The year is 1645 and England has been mired in a civil war for 4 years; but as men are dying in prisons and in armed encounters, in the county of Suffolk a self-appointed witch hunter is unleashing terror of a different kind.
Based on a true story, The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown, tells a story of Matthew Hopkins who – in the words of his sister Alice, the narrator of the story – “set himself to killing women.” The novel draws on surviving records of interrogations and trials that led more than a hundred women to be tortured and hanged as witches, based on questionable testimonies, mainly from disgruntled neighbors. Unsurprisingly, the targeted women come from the margins of the society – they are poor, widowed or affected by mental illness, and thus easy to blame for calamities like lost crops, dead animals and stillbirths.
Hopkins’s story is well known, but what Underdown brings into it is keen psychological and social insight, explaining why and how one man could lead such a campaign without interference, indeed with a blessing from those who had the power to check him at any time. In this retelling, Hopkins is disfigured by a burn to his face which he discovers was the result of his mentally disturbed mother throwing him into the hearth fire on the day he was born. As his ambition to follow in his late father’s footsteps to become a minister is thwarted by his mother’s decision not to send him to study at Cambridge, Hopkins’s long-stifled resentment explodes into a hatred of all women. But his rage is cold and calculated, so that at first Alice has a hard time believing that he harbors ill intentions. Only gradually does she come to realize the extent of her brother’s murderous plan.
It is a plan striking in its precision and efficiency. Hopkins travels tirelessly from village to village, gathering complaints about lonely, vulnerable women, and interrogating the accused. Throughout, he preserves a calm, dispassionate exterior in the face of the brutality to which the women are subjected. He meticulously notes the results, slowly and steadily building his case, a dutiful clerk whose manner brings to mind Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase about “the banality of evil.” Alice is the only person who catches occasional glimpses of what lies beneath, as Hopkins’s mask slips momentarily, revealing the fear, anger and hatred – and possibly madness – that drive him.
Individual motives aside, The Witchfinder’s Sister is also an indictment of a society where those appointed to uphold the law either close their eyes to the injustice or support Hopkins in his quest. That is because the victims have slipped the control of the patriarchy intolerant of women existing outside the strictly defined and religion-justified economic and sexual boundaries. The non-conforming women are not the only ones affected by such attitudes, however: even those who adhere to the established norms – like Alice – can be intimidated, belittled and denied the right to express their views or feelings. It is no wonder that in a world that offers few protections, so many are willing to lose their humanity and turn on one another in order to escape suspicion.
When Hopkins’s reign of terror is over, the traumatized Alice decides to start a new life in America. “I like the sound of it, where I am headed,” she muses a few days before her boat is due to leave. “It is a quiet village, a place of little consequence. But they have named it Salem, which, as you know, means peace.”