In a new series of interviews Historia editor Katherine Clements chats with the authors shortlisted for the 2017 HWA Crown Awards. First up, Debut Crown nominee Beth Underdown talks about her novel, The Witchfinder’s Sister.
The HWA Debut Crown celebrates new voices in historical fiction. Have you always been interested in history?
Always. Most of our holidays when I was a kid were spent in Britain (my family are all relatively large and fair, and we don’t deal with heat well). My parents would drag my brother and I out on hikes, and use the prospect of a castle at the end to get us to walk faster. I liked to stand in portcullises and think about pouring boiling oil down on my enemies.
After that, I studied history up to A-level, but I wasn’t that great at it – I have an absolutely useless memory for names and dates, so exams were a struggle. I also felt as though a lot of what we were taught was about big sweeps of political history, which do interest me – but what I’ve always cared more about are individual stories – what happens when people get caught up in events.
How did the initial idea for The Witchfinder’s Sister come about?
Completely by chance. In my early twenties, I saved up to do a Creative Writing MA. I loved the course, but I was getting towards the end of it and my writing hadn’t quite found its stride, and I needed to start about thinking about what I would do next for work. For a long time I’d been interested in midwifery, and I was lucky enough to be able to get some work experience with a friend of my mum’s. Quite separately, I’d started reading a bit about the English Civil War. Then I came across a book about seventeenth-century midwifery, and I thought, hey, my two interests in one book! So I took it out of the library, and my first encounter with Matthew Hopkins was as a footnote in that book. Pretty instantly I Googled ‘Matthew Hopkins novel’, to check it hadn’t been done to death. And then I was sort of like, right, that’s me, then.
As you say, the book deals with the witch hunts led by Matthew Hopkins in the 1640s (a period and subject close to my own heart!) – what attracted you to that particular period?
My great uncle was a historian of the period – he’s still on a lot of reading lists for university modules on the English Civil War. He was a lovely guy. I only met him a few times. He came over from the US to visit with a pretty bad cancer prognosis – but then he lived on for a good few years, and kept coming back. When I was maybe seventeen, he gave me one of his books – and because I was seventeen and an idiot, I stashed it on a shelf and thought no more about it. It wasn’t until I moved home for my MA course that I found his book in my bedroom, read it, and fell in love with that slice of history.
Historical research: a pleasure or a chore?
Oh, a pleasure, hugely! I like it so much that the risk is not always knowing when to stop researching, and start writing. I’m particularly fond of microfilms. There are challenges with research, though – I feel as though you can spend a long time trying to establish what feels like it should be a pretty basic fact, if it doesn’t happen to be in the books you’ve come across. Often I wish certain books existed, which don’t. For instance, I would energetically crowdfund someone to write a book with the title, ‘Inheritance law through the ages: a guide for novelists’.
Did your research turn up anything unexpected?
Among the very first details I discovered about the Hopkins trials were, in some ways, the most unexpected – and they were really what hooked me into writing the novel. From that footnote in the book on seventeenth century midwifery, I learned that it was midwives who were put in charge of searching accused women for witch marks – which involved sticking needles into them in various places, to see whether they felt any pain. Later on, I read that there were mothers who accused their daughters during the trials, and daughters who testified against their mothers. Not only that, but there were instances of women approaching the witchfinders of their own accord, and asking to be tried. All these things left me asking the same question: how could that happen? The novel grew out of that question.
Antonia Senior, Chair of judges said, ‘Our shortlisted writers, although very different in subject and style, all share a talent for making the past holler to the present.’ Were you conscious of any modern day parallels when writing the book?
I’m not sure – I didn’t set out to draw a specific modern parallel, so much as to try to say something true about humans – and I don’t think humans, with our needs and our fears, have changed much since the seventeenth century. However, the more I wrote into the story, the more I could see parallels between the social and political moment of the Hopkins trials and today. For instance, the 1640s in England were a time of huge political upheaval and rising food prices. The Catholic church in England, which until the Reformation had functioned to feed, clothe and house some of the poorest in society, had been abolished without an effective replacement.
A lot of the women persecuted during the Hopkins trials were very poor – and often the accusations against them were made after they had been refused charity by a better-off person. So a poor woman knocks at a house to ask for some milk, and is refused, and goes away muttering – and a week later a baby in that household happens to die. That was the template for a lot of the accusations of witchcraft. I think a strong driver of such accusations was a huge anxiety on the part of better-off people about the perceived threat presented by their poorer neighbours. I feel as though that dynamic is relevant in austerity Britain – the book tries to look at what it’s like to be in a society where suddenly there’s not enough to go around.
What was your path to publication?
I was very lucky – I was able to move back in with my parents (which they were definitely overjoyed about) to do a Creative Writing MA part time at the University of Manchester, where I now teach. Each year at the end of the MA, the students produce an anthology, which is then sent round to agencies. My agent, Nelle Andrew at PFD, saw my extract and liked it, and signed me soon afterwards, when the book was only partially complete. Illness and full time work then delayed me a little bit in finishing the book, but eventually I was done, and my editor, Katy Loftus at Viking, had already expressed interest in it. She read the manuscript and made some suggestions, and I met her in person, and I had a strong gut feeling that she was the editor for me. The book was sold to Viking about two and a half years after I graduated from the MA – so things took a little while, but I feel I’ve been incredibly lucky at every stage.
What advice would you give someone starting work on a first novel?
I would say: get ready to be on your own for a long time. It’s a slog to even get to a good point for other people to start reading your stuff. When you do reach that point I would say: learn how to listen. I think the capacity to hear and implement feedback is a much bigger deciding factor than talent in whether a writer can make it as a working novelist. Lastly, I would (conversely) say: learn when not to listen. I think that, as a writer, you need to be able to maintain a fairly unshakeable core within yourself in which you understand what you’re trying to do with your book. Lots of the feedback you get will be spot on, but some really won’t be, and you need to use the unshakeable core (rather than pride) to deduce which is which.
Do you have any favourite historical novelists?
I’m an embarrassingly huge Hilary Mantel fan. I always loved her writing, but I think in the Wolf Hall books she’s managed to show us a world that is recognisably other and has done it without a hint of ‘ye olde’-ness. I’ve read Wolf Hall itself upwards of fifteen times, and I learn something new from it every time. Recently I got to meet Hilary, and of course when I shook her hand I’d planned to say something clever, but succeeded only in making a few weird noises and nodding vigorously.
What do you think the historical novelist can add to the study of the past?
Hilary Mantel actually discusses this really beautifully – I can’t remember whether it was in the Reith lectures, or in her Ridge lecture at the Huntington Library in California this year. But what she talks about is the novelist’s ability to write into the gaps where the facts run out. There’s a point at which a historian must stop: present the evidence, and say, beyond this point, we don’t know. But the novelist has to take that punt – has to make a choice, and bring the story to life. I think historical novels bring the past nearer for the reader. But not only that – a responsible historical novelist, working with the facts as far as they are known, leads their reader to ask questions. Who is telling me this? Why am I being told? I think historical novels, written with care, help foster a broad, empathic and rigorously questioning readership for all kinds of history.
I’ve got some things to say about love, which, funnily enough, didn’t get much of a look-in while writing The Witchfinder’s Sister. So my second book is veering somewhat into love territory. Having said that, it’s also a creepy mystery that plays with detective fiction tropes – so make of that what you will! This one is set at a later historical period, so I’ve had to get used to a whole new way of speaking, and there have been actual photographs and newspapers etc to look at, which has been amazing. I won’t say too much more yet – this one needs to live in the dark for a while longer. But watch this space.
And finally, just for fun, can you describe your book in five words?
Oh, that’s hard! ‘Unsettling tale about belief & complicity?’ (Ampersands don’t count, right?)
Beth Underdown lectures in Creative Writing at the University of Manchester. She came across a brief mention of the 1640s ‘Witchfinder General’ Matthew Hopkins while reading a book about midwifery, igniting an interest which turned into an all-consuming hunt for the truth about this infamous killer.
Author Photo © Justine Stoddart