This is the second novel to be published by the new Hammer imprint. I read and enjoyed the first, Helen Dunmore’s creepy ghost story, very much. I was very impatient to read this one, combining one of my favourite authors and historical topics as it does. Jeanette Winterson reimagining the Pendle Witch Trials of four centuries ago is a big ‘yes please’ for me.
We know about the strange occurrences in Pendle during 1612 due to Thomas Potts, a lawyer who observed and reported on the trial. The Daylight Gate incorporates the main ‘facts’ of the case whilst casting a spell uniquely its own. It is a very imaginative piece of storytelling, bold and confident. It is also horrifying, with no softening of the violence and brutality of seventeenth-century justice. The prison conditions were disgusting, often providing a slow and lingering death worse than execution. Mob justice could be savage, with the official authorities either reluctant or unable to control it. In Winterson’s story sexual violence too is both a constant threat and reality. The women are always vulnerable; the lower the status the more likely the female characters are to be abused. It doesn’t make for comfortable reading.
Events begin with pedlar John Law’s encounter with Alizon Device. Her request for some pins and his refusal sets off a chain of accusations and refutations that implicated many local residents. Lancashire was part of the wild untamed North, thought rife with witchcraft, heresy and sedition. Perhaps Pendle itself was cursed, its reputation as witch country perhaps internalised by its inhabitants. Some of the accused, such as Old Demdike identified themselves as witches. Here they plot and cast spells in an attempt to evade the officers of the law. Of all the characters the most interesting is Alice Nutter. Winterson gives her a fascinating past incorporating Queen Elizabeth I, John Dee and Shakespeare. Her long and eventful life gives a larger structure to the story, giving it a coherence that could never be found in the historical sources.
The style is blunt and forceful, complemented by short sharp chapters. It moves at a pace, as the chapter headings lead you through. It shifts back and forth in time as Alice’s history is exposed. The supernatural world permeates the natural throughout causing harm but also giving a sense of power to its adherents. The Daylight Gate is a grisly tale that, although it often had the ‘historian me’ shaking my head, I devoured in one sitting. It is well done, and whilst not Jeanette Winterson’s most beautiful book, is welcome on my bookshelves.