set in 1645
[Alice has been forced to accompany her brother, the witchfinder Matthew Hopkins, on a journey through East Anglia looking for witches]
The next weeks were like one of those nightmares, the ones from which you cannot wake. I searched women, gently, and reported as little as I could to Matthew. But those who drew a discontented crowd, hungry for what proofs had been found against them, there was little I could do for them. Each one of them had a different tale, fit to break your heart; but what they had in common was loneliness, and too many nights spent listening; loose flesh where they had given birth or gained weight in other, better summers. What they had in common was fear.
We moved up through Suffolk from village to village, Matthew writing ahead to seek information and a welcome in each new place. The back of my neck burned and peeled and burned again. Often I thought of leaving, of sitting down in the road and refusing to move. But in the end I thought it better to stay, and try to work against my brother: for, as I tried to gather my courage back, I saw that I was well placed to do it, without him even realising that it was being done.
commentary: This book left me conflicted: it doesn’t have much in common with recent read The Roanoke Girls (except that each is by a woman and about women, with a female narrator) – but in both cases I thought the novel might be a lot more appealing to other people than it was to me.
It started off really well - it’s a proper, well-researched historical novel, and beautifully written. Matthew Hopkins is a notorious real-life figure, who took it upon himself to be a witchfinder. As Alice says in the book:
The number of women my brother Matthew killed, as far as I can reckon it, is one hundred and six.The story is horrible – the methods of search, the allegations and counter-allegations, the glimpses of sad lives and desperate women, the cruelty and intransigence of the witchfinders. Not much is known about Hopkins’ life, so Underdown has given him a half-sister. In the book, she is widowed after several years in London, and comes back to her brother’s place in Manningtree, Essex. She gets drawn into his dreadful deeds, and worries that the whole scheme is aimed at a former servant, Bridget, with whom Alice has close ties.
There were good things about the book – the emphasis on women’s lives and problems, the details of how things were managed (chamber pots feature a lot), the seriousness with which Underdown has approached the subject matter. But as the book went on, I found the truly sickening detail of the witch-finding too much, I felt queasy after reading it. And if I had chosen to read a non-fiction book I would have no complaint. But I found it an awkward fit that the book has added its own plot about the past, concerning Alice and her parents and step-mother. That didn’t seem to mesh well for me. The last section of the book is obviously extremely well-planned and worked out, but seemed to me to skim over a lot, with a surprising amount of action rushed through completely off-stage, with our heroine not involved. The final twist was deeply predictable, but somehow satisfying.
There is a lot to commend in this book, it is a very good historical novel, and I’m sure many readers will enjoy it – especially as it gives voices to women who have not been heard over the years.
There were more recent, and more light-hearted, witches on the blog last month, in Lucy Fisher’s excellent Witch Way Now?, while Elly Griffiths featured the Pendle witches in her modern crime book Dying Fall.
Elizabeth Goudge’s The White Witch is set in the 1640s, as is The Witchfinder’s Sister. Lolly Willowes, in the Sylvia Townsend Warner book, is an admirable witch: and there are many more witches on the blog: click on the label below.
Sarah Perry’s wonderful Essex Serpent is another historical novel set in the county.
The dramatic scene is a Victorian picture called An Arrest for Witchcraft in the Olden Time by John Pettie, from the Athenaeum.
The young woman is a 1645 picture: Girl Holding a Fan by Hendrick Cornelisz van Vliet, also from the Athenaeum.