Pub. Date: April 25, 2017
Publisher: Penguin Books
In this historical fiction the character of the sister is fictional, but her brother, Matthew Hopkins, was a real person, and a real witchfinder. He even had the title of “Witchfinder General” during the English Civil war (1642-1646). (I had to google this to believe such a title existed). I was hoping to learn a bit more about the war between the Royalists, supporters of King Charles I and the Parliamentarians, supporters of the rights of Parliament, but the author decided to just educate the reader on how the fear of witches was pronounced by the general fear in England at this time.
The story is narrated by the sister who is widowed and forced to move back home with her brother. She quickly learns that home is no longer a safe place and that her brother has grown into an evil man who longs for power. He insists that she be a part of his witch investigations. The tale reads like a psychological horror story, but is all the more terrifying knowing that such events in history did indeed happen. Hopkins was a frightening monster. “My brother, Matthew set himself to killing women…but without once breaking the law.”
The inhuman methods that Hopkins used in his investigations are difficult to read. Women were tied to a stool and not allowed to sleep for hours, which often led to sleep-deprived confessions. Females accused were pricked with special needles in their vaginas and if an animal licked the blood they were considered witches. Another example where death was the only outcome was when suspects were tied to a chair and thrown into water: all those who “swam” (floated) were considered to be witches and were then hung. Of course, when the innocent didn’t float they died a watery grave rather than by the gallows. I believe we are all familiar with the days of the witch hunts, still, I didn’t expect to gasp in horror, as I did when reading exactly what went on during the so-called investigations.
The author, Beth Underdown, does an impressive job in taking the reader back into this ghastly time in history. (Think of the Arthur Miller play and the 1996 movie version of the play “The Crucible”). I could feel the uncertainty and fear in the villages caused by a righteous lunatic. Who would be next? One daughter gave false evidence against a group of women who lived in her village with the promise that her mother might be spared. I will leave you to guess if mother and daughter lived.
Underdown makes it easy to read between the lines, that the Hopkins’ witch trials had more to do with politics than potions, not to mention gender issues. Now here we are in the year of 2017 and despite all that we know, we still can breed the hysteria that can create a monster. I can’t help but wonder if humankind will ever learn.