Beth Underdown has taken a real character from history – Matthew Hopkins – who was behind a surge in executions for witchcraft in Essex during the Civil War, and retold his story through the eyes of a fictional sister. In reality there is very little known about Hopkins as a private individual although there is more detail in the historical record of his activities as a self-styled witchfinder, so the story around his motivations is entirely supposition – although he probably didn’t like women!
We generally agreed that the story started well, and then tailed off … there was an expectation that more was going to happen. We expected Alice to do more – either to resist her brother’s actions or to escape back to London, but having used her as the device to tell the story the author couldn’t remove her witness from the scene! There was discussion of her limited options (widowed and pregnant at the start of the story), how times have changed for women, and bearing in mind #MeToo and Harvey Weinstein, how much they haven’t changed. We discussed whistleblowing and how difficult it is to challenge power and the status quo – so often in the past change which seems entirely right and moral to us now has been initiated by brave souls who have been ridiculed or much worse.
The details of how the women were interrogated weren’t as graphic as they could have been (much to my relief) and we discussed how torture in any form will induce false confessions. The themes of the book give food for thought when you draw modern parallels – the demonization and vilification of groups within society and the abuse of power haven’t gone away.