No 358 The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson #ripxvii

In Pendle, Lancashire in 1612, a woman called Alizon Device asked a pedlar called John Law for pins, but he refused her. Shortly after, he felt ill, stumbled, and fell (possibly after suffering a stroke) and Alizon was accused of witchcraft. This unlikely happening was the source from which flowed the Pendle witch trials, which claimed the lives of eleven people.

Winterson opens her novella with this incident and fictionalises the aftermath, immediately plunging the reader into the feverishly paranoid world of the England in the early 17th century. It is only seven years since the infamous Gunpowder Plot, in which the anti-papist King James 1 was the target. The King is obsessed with heresy and just as obsessed with witches. In his book ‘Daemonologie’, he wrote of being personally targeted by witches leading to an atmosphere where unusual women, scientists and Catholics are not safe. Loyal lawyers like Thomas Potts – who drew up a report on the Pendle Hill trials – knew that finding a connection between magic and Catholicism or ‘witchery popery popery witchery’ as Winterson has him refrain, would be popular with his King.

Therefore, when a group of aggrieved and poverty-ridden relatives meet in a tower on Good Friday to plan how to break their matriarch Old Demdike out of Lancaster prison, Potts finds exactly the kind of case he has been looking for. A wealthy Catholic woman called Alice Nutter is also implicated, as the tower is her property. She is a different proposition from the other people present. Having made a fortune from the creation of a magenta dye, she is fiercely independent and wary of authority figures. She is also mysterious, with a strange youthfulness, despite her age, an erotic appeal and has lovers of both sexes. Her relationships with the mysterious Elizabeth Southern, long thought a witch, and with Christopher Southern, a Catholic who was involved in the Gunpowder plot, put her in the path of danger.

Alice Nutter statue in Lancashire

Even though the narrative is pre-ordained, that does not stop Winterson from creating an atmosphere of propulsion and suspense. Her plotting is tight and her sentences short and the novellas is suffused with the sense of a noose tightening. The writing is at times blunt and to the point. “Tom Peeper raped Sarah Device. He was quick. He was in practice.” Winterson has no need to embellish the horror of those facts.

Neither does she obfuscate the existence of magic. In The Daylight Gate, a severed head talks, teeth rain from the sky and man transforms into a hare. The paranormal exists in a physical, corporeal way along with the deprivation and poverty of the physical world, which Winterson depicts in a horribly convincing fashion. Her depictions of the squalor, violence and depravity of the time are visceral and she highlights the poverty, the sickness and ultimately the desperation of a certain class of people, particularly women with her vivid prose.

The Daylight Gate of her title, referred to throughout, is the membrane between the real world and the world of the devil, and it appears at dusk, that liminal time between light and dark. What Winterson convincingly portrays is a world in which the hell that is on the other side of the daylight gate may not seem as bad as the hellishness of actual lived reality, where women are subjugated, food is scarce and children are raped. As Alice Nutter says of the women accused,

“If they think they are witches does that make them so?” she asks. “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.”

By the time Winterson’s short but compelling novella comes to a painful and bloody end, the reader will undoubtedly find themselves sympathetic with the outcasts – the wronged women and the violated children – and have a greater understanding of how some of those accused may well have seen witchcraft, even if it was imagined, as an escape from the life they were given.

Read on: Book
Number Read: 388
Number Remaining: 358

The 746

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

21 Comments Leave a comment

  1. This sounds really powerful and one I’d definitely like to pick up at some point; I recently read The Familiars, another fictionalised account around the Pendle trials, this exploring the life of one accused Alice Grey, who was the only one acquitted.


  2. I have a few Winterson novellas to read so may take a while to get to this, but I’ve heard good things about this, yours being the latest positive review. Very helpful, thank you.


  3. What a great choice to read for RIP. I’ve just been watching Lucy Worsley Investigates on PBS. Episode Four is about an early witch trial in Scotland.
    This would be a terrific post to link up with British Isles Friday on my blog today, if you’re interested.


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