Book Review: The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson

It helps to know that this new novella by Jeanette Winterson is published under the Hammer imprint and that their new series of books is intended “to bring horror back to the forefront of the market”. This is what it says on the Hammer website, but the blurb sent to reviewers is rather more up-market and says that the series “features original novellas which span the literary and the mass market, the esoteric and the commercial, by some of today’s most celebrated authors”.

This explains why Winterson has written a book which fits perfectly into the gothic horror genre. It explains, too, the black, often sickening content of The Daylight Gate, and why part of the publisher’s blurb reads like the start of a romantic suspense story:  “A beautiful lady – fine clothes, long red hair and astride a white horse, is followed by a falcon. She is riding through Pendle Woods. It’s the Daylight Gate – that spot of time when daylight turns to night. And at the centre of the woods, watching and waiting, a group of feral, desperate women are gathering”.

Winterson’s novella is based on the Lancashire witch trials which took place in 1612. Twelve women and two men were charged with the murder of ten people by the use of witchcraft, and their trials were documented by the clerk-of-the-court, Thomas Potts, and published as The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the County of Lancashire.  Winterson fictionalizes the lives of the witches who were hanged and burned, and of the men (including Potts) who were responsible for bringing them to trial.

In short, abrupt sentences, and in short abrupt chapters, Winterson describes the women, their sordid lives, their treatment at the hands of the men who arrest, abuse and imprison them, and their belief in the powers of the Devil – the Dark Gentleman whose favours they seek through the filthy and disgusting practices of black magic.

Only Alice Nutter, a wealthy woman on whose land the witches live and on whose charity and protection they thrive, is not a witch. She is the red-haired woman with the tame hawk who rides through Pendle Woods in the publisher’s blurb. And even she, who learned her alchemical arts from Dr John Dee, practices magic and is very close to the dark side. Dee taught her skills which she used to create a highly desirable magenta dye. Thus she obtained her wealth. He also gave her an elixir which preserved her youth. And through him, she met her lover, Elizabeth Southern, who does sell her soul to the Devil and who becomes one of the accused witches.

Winterson says that the story of Alice Nutter and Elizabeth Southern is an invention of her own, not based on fact. But she makes ‘Elizabeth Southern’ the chosen pseudonym of ‘Old Demdike’ who, along with an Alice Nutter, was tried and condemned as one of the Lancashire witches. Apart from this, the facts of her story are historically correct and the place names are of places which did or do exist. Should you wish to visit the Well Dungeon in Lancaster Castle, for example, you can do so, but you will have to imagine the filth, the smells and the squalor which Winterson so graphically describes.

The only man in the book who is likeable, is Christopher Southworth, an escaped and hunted member of the Papist ‘Gunpowder Plot’ to blow up King James I and his parliament. Alice hides him in her home at Rough Lee and plans to escape with him to France. The lawyer, Potts, is brought unpleasantly to life as a fanatical witch hunter and accuser. William Shakespeare makes a cameo appearance to quote from Macbeth about “the instruments of darkness”, and John Dee is also briefly present, but all the other men in the book are, in varying degrees, nasty.

Is it a coincidence, I wonder, that the abused witch-child in the book is named Jennet?  After all, Jeanette Winterson’s imaginative writing is, itself, a form of magic. But there is little love in this book and this is not her usual inventive and fluent style. I just hope that she will now leave the gothic and use her magical arts to create light rather than darkness and horror.

Ann Skea
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/

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