The Witchfinder’s sister Beth Underdown (Penguin Books)

Witchfinder's sister pic.jpg

Reveiw by Katie Frankland

It does what it says on the cover: it’s a story about the sister of a witchfinder. There’s something quite simple, matter of fact about its title, yet quite deep and intriguing at the same time. The sister, Alice is making a reluctant but necessary move from London back to her rural beginnings in Essex. Her husband had recently died, leaving her with child, and she is now reliant upon her brother, Matthew to support her. This is 1645 and to be a woman in England is to be subservient and dependent on men.
Her brother, she remembers as an usual friendless child. As an adult, he is powerful, popular and well established. Not only that, but his business affairs are of the highest calibre. He is a witchfinder; an important and high ranking job where he is feared yet revered. Before long, Alice, too, is all too involved in the trialling of suspected witches.
The suspected witches, are, like Alice, independent women by circumstance: spinsters, widows, barren, single-parents. They are old, unchaste, undesired, unwanted. In fact, they are misunderstood; for their madness is one of grief, loneliness and forced isolation. The penalty for having been found to be a witch: death. The story torments the reader from page one as it opens with Alice herself seemingly imprisoned as if she herself has joined the coven and is awaiting her fate.
As obvious today as it was in the 17th century, this story clearly shows how women, as individuals or as a collective, can be steered, intentionally or unconsciously, into thinking the worst of another woman and how that thought can turn into feelings of spite and jealously and spiral out of control to the detriment of the other, or even themselves. The contradiction of women being each other’s biggest threat but also each other’s biggest saviour is evident in this book and cleverly portrayed throughout many of the key female characters. The growing companionship and solidarity forming within Alice’s unexpected friendships lead to her eventual salvation.
As a reader, not being able to jump in and stand up for Alice in a very 21st century manner for me was quite frustrating. Words such as “you will obey me” and “it is your duty” raged me and I wanted to argue her place, her person, her existence, as an equal. Yet this was more frustrating when realising that even if I could influence Alice’s words or actions, my modern day freedoms and opinions would result in further consequence for her. My rescue mission would be impossible.
This brother-sister relationship in itself is also interesting. The lead male in the story being a brother, rather than a husband ties the two characters closer together, bonded by a shared history. Alice knows Matthew more than any other person, yet does not understand him. His ideals and morals are different to hers, despite being raised in the same household. Alice often looks back at excerpts of their youth, trying to find something, some clue to the cause of his strangeness, his evil ways. Seemingly the torment of his youth, the unforgotten feelings of jealousy, resentment, bitterness, and fear, all sit brewing within his own coldrun.
The sections of original witchcraft text scattered throughout the book make it scarier, although it wasn’t until the end that I realised these were actual accounts of a real life witchfinder. Knowing this and understanding some of the old fashioned practices, such as witch watchings could have come earlier, maybe having the Glossary at the start. The concept of an imp, for example, was hard to grasp for someone like me, who knows very little about folklore, legend, and fantasy. Having said that, this lack of understanding made me feel a deeper connection to, and sympathy for the women, as they too must have been flooded with confusion at the preposterous accusations being hounded at them.
The witchfinder’s sister’s story intrigued me from the start; the drama unfolding piece by piece. A
mesmerising read of a bygone era that seems all too fictional for its factual undertones. Even its
somewhat comically cruel ending suggests the days of the witch are not yet over, leaving the reader
wanting more.

Read more about Katie in our ‘People’ section or have a look at her blog, Glab a Line.

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