Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Daylight Gate - Jeanette Winterson

After reading 'Weight' I spent a bit of time looking up Jeanette Winterson's books to see what else might particularly appeal to me, 'The Daylight Gate' seemed very much like it would, so it was serendipitous to find it in the first second hand bookshop I found myself in.

The daylight gate of the title refers to dusk/twilight, and the story uses the Pendle witches as it's base. My copy is just over 200 pages long, but it has quite large type and margins, and only took a couple of hours to read so basically it's a novella - which I'm seeing as a bonus, because there's something particularly satisfying about a book you can devour as quickly as this. In this case it makes it feel like a gothic tale that might be told on a dark evening as much as it is a book to be read.

My paperback is a Hammer horror one, which promises a film (announced in 2013) which doesn't seem to have happened . I'm not sure if this is a shame or not, but there are moments in the book that feel like they could be an homage to some of those 70's films - though that might be the suggestive
power of the branding.

It's 1612 and James (the 1st of England, 6th of Scotland) is on the throne quality preoccupied with stamping out witchcraft and popery, both of which he saw as a clear and present threat. Lancashire seems to have remained a catholic stronghold and that makes it a dangerous place to be.

Initially the action opens with a description of two possible witches cursing a peddler. He dies with their name in his lips. Then we meet Alice Nutter, wealthy, independent, and not quite conventional in her habits and for just a moment it feels like these women are untouchable. But they're not, the next chapter has Sarah Device (relative of the first two witches) being raped by the local constable and his companion as they accuse her of witchcraft.

It's a brutal scene described with a matter of fact economy that heightens its impact, and underscores how powerless women are in this world. When Alice intervenes she seals her own fate, finally making more enemies than her wealth and position can be proof against.

Alice has been a colleague of John Dee (Queen Elizabeth's astronomer and alchemist) and has more than a bit of mystery about her despite her avowed disbelief in magic. When she's pulled, unwillingly, into a black mass and asked to lead an attempt to free some of the imprisoned women any chance of a peaceful old age for her is done for.

What we know for sure is that these people were imprisoned, tortured, and killed. The real Alice  Nutter was a gentle woman, and protested her innocence until she was hung, her main accuser was a 9 year old girl.

Winterson plays with our scepticism which seems to be shared by Alice, and the absolute belief in witchcraft and the supernatural of the seventeenth century, until it's far from clear what's real and what's not. Does Alice have witchcraft, or science, at her service, and in the end does it matter?

Once accused there's no chance of escape anyway, at which point it might be as well to fantasise about the relative power of the supernatural, and blame the devil for being false in the end, as to contemplate the fact that the word of a child, or indeed anyone with a score to settle would be enough to get you hung.


  1. Haven't read this one, sounds great, and one to add to my RIP challenge list of possibles (I think I have a copy!)

  2. I really enjoyed it. Not so much an unreliable narrator as unreliable reality, and Winterson having fun with all sorts of gothic horror tropes. However lurid she gets though she maintains the sense of menace and danger simply by reminding us how very little power some groups have - women, and the poor especially.