One of my favorite classes in college was a history course where our focus was on witches. We examined various outbreaks of witch scares in Europe and the American colonies, compared how they unfolded and the methods for dealing with the accused, we looked at who the accused tended to be and why they might have been accused (spoiler alert: mostly widows and single women who were in more independent positions than the men in their communities were comfortable with them having). So a novel like Beth Underdown’s upcoming The Witchfinder’s Sister should be right up my alley.
Having just lost her husband in an accident, Alice returns home to her brother, Matthew’s, home where their mother has also recently died. It has been several years since Alice has seen her brother who did not approve of her marriage and in their time apart it quickly becomes clear to Alice that much about him has changed. He has gained a noted position in their old community since he has become involved in taking down complainants’ accounts and questioning accused witches in the area. Alice is horrified but convinces herself that it will all blow over in the end while also piecing together the truth of what happened in her parents’ household that might be driving Matthew in his mission. Will she be able to save anyone from her brother?
Underdown addresses a lot of the usual—and expected—themes in modern novels surrounding the subject of witch trials. Her inspiration is rooted in the historic record; there really was a Matthew Hopkins who worked in England questioning accused witches for trial in the 1640s. The character of Alice—the narrator—however, is entirely fictional. The elements of the “mystery” surrounding the happenings in Alice and Matthew’s childhood household don’t always work well with the larger happenings of the witch hunting and later trials. The tension of the family story develops in a choppy manner while the witch finding is—in keeping with the frame of being Alice’s later account of what happened—forced to the background of things for much of the tale.
The thematic resonance is easily detected when it comes to the unjust subjugation of women, but also strikes notes towards the end that deal with introspection and forgiveness. Despite Alice’s quasi-obsession with what might be driving Matthew in his actions, she never actually appears to arrive at any sort of definitive conclusion; it’s a mess formed mostly of events that she already knew (but was withholding from the reader) and easily guessed revelations. Given the predictable—to anyone remotely familiar with witch scares—course of events, the pacing in the novel posed a problem for me. The events were stretched out just that little bit too long; I was still about a hundred pages from the end when my patience ran out and I lost any emotional investment in Alice and the other characters. There are only so many times Alice can mention trying to thwart her brother’s plans and back down from it before it grows tedious. Just a little streamlining would have been greatly appreciated.
The Witchfinder’s Sister will be available for purchase March 2, 2017 in the UK and April 25, 2017 in the US.