About The Author
Beth Underdown lectures in Creative Writing at the University of Manchester. Her first novel, The Witchfinder's Sister, is based on the life of the 1640s witchfinder Matthew Hopkins. Beth's interest in seventeenth-century England was sparked by the work of her great-uncle David Underdown, one of that period's foremost historians. 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?
Exclusively for Foyles, we chatted to Beth about the centrality of religious belief in 17th-century England, how the English Civil War paved the way for the witch hunts and the strange connection she feels to Matthew Hopkins.
Author photo © Justine Stoddart
Questions & Answers
How did Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled Witchfinder General, appear in your life?
I had started reading a lot around the English Civil War because of my great uncle (David Underdown, who was a historian of the period before he died). When I was about 17 he gave me one of his books. I didn’t read it at first, but like a typical teenager shoved it on a shelf, and only picked it up again a good few years later. The book is about a small town that burned to the ground in the 1600s, and uses the catastrophe to look at ordinary people’s lives and behaviour during the period in a really readable way. That got me reading around in the period more generally, and I finally came across Matthew Hopkins not through the lurid 1968 horror movie, but through a footnote in a book about 17th-century midwifery. As soon as I started reading more about the Essex witch hunts I knew I wanted to write about them.
I very much enjoyed experiencing the tumultuous period through the story of Matthew’s sister Alice. Is she a historical character or one you created as a lens to explore Matthew’s actions?
It’s fair to say that Alice is a combination of fact and fiction! Matthew Hopkins really did have siblings. We know that three were elder brothers, but I’ve given him a sister too. I knew, because of the story that I wanted to tell about the women Hopkins persecuted, that I wanted a female narrator. And I wanted it to be someone who understood him fairly well, but who didn’t have that much choice about whether or not to be around him.
The book opens with Alice saying ‘Once, I scarcely believed in the devil.’ I admit I do somewhat enjoy despising Matthew Hopkins for his actions, can you tell us how you feel about the man?
That’s a really tough question. Clearly, objectively, he was horrendous. What he did was horrendous and inexcusable. Having said that, I think it’s conceivable that the kinds of fears and the kinds of damage that might have caused him to do what he did might lead any of us to do terrible things, were the same fears or damage inflicted on us. Part of what’s tricky about answering the question (and what was tricky about writing the book!) is that, while people were still ultimately just people in the 17th century, they did think about God in quite a different way from how I, for instance, as a modern secular person do. And if Matthew Hopkins thought that what he was doing was sanctioned by God, that would have been a very powerful motivator which it's maybe quite hard to understand for us today.
Also relevant to the question is that after writing the book and, in a sense, living with him so long, I do feel a peculiar kind of connection to him – as if our fates are linked, however tenuously. At any rate it was quite a strange moment when I found the field he’s probably buried in.
So I think the only answer to the question is that I feel pretty mixed about Hopkins himself!
What do you think motivated him to take up the cause against witches?
As I say, I think religious belief was probably a strong factor – possibly even a stronger factor than I’ve made it in the book. I wanted the Matthew in the book to be somebody a modern reader could get a decent way towards understanding, so I wanted to make it more complex than ‘just’ religion (also because I think there probably was more to it than that). I’ve proposed some of the kinds of traumatic events in his upbringing that might have caused him to have some problems around women, or around what he might have perceived as certain kinds of women. But I wonder if in the end it might boil down to the fact that he found something he was good at – he could act the part of witchfinder very well, and had the right mixture of storytelling, minor officialdom and diligence to carry it out. I think probably finding that (at least for a while) he was liked while carrying out the witch hunts would have been very powerful for someone who in terms of his background was barely a gentleman.
More widely, the witchcraft trials of the Early Modern period are still not an entirely explained phenomenon. Do you have any theories as to why they flared up as they did?
I think the 1640s witch hunts probably had a lot to do with the disruption and upheaval of the English Civil War. They created huge public anxiety, and also an opportunity – ordinary courts were disrupted, which allowed a maverick like Hopkins to step in. More generally, one theory is that they’re highly related to anxiety about Catholicism. This was very real in the Essex hunts – Essex was a strongly Protestant area, and part of what the war was about was the perception that the King was Catholic or influenced by Catholics. So there’s a religious element there. Even some of the language used to talk about witchcraft that survives to this day has this anxiety at its root (‘hocus pocus’ comes from the ‘hoc est corpus’ of the Catholic mass). During the English Civil War in Essex there was a lot of alarm about the possibility of people being secretly Catholic or secretly helping the enemy, and it was even said that Prince Rupert’s dog, Boy, was a familiar spirit. The worst flare-ups of Early Modern witchhunting can often be found where anxiety about Catholicism was greatest – but were also related to other factors such as rising prices, poverty and the breakdown of traditional charitable systems.
The uncertain status of women was a strong theme throughout the book, for example, Alice is widowed and reliant on her brother to take her in, the maid Grace must obey against her conscience to keep her place. Was the gendered nature of power something you deliberately wrote about?
Definitely. Although it’s also a challenge! Modern readers (and I, as a modern writer) want a protagonist with a bit of get-up-and-go, someone who will act and do things intentionally. But at the same time I wanted Alice to act within realistic parameters for her gender at the time. She needed to be female because the book as a whole is showing how the whole system is flawed, and how that’s one of the key factors that enables the witch hunts to happen.
Alice records the names of the women accused of witchcraft – how important do you think this kind of testifying to people’s lives is?
It felt very important. While I was still working on the book, one of the criticisms from early readers was that there were ‘too many people called Mary/Margaret/Anne’. I did what I could with this, because the last thing I want to do is make things tricky for the reader. But a bit of me thought (without wanting to sound flippant) ‘well, that’s because there were too many women killed called Mary/Margaret/Anne’. It seemed important to render women’s names and their stories accurately. But there was a sort of dreadful kind of challenge in storytelling terms, in that a lot of the surviving evidence about the women’s stories (most of the women were poor, had lost a child, and so on) did make them sound very similar or repetitive. Which is something I’ve sort of tried to work with in telling the story, and tried to use it to make the point about the terrible scale of the hunts.
And finally, do you believe witches exist?
Ha ha! Well, see above about the hairs on the back of my neck standing up when I found Hopkins’ burial place. I don’t know. I’m quite superstitious. I knock on wood/cross my fingers on aeroplanes. I kind of believe in ghosts, and know some good ghost stories. I believe strongly in the power of the mind in terms of placebo effects, positive affirmations, all of that kind of thing. But do I believe that it’s possible to make something happen just by burning some herbs and chanting some words? On balance, I don’t think so.