Persecution and injustice (in the 17th century): The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown
The Witchfinder’s Sister is a captivating historical novel about the real life witch hunter Matthew Hopkins, as told by his imagined sister Alice. The narrative occurs during the English Civil War, with a backdrop of mistrust and religious difference, though this is only the context to the more personal story of Alice Hopkins and how she is drawn into her brother’s world against her will. Mystery and intrigue are wound throughout the book as Alice tries to discover exactly what her brother is doing and secrets about their family’s past.
The style is easy to read and feels fitting to the time, without being bogged down in historical detail or attempts at accurate speech that fall flat. The novel is framed as Alice’s written account of events, printed afterwards, and in this way it acts as a fictional version of giving a woman a voice in the context of events that preyed upon vulnerable women, those who were mentally ill or lonely or confused. Alice herself has lost babies and, just before her narrative begins, her husband, and is a character trying to do good, but without the freedom or position to be morally unblemished. Though the novel does not actively condemn power hierarchies and the abuse of power, it is clear throughout the book that money, gender, and social position are playing an important part.
Using witch hunting fiction as a parallel to contemporary unjust persecution is well known since The Crucible and this novel does not need to be compared to any modern events to be a gripping read. However, it is easy in this time of seemingly rising prejudice to see even greater interest in books which show those caught between trying to help and also being trapped by those with the power of persecution. The Witchfinder’s Sister is therefore both a rich historical mystery and a tale of power injustice and preying on the weak.