worm), 1968.
Wikipedia, “Witchfinder General (film)”, Reception Of, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Witchfinder_General_(film)#Reception. Accessed 17 June 2017.