Book review: The Daylight Gate, by Jeanette Winterson

I would have been drawn to this book regardless of the author or the subject matter, on the strength of the imprint alone. As a huge fan of Hammer Studios‘ productions (I have the epic box-set to prove it), I think it has been a masterstroke to revive the brand simultaneously in both cinema and literature. Even better, rather than trusting the job to hacks or pulp-scribblers, they have recruited serious and celebrated writers like Helen Dunmore, Julie Myerson, Sophie Hannah, Melvyn Burgess and, here, Jeanette Winterson, to bring a literary sensibility to these tales of horror and suspense. Horror is always contemporary, no matter how outlandish the scenario or distant the setting; what scares us is what defines us, or what we define ourselves against.

It’s also interesting that of the five titles published so far under the new Hammer imprint, four of them are by women. I do not want to make any generalisations here, but I wonder if the female sensibility responds more fully to the ambiguity that is at the heart of any successful portrayal of the supernatural? This is not to stereotype female writers as purveyors of mood and feeling only, but as perhaps less absolute in their judgements. In any case, Winterson’s bold, disturbing exploration of the notorious Pendle Witch Case of 1612 demolishes that stereotype with aplomb – this is a visceral, violent, and pitiless tale.

In the feverish atmosphere of the early 17th century, Lancashire was seen as a hotbed of recusant Catholicism, outlawry, and witchcraft, and not the least achievement of ‘The Daylight Gate’ is to demonstrate the nexus of paranoia that was created from these seemingly disparate elements. In the minds of many, including King James, the three were essentially the same thing: ‘Witchery popery popery witchery’, as the saying went. In 1612, a series of local disputes came to a violent head when a local pedlar, John Law, accused Alizon Device of casting a spell on him that left him paralysed. Of those caught up in the net of accusation were Alizon’s extended family, and a local businesswoman called Alice Nutter. After months of torture and interrogation, ten of the eleven accused were executed for practising witchcraft.

Winterson goes beyond these bare facts to explore the network of relationships that gathered these women together, and without judgement leaves it to the reader’s imagination whether some of them genuinely believed they had magical powers or whether it was in some way a natural response to their oppression and marginalisation. The images of talking spiders, muttering severed heads, and the ‘Dark Gentleman’ who appears in their dungeon could be explained away by their fear and hunger, but could also be the residuum of a pagan belief system not quite wiped out by the dominant religion. Through the character of Alice Nutter, Winterson also introduces the ideas of alchemy and renaissance ‘magick’ that were prevalent at the time. A former disciple of the Elizabethan magus Dr John Dee, Alice is supposed to have made her fortune from her alchemical studies, which resulted not in base metal being turned into gold, but a more prosaic system of fabric dye that gives her magenta dress its luminous shine. With her lover Elizabeth Southern, Alice had lived an intellectually and sexually fulfilling life in London, until Elizabeth was drawn to the darker side of these magical explorations. It is this relationship that eventually pulls Alice into the bog of hatred and paranoia in the town of Pendle, many years later.

Winterson relies rather too much on exposition to get much of this context across, but the spareness of her style here is very effective at conveying the numbing regularity of violence in a world of extreme poverty and superstition. The casualness of Sarah Device’s sexual assault when being questioned by local constables is horrific in the proper sense of the word, and when Alice’s lover Kit Southworth recounts his castration and torture for his role in the Gunpowder Plot, he also mentions being raped by his jailers. Threaded throughout the book is a seam of sexual violence and exploitation – of prisoners by their guards, of children by their parents, and of marginalised women by the men who lord over them. The true horror in the book is not the threat of witchcraft, not the severed heads and demonic apparitions, but the exercise of power by the powerful over the weak. In contrast to this are the examples of the generous and accepting sexual lives led by Kit, Alice, and Elizabeth, a meeting of ideas as well as bodies, in an environment where no ideas are judged or outlawed.

There are a few weak links in the novel; the style is sometimes too spare, the chapters occasionally perfunctory, and the cameo appearance by William Shakespeare perhaps slightly unnecessary. But then what Winterson is doing here is showing us the truth of the Bard’s adage, that the past is foreign country, and they do things differently there. As Winterson is aware though, this is only half of the truth. None may be hanged for witchcraft now, but the witch hunt has its analogues in public life, and the powerful will always do their best to make the lives of the weak a misery. Under what could have been a rather throwaway imprint, Winterson has written something provocative and political, and genuinely horrific.

Thanks to Philippa at Random House for the review copy

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