For a while in my late teens Jeanette Winterson and Angela Carter vied for my affections as my favourite author. Their worlds, whether magically realistic frozen Siberian plains or a small Lancashire town, were enchanting, engaging and compelling fantastical places. Their words and indomitable female characters had the power to change and influence a young, sheltered mind. Their feminism was not as intimidatingly, or as obviously political, as the literary criticism of Julia Kristeva or Judith Butler, but it had a far greater and more wide-reaching effect on me. If it hadn’t been for Carter’s wonderful Fevvers, her cockney winged creation in Nights At The Circus, Winterson would have probably won this battle of words by a comma’s breathe.
But then, fatally, I chose Jeanette Winterson as the subject of my undergrad dissertation and my love affair with her came to an abrupt end. It wasn’t anywhere near as poetic as the heart-wrenching ode to lost love in Written on the Body – I cut Winterson’s novels off from my life with little ceremony and left her books to gather dust on my bookshelves.
Many years later I saw her speak at a literary event at the Southbank Centre. She was as funny, clever and original as her books. The spark was re-lit, although it remained more smouldering than ablaze and the first post-university Winterson novel I picked up was to re-read The Passion, her magic realism love story set amongst the carnage of Napoleon’s last years. But while I may have made tentative steps towards a reconciliation, my reading of her was frozen in the 90s. It was time to move on.
The Daylight Gate, my re-introducion to Jeanette Winterson, is a slight novel about the 1612 Lancashire witch trials. Winterson, a Lancashire lass, has long been fascinated by this dark mark on Pendle’s history and this is her fictionalised account of the 13 men and women tried and condemned to death following the August Assizes. Her source material was written by a London-based lawyer, Thomas Potts, who documented the whole sorry business after being despatched to the north by King James I. In Winterson’s novel, Potts is an overfastidious, ambitious jobsworth and possibly the most odious character in the book (and there’s some stiff competition).
In 1612, King James I (VI of Scotland) was still jittery following the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1604, the attempt by Catholics to blow him and his Protestant parliament back to Scotland. He was also obsessed with stamping out witchcraft and even wrote what sounds like a tedious tome called Daemonologie which, over three volumes, condemned witchcraft and gave the thumbs up to hunting witches. So convinced was King Jimmy that the servants of satan were out to get him, that he believed that witchcraft had conquered up a storm at sea that nearly shipwrecked him on his way back from Denmark with his new wife (an event which inspired Shakespeare to write The Tempest).
As a result of his bumpy sea voyage, James was convinced that there were more witches square mile in England than at a Hogwarts reunion. He lumped Catholics and witches into one paranoid dark mess (“popery witchery witchery popery” as Potts mutters more than once) and set out with the help of people like Potts to rid the country of these folk and their cauldrons and crucifixes.
The Daylight Gate contains some classic Winterson touches. She doesn’t shy away from describing the gruesome and macabre – I pulled a few choice faces on the bus at some of the more grim passages. As The Passion featured Napoleon, so The Daylight Gate has a cameo by Shakespeare who comes across like a jolly decent date to the theatre. If only he were on match.com. Alice Nutter, a gentlewoman with a fascinating past, is a typical Winterson badass. She rides straddled when she thinks no one is looking, sticks up for the poor and the mentally ill and has magical powers that are rooted in reality.
Winterson does not attempt to defend the unlucky 13, there’s an ambiguity about whether they were witches, although I read it as there being perfectly modern explanations for the dark arts the characters dabble in. Or perhaps these magical moments are a typical Winterson dose of the fantastical. I have read reviews of The Daylight Gate that found the idea that Winterson depicted these women as witches as betraying both the memories of the women and the plot. How, they reasoned, could we sympathise with them if they were guilty of the crime they were charged with?
But it’s a redundant issue, just as the Coalition have whipped up a storm about dole scroungers and benefit cheats in a bid to drive out the poor (to where, I don’t know – Middlesborough by the sounds of things), in 1612 this was less about witchcraft and more about powerful men versus powerless women; rich versus poor; an out- of-touch ruling party versus people struggling to survive day-by-day.
And surely we all wish for a little bit of magic in our lives? I know I do – and I think I’ve rediscovered it…
by Suzanne Elliott