I remember years ago (far longer than I care to admit) spending an exorbitant amount of time learning about the Salem witch trials in school. It was drummed into our heads as we learned the names of the accused, their supposed crimes, and their punishments. Twenty people were executed for witchcraft and five others died in prison. I recall being appalled of the things that transpired in that Massachusetts town and ashamed that it was part of American history.
Then I picked up this book and learned that the witch trials also occurred in Britain, which was certainly never taught in my history classes. I looked up some history on their witch trials and realized that what had happened in America was small potatoes compared to what had transpired across the Atlantic. Matthew Hopkins, unofficially titled Witchfinder General, was directly responsible for the deaths of around 300 people accused of witchcraft in eastern England between 1644 and 1646. As you may have gleaned from the title, this book is about his sister, Alice.
While Underdown’s work is certainly fiction, it is fiction loosely based around actual events. Those people did die. They were drowned, hanged, starved, tortured, and goodness knows what else. From a literary standpoint I feel like that is important to remember as it gives the book more weight. From a human standpoint, it is horrific. Be that as it may…
We begin with Alice Hopkins. She is traveling to her brother’s home in Manningtree from London after her husband’s accidental death. She is alone, pregnant, and relying on her brother Matthew’s good will to provide her room and board. She and her brother had been close as children, though they had grown apart after her marriage, and she hopes she will still be welcome in the family home. Matthew had never been a warm and kind person and had been terribly scarred by a fire as an infant leaving him disfigured. When his sister arrives she is welcomed back.
As Alice copes with the unexpected loss of her husband and later the miscarriage of her child she begins to learn terrible things about her brother’s life. He is accusing women in their village of witchcraft and imprisoning them. What aggravated me was that Alice saw what Matthew was doing and practically ignored it. She kept telling herself it wouldn’t come to anything even when he and his companions openly spoke of these persecutions in front of her. I understand that during the time period the woman yielded to the man in almost all ways and did not question him, however, how could she just idly stand by and make excuses for him? Oh, he was always a strange child, it will be fine. Oh, mother treated him poorly as a child, nothing will come of this. At what point does unlawful persecution become a big deal?
Eventually Matthew began taking his sister with him village to village to interrogate woman and send them away to prison, trial, and often execution. Still, she does very little to thwart him and mostly just thinks of herself and how she is going to get away from him before he sets his sights on her.
Little does she know that he already had.
After having witnessed multiple hangings ordained by her brother, including one in her own town of people she knew personally, Matthew has her locked away in the attic of their home. Alice is accused of being mentally infirm, much like their mother was, and unsafe to be allowed into the public. While the end of this book is not particularly surprising I don’t want to spoil it.
I will say that this book was very well thought out. The characters had depth and the details really drew you into that world. My only criticism is that it took so long for the story line to progress that it couldn’t hold my attention for long spans. During the first half of the book I didn’t feel like much of anything was happening (outside of some self pity behalf of Alice) while the second half progressed quickly. If that’s my only complaint then it’s still a good book by my count.
This book was provided to me by Net Galley