Book Review

The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson

the daylight gate

Good Friday 1612. Pendle Hill.

A mysterious gathering of thirteen people is interrupted by a local magistrate. Is it a witches’ Sabbat?

In Lancaster Castle two notorious witches await trial and certain death, while the beautiful and wealthy Alice Nutter rides to their defence.

Elsewhere a starved child lurks. And a Jesuit priest and former Gunpowder plotter makes his way from France to a place he believes will offer him sanctuary.

But will it? And how safe can anyone be in Witch Country?

The Daylight Gate is a reimagining of the events surrounding that trial of the Lancashire Witches in 1612 – England’s most infamous witch trials.  My copy includes an introduction by Jeanette Winterson, detailing her use of historical record – documentation and accounts from the time – in forming the narrative as well as where she found it necessary to speculate and invent.  It’s a slim volume, but one that packs one hell of a punch.  I was immediately gripped by the narrative, and I read it in the course of a single day, despite having trivialities such as work to deal with.

Winterson tells the tale in a simple and straightforward manner, letting the events speak for themselves.  And what events they are.  It’s clear from the beginning that The Daylight Gate is going to be a dark tale, and while it doesn’t dwell on any horrific detail – it never strays into sensationalism – nor does it seek to hide those details from the reader.   You’re left in no doubt as to what happens, even when it happens “off page”.  While fictional, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to find out that the atrocities committed within these pages had more than a grain of truth to them.  After all, those accused were predominantly women, and their accusers and those detaining them ahead of their trials were almost solely men.

Set at a time when women were expected to be satisfied with hearth and home, Winterson highlights the suspicion that could fall on those that were different in some way, even just for being independent.  The Alice Nutter of this story is a fictional one, but as a relatively wealthy, independent woman, she catches the attention of the wrong people.  I liked Alice a great deal, particularly as she seeks to protect those who have little chance of defending themselves, even though her actions leave her branded a sympathiser and possible co-conspirator, drawing even more attention to herself.

witchery popery popery witchery

1612 was a time when the Protestant Church was in its relative infancy, and I found it fascinating that Catholicism was deemed as bad as witchcraft by the authorities.  This is a novel that is rich in historical detail, with James I of England (aka James VI of Scotland) still dealing with those involved in the Gunpowder Plot, many of whom fled to Lancashire, as well as those accused of witchcraft and ensuring that Catholicism is being driven out.  Shakespeare makes an appearance, alongside other famous names from the time.

The Daylight Gate is, ultimately, a piece of fiction, and this allows Winterson to explore some ideas of witchcraft.  From Alice’s unnaturally youthful good looks to familiars and ideas of “the dark gentleman”, this is an entertaining novel, despite some of the darker elements.  It is a bleak novel – and regular readers will know that I mean this as a compliment – and one that I thoroughly enjoyed.

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