‘The number of women my brother Matthew killed, so far as I can reckon it, is one hundred and six…’
1645. When Alice Hopkins’ husband dies in a tragic accident, she returns to the small Essex town of Manningtree, where her brother Matthew still lives.
But home is no longer a place of safety. Matthew has changed, and there are rumours spreading through the town: whispers of witchcraft, and of a great book, in which he is gathering women’s names.
To what lengths will Matthew’s obsession drive him?
And what choice will Alice make, when she finds herself at the very heart of his plan?
Most people with an interest in 17th century history, and in particular, the ‘Witch Trials’ era, will have heard of Matthew Hopkins, self appointed Witchfinder General. This book is a work of fiction based on his life that also draws on some of the harrowing events recorded of the interrogations and trials he presided over.
An author’s note at the end of the book tells us that according to a local census of the time, Matthew Hopkins may have had a sister. The protagonist of this novel is a fictional conjuring of this sister, Alice, who we meet in 1640. Alice is travelling home to her step-brother Matthew’s home after the death of her husband, Joseph in a tragic accident. Widowed and pregnant, she has no other option but to return to the family home, where Matthew is now the undoubted head of the household following the recent death of his Mother.
Matthew is a complex man, for the most part unpleasant, surly and a law until himself. He’s thoroughly unlikeable, and given that Alice is completely at his mercy, it’s a frustrating read in places, as Matthew is obsessed with seeking out ‘witches’ and punishing them for their largely imagined or made-up crimes. Often these women are just people he’s taken a dislike to. Matthew is a man of many secrets, and some very obvious issues surrounding the scars he bears from a childhood accident – as the tale unfolds, the reasons for his hatred and paranoia become clearer.
The Witch trials were notorious for the torturous and immoral methods that led to many of the ‘confessions’ of the doomed, and this author does not spare the reader from the detail.It’s horrifying that one man could be responsible for the terrible fate of so many innocent women and the fact that it’s largely based on non-fiction does make it a difficult read at times.
This is partially because Beth Underdown manages to evoke the grim helplessness of the time brilliantly – I felt cold a lot of the time I was reading this novel and that is down to how well she writes, and how the chill creeps into her words. For a debut novel, and especially one with a tricky historical placement, she has really captured the hopelessness so many felt at these events, and has wrapped it up in the strong, and at most times courageous, Alice. I felt at times that we never really got to know Alice, and her inner feelings and thoughts because she was purely reactive to Matthew’s behaviour, however when I’d finished this book I realised that this could reflect the fact that in the 17th century, women weren’t really able to be themselves – they were vessels of childbearing and did pretty much what they were told by their husbands and Fathers, or they faced the consequences. With men like Matthew Hopkins determining those consequences, trying to stand up to him and his like, could, and did prove fatal to many. It makes me thankful that women are now considered, in most ways, equal, and I feel lucky to be born in modern times.
One thing I have to say, is that the final chapter gave me chills. Utter chills. I wanted to clap my hands over my face and throw the book across the room (though my kindle would not have thanked me for it!).
I received a copy of this book in return for an honest and fair review.