The Witchfinder's Sister

The Witchfinder's Sister

by Beth Underdown


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A thrilling debut novel, a literary historical thriller based on the devastating witch hunts in 1640s England conducted by “Witchfinder General” Matthew Hopkins—for readers of Sarah Waters and Katherine Howe.

Before Salem, there was Manningtree. . . .

“This summer, my brother Matthew set himself to killing women, but without ever once breaking the law.”

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 harrowing storytelling for a truly haunting reading experience.

Advance praise for The Witchfinder’s Sister

“Vivid and terrifying.”—Paula Hawkins, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Girl on the Train

“Beth Underdown conjures a mesmerizing tale. The Witchfinder’s Sister will draw you into the terrifying world of England’s witch hunts. Read it late into the night, but don’t expect to sleep afterward!”—Paula Brackston, New York Times bestselling author of The Witch’s Daughter

“Gripping . . . The Witchfinder’s Sister gives a long-forgotten historical tragedy a fresh, feminist spin. Beth Underdown, by providing us with this intelligent, sympathetic protagonist, allows us to see inside the hearts of both monster and victims while never letting us forget that throughout history women’s stories have too often been told by men.”—Melanie Benjamin, New York Times bestselling author of The Swans of Fifth Avenue

“A tense, surprising, and elegantly crafted novel.”—Ian McGuire, New York Times bestselling author of The North Water

“Bone-chilling and meticulously researched, The Witchfinder’s Sister brings home the true terror of a witch hunt.”—Mary Sharratt, award-winning author of Daughters of the Witching Hill

“A richly told and utterly compelling tale, with shades of Hilary Mantel.”—Kate Hamer, author of The Girl in the Red Coat

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780399179143
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/25/2017
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 1,222,293
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Beth Underdown studied English literature at the University of York and worked as an intern at the arts and culture magazine Aesthetica. After becoming an editor at Phaidon Press, Underdown graduated with distinction from the University of Manchester’s Creative Writing MA program. She came across the story of Matthew Hopkins while reading a book about seventeenth-century midwifery. Underdown now lectures at the University of Manchester and lives in the Peak District, not too far from where she was born; the sense of history in that landscape is an important catalyst for her writing. This is her first novel.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

The fifth day of Christmas,

this year of our Lord 1645

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.

Chapter 2

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.

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The Witchfinder's Sister 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 14 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An amazing account of life in the 17th c. Scary to think, but easy to believe that it could happen again.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was quite intrigued with this story. I found it hauntingly irresistible, both sad and scary.
sandrabrazier More than 1 year ago
It is 1645 in England. Alice Hopkins has recently become widowed. Because she is pregnant with her husband’s child, she decides she needs to move back to brother, Matthew’s, place. She needs financial support at a time like this. However, Alice notices a lot of strange things. There is a great feeling of fear in the small town. Soon, Alice discovers that her brother is a dreaded witch hunter. He has become a wealthy and powerful man, but he has also become evil and dangerous. This is a wonderful tale, told in the first person by Alice. This is her ‘daily book” or journal. At the beginning, she says that she wants people to hear her message, because, as she is writing it, she fears she will soon die. Well-developed characters fill unforgettable scenes that really tell what the days of the cruel witch hunt were like. This well-researched book is one I will not soon forget. It is not for the weak of heart.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I truly enjoyed the way you wove your quite believable fictional characters into the historical facts taking place in England. I loved the ending, and do hope you continue the tale of Alice in the "wonderful" new world that awaits her in Salem! Keep writing***
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Sam1219 More than 1 year ago
I am voluntarily submitting my honest review after receiving an ARC copy of the ebook from NetGalley. This book is a haunting fictionalization of Matthew Hopkins's reign of terror during the seventeenth century witch trials in Essex. Told from the viewpoint of his sister, Alice, who is forced to return to his household as a pregnant widow following the tragic death of her husband, this novel is a vivid and horrifying illustration of the powerlessness, fear and at times, outright persecution women were subjected to in 1645 England. The narrator is created as an all too human woman, trapped by circumstance, and a product of her time--sure that some of her brother's victims are innocent, yet unable to dismiss the possibility of witchcraft completely. As she tries to discover her brother's motives for such vigorous lashing out at the most vulnerable and unprotected women for his persecution, she must guard against becoming a target herself. The book is a fascinating and quick read with a fluid style rife with tension that keeps the pages turning--at times it is like watching a horror film--I wanted to cover my eyes, but I just couldn't! While some criticize the significant departures from the historical record, I find no fault whatsoever on this account as this book is upfront about being historical fiction, so the author is absolutely justified in taking license with verifiable facts. Fans of historical fiction, particularly those with an interest in the history of the occult or the paranormal, will enjoy this book.
MorrisMorgan More than 1 year ago
Mirella More than 1 year ago
Although the story begins slowly, it ultimately picks up in the 2nd third. It is a tale about Alice and her brother Matthew. When Alice returns home pregnant after her husband's death, she finds a brother obsessed with the hunt for witches. Matthew truly is a vile villain, and is based upon a true historical figure who lived during the 17th century. The story evokes sympathy for the plight of women during that time - helpless to prevent blame for anything from the death of a person to soured milk. The author did an outstanding job with research and her prose is splendid. All in all, this was a very enjoyable novel that teaches us about the horrors of centuries past. Recommended!
CarolineA More than 1 year ago
I’ve had a fascination with the Salem Witch Trials since I first heard about them, ages ago. So when I saw The Witchfinder’s Sister available on NetGalley, I thought this was a perfect read for me. It may not be the Salem witch trials, but they were still witch trials. The Witchfinder’s Sister is based upon a real man named Matthew Hopkins who actually did put over a hundred women to death. This book is a fictional account of what happened, told from the first person perspective of his (fictional) sister, Alice. This book started out solid. I loved the details of Alice’s life, from before she left home, while she was away with her husband, and then as she returned, a (secretly pregnant) widow. But while the details of this story were engrossing, the plot never completely came together for me. Alice is, for the most part, an outsider watching her brothers actions but unable to do much. After all, she was just a woman and in the 1600’s they had no power. It’s possible this story could have benefited from being told in 3rd person, because then we could have seen past Alice’s limited view, but I honestly don’t know if that would have helped. What I did really like was the way the author weaved a possible explanation for Matthew’s actions. His mother (Alice’s step-mother) is described as basically having a mental illness of some sort. Of course, back then, that wasn’t a thing. However, Alice at one point wonders if their mothers “weakness of mind” could have passed on to Matthew. Of course, there are also supernatural possibilities thrown in as well, but those never felt completely valid to me. Overall, for a book that promised to be “haunting” and “spellbinding”, it really wasn’t. There was minimal interaction between our narrator and the accused witches. The one accused she did spent time with, never really seemed like a woman who had just been, essentially, sitting on death row. The feelings never felt genuine. I never felt the fear or the anguish of those who knew they were going to die, and most of that was because we very, very rarely saw it happen. I suppose you could say, for a book about women being accused of witchcraft, the accused were very secondary to anything else. Would I recommend this book? Eh… not really. I mean, if you have interest in this particular witch hunt and want to read a fictionalized account of Matthew Hopkins, you might enjoy this. But for this reader, it was unfortunately pretty forgettable.
jeanniezelos More than 1 year ago
 I can’t find any info about previous books so I think this must be Beth's debut novel – and what an intense and complex read for a first story! Its so well written I was pulled back into that time, back to the seventeenth century. I’m a UK reader, living in Norfolk, so reading about Matthew and Alice living in the Eastern region of UK, I had a mental image of places I know now as they would have been back then. My house was build in 1682 – strange to think of it still standing ( and for a long while yet I hope!!) when it was built such a short time after these events. Mix of the old and the current... So, Matthew Hopkins- I recall learning about him at school, along with the US Salem witch trials. The Crucible was one of our set text English reads. He’s cropped up as a side character in a few books since then, but I’ve never really thought much more about him. Here Beth’s given him a fictional sister, though he may have had a real one Alice is purely invented for this story. It works well, she’s a foil to him, shared upbringing, and a way to let us see his actions from someone who loved him as a child but grew scared and confused of the man he became. He’s a strange person, an enigmatic character, phlegmatic about what he needed to do, unemotional, even when it means tearing apart, condemning to death, people he’s known since childhood. I can’t decide whether he’s just cruel, vindictive, out for revenge, totally mad or whether he really believes in what he’s doing. From a small start his witch hunt takes on a life of its own and snowballs, and maybe the power pushed him to go further and further, made him feel righteous, invincible? Who knows, and after finishing the story I still don’t know. Alice, poor Alice. Her mother died when she was very young, father remarried and had Matthew, but his birth left his mother frail and Alice really took over his upbringing, loving and looking after him. Even then the public face, showing the happy family outside, the father who was a priest, a good man, the mother who simply tired easily, was hiding things, secrets that kept slipping quietly out, and building background to the current events. I so felt for Alice, she’s a good woman, widowed from her beloved Joseph, a servant’s son, whom Matthew did not approve of, she’s still young, in her twenties I think, and forced to come back and live off Matthews charity. She can see events unfolding, sees at first hand what’s going on but is powerless to stop anything. She tries though, tries to do what she can but Matthew is an unmovable force. Her small brother has grown into a confident and powerful man. He takes little note of her, and at times seems to really dislike her. she becomes just another tool for him to use in his never ending quest for witches.  Witch hunts, back then not knowing the cause of events, accidents, tragedies, people looked for someone to blame, and it was easy to pick on one person a little on the outside of society, and call witchcraft and the intervention of the Devil the cause. Sometimes I think we haven’t moved on that much, we still look to blame others, though not as witches but in some 21st century way. Its a fascinating first book, well researched, marrying real events and people with fictional ones to create an amazing story. ARC supplied for review purposes by Netgalley and publisher 
CiaraRaven More than 1 year ago
I love a good historical fiction book, its probably my favorite genre of stories. I finished Beth Underdown's "The Witchfinder's Sister" in about three days; it was hard to put down. The story is told from Alice Hopkins point of view. She is the (fictitious) sister of the notorious Matthew Hopkins, a real witch hunter of the 17th century. Alice travels to her family home after becoming widowed and alone in London. As she becomes accustom to living with her mercurial younger brother, unsettling information about their past emerges. Trying to uncover the truth about her family's past, Alice comes entangle in Matthew's darkening plans. I've always been interested in the witch trials, the hysteria and likely political moves surrounding the innocent victims. Underdown does a masterful job recreating the tension and fear in the heart of rural England. She captures the village dynamics and cultural norms of the time, all which influence the main characters. I don't want to give too much away, but this is an excellent read. Well written, you get a good sense of the time period without getting bogged down. Great novel, I thoroughly enjoyed the read. If you enjoy historical fiction novels, I recommend. If you like strong female leads, I recommend. Some people may argue that Alice Hopkins isn't a strong character, but I think she is remarkable strong in her fortitude. If you like stories about the witch hunts, I think you will enjoy. I received a copy of this book from NetGalley for my honest review.
brf1948 More than 1 year ago
I received a free electronic copy of this historical novel based on fact from Netgalley, Beth Underdown, and Random House Publishing - Ballentine in exchange for an honest review. Thank you all, for sharing your hard work with me. This is a most frightening tale. Long before Salem had it's go-round with witch trials (Feb 1692 - May 1693), England, four years into their Civil War, had Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne. The Witchfinder's Sister is fiction based on the known facts of the time, including a book written by John Stearne, A Confirmation and Discovery of Witchcraft. Beth Underdown fleshes out those historical facts with an intriguing tale, covering March 1645 - the fifth day of Christmas, 1645. She brings this tale to life with her attention to detail and intimate knowledge of the times. The places Hopkins visits and the names of his victims are actual, though the role played by Alice is not. This is a novel I enjoyed and will happily recommend to my friends and family. And this is a debut author - can't wait to see what she comes up with, next....
MusicInPrint More than 1 year ago
Witches, Evil, Fear, Horror and Doom - Oh MY! Matthew has a past that has made him seek power over others at the peril of their deaths. He has set himself up to eliminate women by condemning them to hang for witchcraft. This era of history is terrifying; making this read disturbing and unpleasant. Matthew's sister Alice has a tragic existence from the death of her husband to the numerous miscarriages she has had. Although the reader routes for Alice to be the hero in this tale she is faced with so many diabolical events that it is unsettling. Beth Underdown does an excellent job of telling this Dark Story. A copy of this book was provided to me by Ballantine Books via Netgalley with no requirements for a review. I voluntarily read this book and my comments here are my honest opinion.
Deb-Krenzer More than 1 year ago
This read very slow for me. There were times when I really wanted to put the book down. And I want to kick myself for feeling like that because this was a horrible event in history. I should feel bad for thinking this. However, this is how I felt. The story did pick up some and while it was grueling to carry on, I was glad that I did. The finish was thoroughly an eye opening for me into that horrible event I referred to in the paragraph above. It was hideous what those people did. The tests and trials were enough that anyone would give up and say "yes, I'm a witch, kill me now". Back to the book though, the first half is L-O-N-G and S-L-O-W. I think the ending was so horrendous for this sister. However, was the first half worth the ending? I'm torn on that question. I was glad when I got through the slower part I know that for sure. Thanks to Random House/Ballantine for approving my request and to Net Galley for providing me with a free e-galley in exchange for an honest unbiased review.