BLURB: “1645. When Alice Hopkins’s husband dies tragically, she returns to Manningtree, the small Essex town where her brother Matthew still lives. But home is no longer a place of safety. Whispers are spreading – of witchcraft, and the terrible fate awaiting the women accused. And at the heart of it all stands just one man…
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?”
REVIEW: I studied Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe whilst at university, including the cases uncovered by the notorious Matthew Hopkins. This previous knowledge made me very keen to read this book, and eager to see how the witch craze may have been perceived from a female perspective, especially one so close to its instigator. Upon starting this novel after receiving it for my birthday, it became almost immediately clear that this book has been well-researched and the victims within it considered with empathy and respect. Underdown has primary sources from the Manningtree trials littered throughout the novel, serving to remind the reader that as incomprehensible as it may seem to our own minds, the belief in witchcraft was real and strong, leading to confessions, torture and death. It also brings an added realism to the described victims; Underdown gives the accused women personalities, discusses their back-stories, and on the whole treats them much more fairly than they were treated whilst alive. The writing style captures the tense, paranoid atmosphere not only of Manningtree but also of the other towns Matthew visits in order to investigate potential witches. This style makes the book a gripping read; despite being at work I had finished it in less than a week and found it hard to put down.
The character of Alice is also a likeable and sympathetic one, while the only way I can describe the character of Matthew is that he truly made my skin crawl. He is sneakily manipulative and subtly sinister, which serves to make him even more unsettling that had he outright raped and tortured witches himself. His madness is something the reader becomes aware of slowly over the course of the novel, and something we come to understand a little more as we uncover stories of his past from Alice and from their mother’s old friend, Bridget. His cruelty towards his sister, seeming to stem from his unhappiness over her marriage to a lowly servant, is truly shocking, and the reader constantly longs for Alice to be able to escape him. Underdown portrays Hopkins as a man who sees all women as whores, too forward and obsessed with sex. As such, he sees these traits as something worthy of accusing women of withcraft. There were many traits associated with witchcraft, many of which were included in this novel, including the suggestion of women having sex with the Devil, using animal familiars to help them with their evil deeds, and being particularly associated with deaths of women and babies in childbirth. It is not long before Matthew begins to see these traits reflected in his own sister, who tries her best to aid those accused and questioned by Matthew and in return finds herself accused and imprisoned by her own brother.
Many secrets are uncovered throughout the course of this novel, which continues to keep the reader guessing. Underdown does briefly deal with the issue of why those accused of witchcraft confessed, despite it being clear to our modern minds that this is a phenomenon we cannot possibly understand; this is perhaps why she does not explore these reasons particularly deeply. I was glad of the fact that Underdown did not try too hard to answer what are fundamentally unanswerable questions, though of course we can speculate. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, and appreciated the depth of research. I absolutely LOVED the last line, which left me open-mouthed and stunned long after I had closed the book. I would highly recommend this novel.