The Daylight Gate - review

Jane Shiling reviews The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson.

People fainting and causing disorder in a courtroom
People fainting and causing disorder in a courtroom during the trial of suspected witch in 1692. Image: Getty Images

The Daylight Gate
Jeanette Winterson
Hammer, 208pp £9.99

The most notorious witch trials in English history took place 400 years ago in the summer of 1612. Twelve men and women from Pendle Hill in Lancashire were accused and imprisoned in Lancaster Castle, where one died. Of the remaining 11, one was acquitted and the rest were convicted, several of them on the evidence of a nine-year-old girl, Jennet Device. They were sentenced to death and hanged.

The trial was meticulously recorded by the clerk to the court Thomas Potts in his official account, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster. Potts appears in Jeanette Winterson’s novel as “a proud little cockerel of a man; all feathers and no fight”. Among the accused – six of whom came from a pair of feuding clans, the Chattoxes and the Demdikes – was an enigmatic figure. Alice Nutter was a wealthy, Catholic widow, two of whose brothers, Jesuit priests, had been executed for their faith. “Why that gentlewoman was tried for witchcraft along with the Demdike and Chattox riff-raff remains a mystery,” Winterson writes in her introduction.

A mystery is a useful ingredient for a novelist and Alice becomes Winterson’s heroine: a swashbuckling horsewoman in a magenta riding habit who entranced Queen Elizabeth I with her lustrous purple dye, studied the art of magick with the queen’s astrologer John Dee and knew William Shakespeare.

Winterson begins her novel where the real story of the Pendle witches began: with a packet of pins. A pedlar named John Law is travelling through Pendle Forest at dusk, “the liminal hour – the Daylight Gate”, when he meets Alizon Device, who begs him for some pins. He refuses and apparently suffers a stroke, which he takes to be a spell cast on him by Alizon. She is taken before the magistrate Roger Nowell, in Winterson’s account a fairly decent man whose distaste for persecuting witches – still less Catholics, some of whom are his friends – is a cause of dismay to Potts, who has travelled up from London to stiffen Nowell’s resolve. 

While Alizon languishes in prison, the rest of her clan assembles on Good Friday at Malkin Tower, an isolated building on Alice Nutter’s land, where she discovers them plotting to release Alizon by means of enchantment, to which purpose they hope Alice will turn her occult scientific knowledge. When that meeting is interrupted by Nowell and his constables, the fate of the conspirators is not in doubt. The only remaining mystery is their route to the scaffold.

This dark story with its fantastical trappings of magick and mysticism, its strong women and wild, Lancastrian setting is Winterson’s natural habitat and she maps it with relish, weaving Shakespearean themes of ambiguous love affairs conducted by shape-shifting, androgynous lovers around the dire squalor, superstition and sheer desperation revealed by the bleak facts of the trial.

Her heroine, Alice, has Shakespearean qualities, too. She is witty, strong-minded, sexy, clever and resolute – though these are qualities that condemn her in the end.

So far, so interesting. But there is a “but” coming. And here it is: vigorous as it is, and filled with Winterson’s characteristic intel­ligence and energy, something about the writing feels slightly out of true. There is a certain two-dimensional or second-hand quality to Alice’s encounters with the real figures of Nowell and Shakespeare, of whom Winterson writes: “He was like an owl, bright-eyed, his head perched on his ruff. His eyes looked deeper than his gaze and Alice felt that he knew everything and that there was nothing she need say.”

This quality becomes alarmingly more pronounced in the scenes involving the Chattox and Demdike rude mechanicals. There is an unpleasantly schematic rape scene early on and later a strenuously revolting chapter in which Elizabeth Device prepares a spell with a recently disinterred skull and an assortment of other body parts: “Mouldheels! Sew the tongue into this head. The teeth are going into the pot!”

It is noticeable here and in the depiction of the wretched, abused child Jennet that Winterson is obliged to fall back on description – “Jennet . . . was a sad sight, dirty and torn and bruised, her blonde hair in knots, her skin calloused from crawling and hiding” – which is often the sign of a writer straining for effect.

It’s not all as laboured as this. There are high spirits and some real tenderness, often where least expected – as in the relationship that the dim-witted James Device strikes up in prison with a talking spider, whose calm, good sense makes her sound like a 17th-century English cousin of the practical arachnid heroine of E B White’s Charlotte’s Web. This is an early title in the new Hammer imprint. If it bears signs of having been written to commission, it is still lively and enjoyable: as entertainment, it is entirely satisfactory.

Jane Shilling is the author of "The Stranger in the Mirror" (Chatto & Windus, £8.99)