Review: The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson

The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson Grove Press, 2013

This slim novella displays the brutality and darkness during the rule of James I as a result of persecution against witches and papists or, as it is oft-repeated in the novel “witchery popery popery witchery.” The Daylight Gate is based on the real-life Pendle witch trials that occurred in 1612, trials which just marked their 400th anniversary this in August of 2012. The heroine of The Daylight Gate, is Alice Nutter, a woman of means and unattached who worked for the Queen before her death and who, in the story at least, belonged to an elite circle of mystics headed up by none other than John Dee.

Winterson pulls no punches in depicting the brutality of the times particularly as it pertains to women. Countless times throughout the novel they are dehumanized and dismissed. In the case of the Demdikes and the Chattoxes this issue is compounded by their poverty and their rivalry and their survival, and their willingness to eat even on a fast day, taken as evidence of witchery rather than symptoms of their poverty. Alice Nutter is an extraordinarily fascinating women in the story not just because of her ties to John Dee but because her wealth, independence, and assertiveness make her just as much an outcast as the poverty stricken Demdikes and Chattoxes.

Of course unlike in real life The Daylight Gate gives the reader insight into Nutter’s “real-life” experience with real magic and the experiments of John Dee and his circle. Her youthful appearance, despite her advanced age, thanks to a seemingly mystical elixer brewed by the renowned, or reviled, alchemist and occultist. Complicating things further is Nutter’s affair with a woman and, later in the novella, a Jesuit. Indeed, Winterson has packed into Alice Nutter’s character precisely all of the things that the clerk Thomas Potts was looking for each and every time he regales against “witchery popery popery witchery.” At the same time Winterson also paints Nutter as a decent human being, willing to look out for those without means of their own, and one willing to stand by her principles.

Winterson’s command of language is excellent and right from the open her words swathe the landscape of Pendle Hill in deep vibrant shades that evoke an air of gloom and oppression. Winterson uses history as a jumping off point, crafting a story laden with not only the real horror of the times but also crafting some truly terrible scenes of the supernatural and the strange. At one point a severed head (dug up from an old grave) with the severed tongue of a young man (bitten off early in the novel during an intense and distrubing scene of attempted rape just barely stopped by Nutter) sown into its mouth is tossed into a cauldron. This is all well and creepy enough on its own but when that head speaks later in the novel it is down right terrifying. Winterson’s blend of human horror and supernatural terror is a potent one and lends The Daylight Gate a narrative weight the belies its rather slim size.

This is an intense novel and those made uncomfortable by the realistic portrayal of the people of the time, particularly the violence against women, should stay well clear of The Daylight Gate. I also felt that The Daylight Gate suffered some as a result of its brevity. There are moments where elements of the plot feel a bit underdeveloped and the rather large cast of characters means, with the exception of Alice Nutter, we spend very little time getting into the history and background of many of the characters. The Daylight Gate is a dark and disturbing tale about history and magic that fans of horror and the supernatural should be more than willing to try.

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