Windmill Books have reissued Jeanette Winterson’s short novel, The Daylight Gate, first published in 2012. Depicting an abstract image of fronds ending in claw-like tips reaching upwards that appear to be closing around a naked female figure with long hair, the gorgeous new cover is illustrated by Julian Brogard and designed by Henry Petrides. Arguably, the cover is the best thing about the book.
The novel’s title refers to an ancient word for dusk, understood to be the liminal space or threshold between day and night. Winterson’s tale is a Gothic retelling of the notorious Pendle witch trials in 17th century Lancashire. Engaging many of the real-life historical figures who played a role at the time, from the court clerk Thomas Potts and the magistrate Roger Nowell to Christopher Southworth, a Jesuit priest from one of the oldest families in Lancashire, who was forced to flee from London to escape the revenge of King James I. William Shakespeare, too, makes a cameo appearance, when a couple of the characters go to see his latest play, The Tempest.
Alice Nutter was another historical figure, but the author is keen to stress that the character of the same name she writes about is fictional and not the same person. Why then, did Winterson not give her a different name? You may well ask.
The fictional Alice Nutter is a modern-day, feminist figure who has relationships with both men and women. She is a woman of independent means, whose wealth has been accrued through her invention of magenta fabric dyes which were favoured by Queen Elizabeth I. She has preternaturally youthful looks which make her an object of suspicion among the local men. We do eventually discover how she is able to maintain them. Her past includes an association with the alchemist, Dr. John Dee, and a relationship with a woman called Elizabeth Southern, who is a member of the infamous Demdike family. In Winterson’s novel the fictional Alice Nutter rekindles her relationship with Christopher Southworth, a situation which becomes significant in the course of the narrative. Her raison d’être in this tale appears to be a stance against the poverty of women.
Many of the characters have similar-sounding names which makes it difficult to keep track of who everyone is and how they are related, both in blood and / or situation. Alice Nutter, Alizon Device, Jem Device, Jennet Device, Old Demdike, Elizabeth Demdike (her daughter), John Dee, Tom Peeper, Thomas Potts, Elizabeth Southern, Christopher Southworth. Sadly, none of them are particularly well-developed or rounded. Perhaps that is the reason why it’s hard to keep abreast of who they all are. There is a distinct sense of the plot of this slim, 224 page, novel being too crowded to feel coherent and connected. It makes one wonder how much of a handle Winterson, herself, had on the story. It might have made a better novel had she narrowed down its focus and also reduced the historic backstory which anyone, whose interest in the witch trials has been sparked, could easily research separately. There are plenty of good sources to choose from. Here is an example of too much historical background with the potential to stall the plot instead of moving it forward:
“Elizabeth had left no heir. In 1603 the English crown had passed to James the Sixth of Scotland — now James the First of England too; a Protestant, a devout man, a man who wanted no dyes or fancy stuffs. A man who had two passions: to rid his new-crowned kingdom of popery and witchcraft. Perhaps you could not blame him. In 1589, bringing his bride home to Scotland from Denmark, a storm had nearly drowned him. It was witchcraft, he knew it. He had the witches tried and burned at Berwick, attending the sessions himself.”
Winterson writes in short sentences and brief chapters. She is at her best when describing the wilderness of Pendle Hill, which she knows well, or the stinking pit of Lancaster Gaol. On these occasions her language is visceral, atmospheric and choc-full of gory descriptions, giving the reader the full horror of the place. This is her depiction of the Well Dungeon in the bowels of Lancaster Castle where the women who are deemed to be witches are kept:
“The place stinks. Drainage is a channel cut into the earth under the straw. The urine flows away, their faeces pile into a corner. Old Demdike squats over the growing pile and generally loses her footing and slips into it. Her dress is smeared with excrement. She has weeping sores between her legs. When the gaoler comes for one of the women Demdike lifts her dress and leers at him, offering him her sores. He hits her. She has lost two teeth this way.”
Unfortunately such instances of fitting ghoulish writing are rare in this novel. The very things that should give The Daylight Gate its strength fundamentally undermine it. The author seems unable to decide whether she is writing a literary thriller about bigotry or a script for a Hammer horror movie. There is certainly enough material to turn the stomach of a sensitive reader. Rape, incest, plenty of blood, torture, hanging and the cutting off of body parts. Near the beginning of the novel we even have the biting out of a young lad’s tongue when he is accused of having issued a curse upon Tom Peeper, a particularly nasty individual with a ferocious sexual appetite. As was the wont at the time this kind of cruelty was considered entertainment. Sarah Device, one of three women watching, steps forward:
“”Let me kiss him first. I am a woman.”
Tom nodded and prodded the boy to kneel down in front of Sarah. He wouldn’t look at her. She leaned forward and kissed him. He tasted of fear. She closed her eyes. She felt his tongue in her mouth. She was dizzy. She hadn’t eaten for two days. She bit. The boy pulled back screaming low in his throat. He fainted.”
The dialogue is often clunky. There is some very contemporary-sounding language that jars upon the ear. When, for example, Christopher Southworth spends the night in a brothel which has been established in a London property owned by Alice Nutter, the young wench who comes into his bed asks: “You want sex or anything?”
It is unclear if such usage is Winterson’s attempt at being deliberately comic, or whether it’s simply misjudged.
Dialogue apart, much of The Daylight Gate reads more like a long history essay than a novel. The author fails to make the story her own.
Any Cop?: Disappointing.