“This is Lancashire. This is Pendle. This is witch country”
The Daylight Gate is published by Hammer, who I believe commission novels from a variety of writers. That really should be enough to alert the reader to what comes next. I read The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore also published by Hammer – although that is just a bit of an atmospheric, ghostly tale, nothing too disturbing about it. There is a little more of the horror/occult about this short novel – and Winterson is uncompromising in her depiction of the period and their dark goings on.
This novel is based around the story of Alice Nutter and the Pendle witch trials of 1612. Jeanette Winterson makes it very clear in her introduction that her story of Alice is not the Alice Nutter of history – nor is her story supposed to be an accurate retelling of the historical events. Anyone expecting anything else will possibly be disappointed.
“The North is the dark place.
It is not safe to be buried on the north side of the church and the North Door is the way of the dead. The North of England is untamed. It can be subdued but it cannot be tamed. Lancashire is the wild part of the untamed.
The Forest at 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 Lancaster gate two notorious witches await their trail and almost certain death, in conditions of miserable filth and near starvation. Meanwhile the wealthy, beautiful and seemingly ageless Alice Nutter rides to their defence. Alice’s defence of these women raise suspicions in many local people, and in the men who could destroy her – Magistrate, Roger Newell and Thomas Potts; Recording clerk for the Prosecution and the Crown. The crown in question of course that of James I – obsessed with ridding his kingdom of popery and witchery – and the gunpowder plot of recent memory. This is an England drenched in fear, suspicion and plot, the old religion existed within living memory – but to practise it now is dangerous.
“And if thou callest him, like unto an angel of the north wearing a dark costume, he will hear thee and come to thee. Yet meet him where he may be met – at the Daylight Gate.”
A mysterious gathering of thirteen people is later interrupted by a Newell and Potts who immediately assume that they have walked into a witches’ Sabbat. A child of one of these women, half-starved and brutalised watches everything keenly. A child sold by her mother to Tom Peeper, a cruel brutal man who preys on the vulnerable women and girls of the community with impunity. This group of rough, destitute people scratch out some kind of existence at Malkin Tower on Pendle Hill situated on land owned by Alice. Where does her wealth come from? Just one of the questions whispered about Mistress Nutter. The dark arts are practised by many local women, who take pride in their abilities, spells are cast, voices heard where there should be none, poppets stuck with pins to induce illness.
One of the Gunpowder Plotters – a Jesuit priest and old friend of Alice Nutter’s Christopher Southworth is on the run, having fled to France; there are rumours of his presence in England. As Christopher makes his way from France back to Lancashire and a place where he believes he will be safe long enough for him to secure his sister’s freedom from prison.
With tensions in the area heightening, Alice is compelled to remember the instructions and teaching of her old friend Dr John Dee. Recalling her heady relationship with Elizabeth Southern; who claimed to have sold her soul to the Dark Gentleman. At Hoghton Tower Alice meets William Shakespeare for a performance of The Tempest – and asks him if he believed in “magick.”
“Shakespeare shook his head and sunk his chin into his ruff, making him look more owl-like than ever. “I have written about other worlds often enough. I have said what I can say. There are many kinds of reality. This is but one kind.”
The Daylight Gate was chosen by my very small book group as our April read – we meet to discuss it on Wednesday. I admit I hadn’t noticed it was published by Hammer – and so wasn’t expecting things to take quite the turn that they do. One of my problems (emphasis on my) – is that I struggle to take my mind to things I don’t/can’t believe in – or find ludicrously improbable. Of course it is possible to find explanations for almost everything in this novel – superstition, hysteria, suggestion, fear even hallucination. My only problem with this book – again emphasis on my – is that I was forever trying to find these realistic explanations for things that perhaps aren’t meant to be explained away. I still think all of that has more to do with the way my mind works – than with any fault in Winterson’s writing – which is superb.
Still there is a lot to admire in this novel from Jeanette Winterson, although it is certainly very dark, brutally so at times, it is also extraordinarily well crafted and brilliantly imagined. Winterson’s writing is extremely good, poetically spare prose with a deceptive simplicity. In fact her prose packs quite a punch – so much so, at times the reader wants to look away. Winterson tells of period of history when life was terribly hard – communities ruled by fear, superstition and brutality. Women and children fared particularly badly – and Winterson portrays quite unflinchingly the vile spite and sexual violence that is their daily lot. Accusations of witchcraft are bandied about on a daily basis – each accusation meeting a counter accusation. The atmosphere of wretched fear, rising out of ignorance, superstition and fear is brilliantly done, and is partly what makes The Daylight Gate so compulsive.
So while I admired much in this novel, and was completely gripped by it – it does make for compelling reading – I still can’t quite decide if I enjoyed it.