Review: The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

This could have been so much more than it was. I love the genre of books where the main characters are notorious or famous people, and the narrator of the book is close to them (think Amadeus the play/film for a real person, or The Great Gatsby for a fictional one). This did not hit the mark as a ‘bystander account’, but more of an inner monologue of a person who’s near what’s going on but doesn’t tell us about it.

The main character, Alice, doesn’t seem to know what time or culture she’s in. She says she will prevent her brother from doing all these bad things, but it’s clear that women have no voice to influence anyone in this time or place, so is she just ignoring that fact or delusional? The to-ing and fro-ing of her mother, her mother’s servant, Alice’s husband,  mental illness versus witchcraft, villagers with scores to settle; all of that had the potential to be something that revealed deep character issues and why the culture of the time was what it was. This is set during the English Civil War, and that is only mentioned in passing. Instead of any venture into those topics, we get a superficial view of Manningtree and the Hopkins’ family from Alice’s perspective, and it wasn’t all that interesting. There were so many roads left untaken along with many potential plot twists, but no. Nothing was surprising, other than a lack of anything surprising. It just felt like a dud.

I had hoped there’d be something supernatural or magical in this story, or that it would focus on accusations of witchcraft as a weapon against women, but it did not. We had no insight into the Witchfinder’s thoughts, what he was truly after. Did he just hate women? Did he hate his mother? Was he mad that women found him distasteful? Was a power-hungry sadist? Was it a fetish? There was no interchange between him and anyone else long enough to learn anything useful about him. The accusations and details of the tests for witchcraft are also left out, but with the explanation that sharing those methods encourages others to use them. I am fine with that, but at least tell me more about the people who were caught up, the victims, the accusers. Why did they do all this? The Crucible this is not.

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