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“This is a novel for our times. . . . The Witchfinder’s Sister [lays] bare the visceral horror of what a witch hunt truly is.”—The New York Times Book Review (Editors’ Choice)
“Vivid and terrifying.”—Paula Hawkins, author of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water
“Connects nicely with such dystopian classics as 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale.”—Booklist
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 echoes of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale for a truly haunting reading experience.
Praise for The Witchfinder’s Sister
“Entertaining and thought-provoking—with a valuable message for our own times.”—The Washington Post
Once, I scarcely believed in the devil. I scorned the kind of folk who earnestly think he can put on physical form, like a coat, whether that form be like a cat or a dog or some warped combining of the two; those who have it that the devil can enter a person in such a manner that he can be deftly taken out again, like a stone from a plum. I scorned those who believe such things. I lived in London once: I can remember how to sneer.
But I am not in London anymore. Nine months ago I had cause to come back to my own strange corner of Essex; and since I did, things have happened that make it harder to say what I do and do not believe.
My coming home at the end of March, those first few days are still sharp in my mind. Each day, each of those first hours, is preserved like an etching, separate and clear. But the later days, those later weeks as matters progressed, they are already starting to become somewhat bleached, somewhat blurred, like faces seen from a cart as it gathers up downhill speed.
Now it is Christmastide: I know it is, for I have been notching a floorboard each day, as prisoners do in tales. I have kept my count faithfully, showed myself methodical for once, like my brother. While I have been counting, the weather has changed and changed again: the pricking heat of late summer, and then the autumn chill. Today I can see my breath, and as I finish each line I have to break off from writing to curl my cold fingers into the neck of my gown. Soon I will have to lay aside my pen, and walk up and down to keep warm.
This chamber measures six of my paces along, though I must change direction slightly at one end to avoid my small bed and the things next to it—my chamber pot, a pitcher for water, and a flimsy bowl for washing. Up and down I pace, back and forth in front of the chamber’s sturdy door. I try to avoid the sight of the keyhole, to resist the urge to stop and look through it. I never see anything, only the patch of wall across the passage as some slow movement of air dries my eye, but I cannot stop myself looking. I cannot shake the feeling, when I put my eye to the gap, that what I will see is another eye, looking back.
So, you see, I am glad to have the distraction of writing. I need distraction, not least from my stomach, for this now is my third day without food. Though perhaps it is apt that I should be hungry: since the King fled his palace, Christmas is a time for fasting, rather than feasting. But I am resolved to mark the season in the old way, by making a Christmas gift, and my gift will be to myself. It will be the chance to tell the truth. I will set it down now, while my memory holds. There is nothing to prevent me, for though I am imprisoned, I am not forbidden writing materials: ink, and pens, and paper have been brought to me without complaint. I fear it means they do not intend to let me go.
But I will not think of that. I will not flinch. I will set it down, the full history of my brother, what he has done. I will lay it out in black and white, and my tale will contain more truth than the great dead histories on my father’s bookshelves. For they say what happened, but not what it was like. They say what happened, but they do not say why.
In these middle days of Christmas, when I was a child, everything would stop. The whole world would grow still. You would venture out for an hour to take the air, and coming in again you would stamp your feet, knock yourself free of snow. Then later, because it was a holiday, someone would tell a story: some tale, invented wholly or in part, but always full of dread and death and strangeness. This tale of mine, for certain it contains its share of those things, but though I wish to God it was invented, my tale is true.
For nine months ago, my brother Matthew set himself to killing women. He took women from houses never quiet from the sound of waves, from inland places by damp tidal creeks where the salt on the wind is a reminder of their men—husbands, sons—who never came back from the sea or the war; who didn’t want to come back, or could not. Matthew took those women and he killed them, but without once breaking the law. He took women who did not want their own children, women who wanted other people’s, and, at least at first, there was hardly a murmur to prevent him. For a woman is brought up to believe that children are her life’s work—to make them and feed them and kiss their hurts. But what happens if you cannot have children? If you have too many? If you have them, and they cannot protect you? If you have them, and they die? If you weep for your loss too much, or not enough—that is when folk begin to wonder if it is your fault, your misfortune. They begin to wonder how you can have offended God, and their wonderings turn ripe for a man like my brother to exploit.
I will write the whole sad business down, for no one living knows as much of Matthew’s reasons as I. Though they do not excuse him, Matthew has his reasons, and they are there for the finding, in his past; in our past. You might wonder why I did not prevent him from what he embarked upon. Well, I will set that down too. 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.
The twentieth day of March,
year of our Lord 1645
Once I had finished talking down the price of the journey home, it struck me how I had never thought to see Manningtree again. Or not in such circumstances. I think I had expected to go back to visit Mother, with my husband and my several children. But not to go back like this: empty-handed and alone.
I did not bargain too hard with the carter: it had taken me all morning to find someone carrying cloth and wine all the way to Colchester, with a break in the journey at a reputable inn. I was glad for a moment when he nodded, and let me climb up among the bales of cloth, but all I felt was numbness as we left the walls of London behind. Numbness, and weariness. It seemed beyond me to find the correct words and the correct way to speak them, to do all the small pieces of work of arranging my cap and standing up straight and offering a sad smile as I would need to do to meet my brother again.
The dark days of the new year had taken first Mother and then my husband, Joseph, into death, and I had not been sleeping, and nor had I yet cried. I lay in the cart, hardly seeing the houses and fields as they went by until, lulled by the cart’s rocking, I had to dismiss the strange fancy that I was a girl again, going home to nothing more demanding than a scolding and a hot meal. As if my marriage had been some holiday lark that I was sorry for now: some jest, which had got slightly out of hand. I forced myself to sit up straight; reminded myself that I was coming back to a brother I had not seen in five long years, who, when last we spoke, had called me a word I had never thought to hear him say.
Matthew knew I was coming home, though I had not told him why. I had not had the strength to tell him that my husband was dead. After Joseph’s burial I had started a letter to Matthew, beginning with a greeting; I had counted on my fingers, and written down a date in March. But then I had paused. We had always sworn when we were little, Matthew and I, that when we were grown up and living apart, we would write every week. But as matters had turned out, I had heard nothing from him in all those five years. The pen dried in my hand, and when I sent him the note it contained only my formal good wishes, and the date I would return.
Cramped in the cart, I tried to comfort myself by taking out the one letter my brother had ever written me: at the turn of the year, a most civil letter, to tell me that Mother was dead. He had written, The minister will want to bury her as soon as this cold eases. He had written, You would be welcome with me at the Thorn. The words after that were darker, as if he had sat thinking for long enough to need to dip his pen again, before adding, Your husband will be welcome, too. The letter had arrived only days after Joseph’s death. Though it was indeed a civil letter, I could not help noticing that my brother still would not make Joseph any greeting, or even write his name.
As the cart came down into Chelmsford a pair of vagabonds were sitting on the wall outside the gate, shouting, “Parliament or King?” at anyone passing. Soon we pulled up, and as I climbed painfully down, I heard the carter give a subdued greeting, and turned to see five or six men idling outside the inn. They looked hard, sharp-eyed, equipped for cold and for disaster alike, as if those twin things had grown ordinary—as indeed they have. For this now is the fourth year there has been trouble in England.
It is the common kind of war, about who should govern and how; but it is worse than any war that came before it. For since this war, there are villages missing half their men, gone pressed or—almost worse—gone willingly. This war, it is being fought not only with swords, or even with the guns they have now. This is also a war of thoughts, of words printed or hurled in anger between father and son, between brothers. Arguments that start about King Charles’s Catholic wife and finish with whether there should be bishops or no. This war will not end, and it has divided families, and it has taught a generation of women to endure the lurches of fighting and waiting as they do the weather.
That night at the Chelmsford inn, I had the money for only a shared bed, and by the time I had eaten and got myself upstairs the other woman was already under the covers, lying very still, embracing her bundled possessions. I took her to be asleep, until I saw that her eyes were open, and she was watching me. I greeted her, and asked her where she was bound.
“London,” she said.
“Do you have kin there?”
“No.” She shifted beneath the blankets.
She did not seem to wish to share more, so I fell to getting my things stowed for the night. But while I was undressing, her stomach growled, breaking the quiet. I thought to ignore it, not wanting to shame her, but as I was about to get in beside her, the growling came again.
“Would you take some bread?” I said. I found what I had bought for the next day’s journey, broke off part of it, and held it out. She looked at me, mistrustful, but then she pushed herself up in the bed, the blanket bunched over her legs, and reached out to take the food. She did not thank me.
“It’s either eat or sleep safely,” she said, when she had swallowed her first bite. “Can’t do both.”
I let her eat in peace as I closed my bag and laid it away. When I lifted my side of the covers she was chewing her last mouthful, and when at last I had settled myself, she turned her head on the pillow and said, “I can tell fortunes, you know.”
I shook my head, thinking she was offering it as some foolish payment for the bread. But she said, “Indeed, you should believe me. I learned it off my grandmother, and though I can see but little, what I do see, it always comes true.” She spoke softly. “I will tell yours, mistress, for threepence.” Her voice was warmer, more confiding than before.
I knew she had taken me for someone who could soon be parted from what belonged to her. But then I thought of the noise the woman’s stomach had made. I did not have much, but if I judged right, she had next to nothing. I was on my way home, to safety. God knew where she was on her way to. And, in truth, I was curious. Though it was a small risk, it was still a risk, offering such a thing to a stranger.
“Very well,” I said awkwardly, and she took my hand. Surprised at her sudden grip, I pulled back, but she kept hold of it, and spread it flat.
“It is a foreign way of doing it,” she said, settling herself. “Very ancient, though.”
She said that first I must tell her my name; when I spoke one, she shook her head. “No, your true name,” she repeated. I told it to her, but I did not like it, her having hold of me like that. Her own hands were cold and not clean. Yet I did not pull away again; for a moment later she began to speak.
“You are troubled, Alice,” she said. “You are mourning your husband.”
So much I could have guessed myself, about a woman traveling alone in a black dress. But then she peered more closely. “But there will be a man soon to keep you finer than your husband did. Tall, dark,” she said. I felt a fool, and almost shook my hand out of her grip, but then she added, “Five children you’ll have had, by the time you’re done.” She looked up to see if I was pleased.
“Go on,” I said. I did not feel pleased, but I was listening now.
Beth Underdown lectures in Creative Writing at the University of Manchester. Her first novel, The Witchfinder's Sister, is based on the life of the 1640s witchfinder Matthew Hopkins. Beth's interest in seventeenth-century England was sparked by the work of her great-uncle David Underdown, one of that period's foremost historians. She came across a brief mention of Matthew Hopkins while reading a book about midwifery, igniting an interest which turned into an all-consuming hunt for the truth about this infamous killer.