Character Development: ***
Age range recommendation: 16 +
I picked up The Daylight Gate to give Jeanette Winterson a second chance to impress me. When I saw that she had just published a new novel based on the Lancashire Witch Trials of 1612 I thought it sounded more interesting than Written On The Body (1993), which I found to be an unbearably contrived love story – not at all my cup of tea. The Daylight Gate was decidedly more interesting and infinitely more memorable despite the fact that it is a short novel, only slightly longer than 200 pages. Since I’ve always been interested in the history of witch hunts and superstition I was excited to learn that nearly every major character in the book is based on real figures from this rather horrifying chapter in British history. William Shakespeare even makes a brief appearance as a voice of reason when some characters go to see a production of The Tempest. Winterson states, in her introduction, “The story I have told follows the historical account of the witch trials and the religious background – but with necessary speculations and inventions… . The characters are real people, though I have taken liberties with their motives and their means.” She gives us a dark and unflinching look into the miserable lives of poor women in England’s early 17th century, describing the fear; violence; filth; and religious uncertainty which governed the daily existences of those ordinary people who suffered most keenly from King James I’s obsession with eradicating witchcraft.
It’s always difficult to read a piece of historical fiction without constantly wondering which details are faithful to the events and which have been invented for the sake of storytelling, but Winterson manages to create a gripping tale out of mostly historical fact by asking one fascinating question: what if the accused women really had been holding a witches’ Sabbat that diabolical night on Pendle Hill? By adding chilling supernatural elements to a series of events which were already rife with superstition, she challenges our perceptions of religion’s effect on the course of history. A woman’s loyalty is tested, and the conflict between a man’s faith in God’s law and his own moral standpoint threatens the lives of several remarkable characters from history. Alice Nutter has lost her certainty about the spiritual world, despite her own experiences with magic and alchemy in her past, and the townsfolk of Lancashire believe she has the Devil’s help in keeping herself youthful and prosperous. Roger Nowell wants to treat the rising accusations of witchcraft with a firm grasp on reality, but the presence of lawyer Thomas Potts in his jurisdiction – the real life author of The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancashire and a truly insufferable fellow – pressures him to use the gruesome force of royal decree upon the growing list of imprisoned witches.
There are no real heroes in The Daylight Gate; the imprisoned women have no qualms accusing each other in turn and one woman actually turns a blind eye to the sexual exploitation of her young daughter. Even the levelheaded Alice Nutter puts the safety of her loved ones above the law.
Winterson reveals the uncomfortable truth that the only way to survive in this time period was to look out for yourself before thinking of others. We get a sense of this horrifying time in history through the repulsive acts which are performed to summon the Devil’s assistance, but also through the desperation which shines through even mundane encounters. The dangerous period is invoked with as much careful precision as the ghastly setting, and the attention to physical detail which annoyed me in Written On The Body was more appropriate in The Daylight Gate, though it did get stomach turning as the depravity continued. As despicable as the characters seem, we grow to understand the motives behind their actions, which makes their various grisly ends even harder to read about, despite the fact that their fates were sealed long before Winterson took up the challenge of shaping them into a story.
The prose sometimes seemed more focused on shocking the reader than on balancing the book’s suspense, and I must admit that I could have done without some of the gory or sexual details, but I do understand how these moments were important to Winterson’s examination of the witch trials. There are a few moments of violent revenge which satisfied my need for justice, but The Daylight Gate is a generally hopeless story, so don’t pick it up looking for a historical adventure which will lead to a gratifying conclusion in which bravery triumphs over ignorance. A few characters are brave and loyal, but those traits had no chance against the fear which ran rampant in 1612. I happened to like the ending, though some readers may find it disappointing, but be forewarned that – despite the presence of magic in Alice Nutter’s unusually long life – this novel is not the sort of fantasy in which magic can undo reality. Reality was unpleasant in the 17th century. The aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot inspired men and women to distrust their own families, death and misfortune claimed children without justification, and faith was tested and shaken at every turn of fortune’s wheel. The Daylight Gate shows how the hysteria of one town can provide a window into the horrors of a time period which is too often glamorized in contemporary fiction.
By the time I finished The Daylight Gate – and it is a short read – my impression of Jeanette Winterson’s writing abilities had been improved. I still think that she should waste fewer words on grisly details and give her characters more room to develop, but the setting in this novel was well-wrought and her handling of recorded facts was impressive. The balance between historical trivia and invented plot was good, for the most part, and I would highly recommend The Daylight Gate to anyone who is interested in the 17th century witch trials and doesn’t mind having their comfortable illusions about Jacobean England trampled a little. If you tend to dislike historical fiction but enjoy very dark “low fantasy,” with occult and horror elements, this might also be a good choice. Despite the book’s brevity there are some good moments of creepy magic. But, if you have a weak stomach and no fondness for devilry, I’d avoid this particular novel. It’s not a comfortable or pleasant read, but it’s well-written and interesting, and I appreciate its effectiveness at revealing the grim realities of England’s past alongside an imaginative story.
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