The Daylight Gate: Jeanette Winterson
Set in the grip of the early 17th century’s fascination and feverish obsession with witchcraft, Jeanette Winterson’s latest novella is a tale laden with passion, darkness, and fear.
The Daylight Gate is inspired by the Pendle witch trials of 1612. With ease and delicacy, Winterson uses the Lancashire landscape to give a suitable back drop of gloom and foreboding, using the primitive forests, moors and hills to intensify the fear that gripped the area in the 1600s. The novella accurately replicates a period of history in which even King James I supported and approved of the witch hunting that swept the nation, with the publication of his book, Daemonologie, seeing the persecution of hundreds for suspected witchcraft. Winterson’s protagonist, Alice Nutter, a widowed and powerful noble, is swept up in the events that occurred in Pendle. The novella follows Alice Nutter’s journey into the underworld of witchcraft and midnight meetings. A dark gentlemen, spells and conjurations haunt the book, which moves between the fanatical provincial area of Pendle and the haunting streets of London. The reader follows Nutter’s life and bisexualism and the seduction of the female body. With each chapter, the darkness and tension grows as the widow becomes more deeply embroiled in the persecution of the locals.
While the book is filled with the supernatural, from talking heads to blood rituals and visions, it is the real nature of that society with which Winterson truly conjures the horror and grotesque nature of the Jacobean era. The novella reveals the social inequality, squalor and persecution of the lower classes. It highlights the power of the church and the ability of people in power to use religion as a tool to control and subject people. Winterson astutely explores the visceral, as well as the desperation of the people that had to endure the tyranny of the leading classes. It reveals how those deemed socially different, unacceptable or unworthy were ostracised – such as the poor, the old, and strong women, who all became targets of the witch-hunts.
This is where the novella excels, as surprisingly the book, on the whole, lacks the usual flair and erotica that is associated with Winterson’s writing. Perhaps after the recent wave of erotic literature, Winterson has toned down her work preferring to let what is unwritten have more impact rather than being explicit about sexuality. What it doesn’t fail to do like all of her work is to make an important statement on contemporary society.
The vote against female bishops by the Church of England, the opposition to gay marriage, and the protests of thousands in Paris against the proposed legalisation of gay marriage conjure up parallels to the society in The Daylight Gate. Despite great progression in equality for women and other social and ethnic minorities, there is still a sense of these groups being ‘other’, reminiscent of the social outcasts in Winterson’s work.
While not Winterson’s most thrilling work, The Daylight Gate is an interesting and compelling insight into a unique period of English history.