England, 1612. On the throne sits King James I, feverishly Protestant and still shaking after the thwarted Catholic-led Gunpowder Plot of November 1605. The king remembers the 5th of November, and now he and his men obsessively hunt witches and papists alike, hoping to flush out and burn every last one in England.
Far to the northwest sits Pendle Hill in Lancashire County, a place with the nasty reputation of harboring both sorts of heretics in dangerous numbers. The king has sent his man Thomas Potts to unearth them all. “Witchery popery popery witchery,” Potts chants.
Nearly a dozen hangings and burnings will take place in August: the infamous Pendle Witch Trials.
Jeanette Winterson roots her latest gem in this very real history, then adds her own brand of magic, entangling history and fiction.
The alluring main character, Alice Nutter (who in her Introduction Winterson says, “...is not the Alice Nutter of history”), lives dangerously for her time and proves vexing for Thomas Potts as well as Lancashire’s lawmen.
The beautiful widow seems … witchy. She rides her mare astride, possesses a self-made fortune and takes lovers both male and female. She gives sanctuary to a poverty-stricken family called the Demdikes in her estate’s ancient tower. The rest of Lancashire calls them witches, but Alice says, “the Demdike are to be pitied, not punished.” Also, a rumor flies that a Gunpowder Plot-involved Catholic priest, Christopher Southworth, has taken refuge in the Nutter home.
A much younger Alice engaged in alchemy and a heated love affair with a beautiful woman named Elizabeth Southern. In this time, Alice created a magenta dye so striking that upon seeing it, Queen Elizabeth herself commissioned vat upon vat. The color “had a curious dark depth to it—like looking into a mirror made of mercury” and “had the curious effect of seeming as though it were made of water that was on fire.” The dye brings Alice her considerable wealth.
The lawmen, however, suspect witchcraft. How else could a woman create something so extraordinary? What woman makes her own fortune, if not through wickedness? And why does Alice look so impossibly young despite her considerable age? Everything about the woman condemns her.
Danger encircles Alice, inching ever closer. Momentum and suspense build to a tipping point, with a denouement that detonates as thunderously as Parliament nearly did in 1605. The novel’s ending requires breath-catching and demands a moment to register, to meld with all that has come before it.
Jeanette Winterson here takes on persecution, ostracism and, ultimately, the effects of close-minded fear of the unfamiliar. Daylight Gate offers a full commentary on the human capacity for cruelty and intolerance … especially toward women. The novel also explores the power of a frightened mob, and it brings to mind modern struggles against steadfast patriarchy and the enduring issue of religion mingled with government.
Winterson won the Whitbread First Novel Award in 1985 for Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. For a subsequent book, The Passion, she won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, and she’s also won the E. M. Forster Award, among many others. Author of 21 volumes (novels, novellas, short stories, essays, children’s books, memoir), Winterson has defied genre her entire career. She moves each novel beyond simple storytelling toward experimental, poetic, language-driven pieces of art.
Take her atmospheric descriptions of the physical surroundings in Daylight Gate. They dazzle and chill in turns. She sets an eerie stage at Pendle Hill early on: “The Forest of Pendle used to be a hunting ground, but some say that the hill is the hunter—alive in its black-and-green coat cropped like an animal pelt.” In other words, Pendle Hill lives and breathes, becoming a sinister character that threatens its human inhabitants: “This is a haunted place. The living and the dead come together on the hill. You cannot walk here and feel you are alone.”
The line between myth and fact blurs throughout this novel, especially with respect to witchcraft. Alice denounces the practice as superstition and defends the Demdike against their persecutors, saying, “Such women are poor. They are ignorant. They have no power in your world, so they must get what power they can in theirs. I have sympathy for them.” But the reader gradually sees another side of these characters—the side that exhumes graves for a witches’ brew made of a decomposing head, loose teeth, a severed tongue and a child’s doll. These “ignorant” women also send a magistrate to his sick bed with a pin-stuck clay effigy.
Winterson presents such scenes in a pragmatic tone that ultimately calls into question the reliability of the narrator, the characters … even the reader.
Doses of mystery and weirdness amplify the story’s dreamlike aura. William Shakespeare plays a surprising cameo; he and Alice watch a production of The Tempest, and he advises, “‘There are many kinds of reality. This is but one kind.’ He stretched out his hands to indicate the walls, carpets, tapestries and stuffs around him. ‘But, Mistress, do not be seen to stray too far from the real that is clear to others, or you may stand accused of the real that is clear to you.’” This version of Shakespeare lives not simply as poet and playwright, but also as a sort of sage, an oracle.
It would be easy to call The Daylight Gate magical realism at its spookiest, but Winterson has said, “I hate labels,” and, “The stories I like [...] have always had a large dollop of the unlikely and the miraculous. Before I knew about books, I knew all the Bible and all the fairy stories. To me, a world without miracles is not the real world” (All the author’s quotes in this review come from her website.)
Because of Winterson’s distinctive approach, each witchy, surreal moment strikes as true a note as lines quoted directly from the real Thomas Potts’ contemporary record (The Wonderful Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster). Potts’ account hardly exhibits unbiased factuality itself, so interweaving his words with Winterson’s own demonstrates the hazy line between historical fact and fiction.
A reader squirms through torture scenes and winces at descriptions of vile incarceration: “the fat-drenched flare that drips its pig grease onto the filthy straw and lights up…what does it light up? Misery, emaciation, rot, suffering, rats.” One of the imprisoned women “thinks about Hell, and is it like this? She thinks that the punishments of the Fiend are made out of human imaginings. Only humans can know what it means to strip a human being of being human.”
This human brutality, born of fear and hatred and greed, proves more terrifying than any supernatural forces. The beauty of it? Strength and determination of love can overcome cruelty. After all, to Alice, “Love is stronger than death.”
This petite volume (224 small pages with generous margins) wrestles with life and death, myth and fact, tolerance and persecution, love and hate, time and space—all this is typical of Winterson’s work. So that every page burns bright, she economizes on language, strips to bare bones each moment and idea.
The ideas never read like dry philosophy. In all Winterson’s works, arresting, unexpected language sculpts the electrifying stories that reach deep into the heart of human experience. She has said, “It seems to me that TV and cinema have taken over the narrative function of the novel, in much the same way that the novel once took over the narrative function of poetry. That frees me up for story, for poetry and for language that does more than convey meaning.”
Published in the U.K. by an imprint of Hammer Films (the company has made horror movies since the 1950s), The Daylight Gate arrives just in time for the 400th anniversary of the witch trials. This history prompted Winterson to allow more room for plot than she normally does, given that history predetermined the book’s final outcome (with a bit of a chase along the way). This book demonstrates that Winterson can weave a dense and moving story no matter the constraints.
Call it bewitching.
Annie Frazier lives in central Florida, studied ancient Greek language and literature at New College of Florida and has a short story forthcoming in the 2014 edition of The North Carolina Literary Review.