The Bodice Ripper: The Daylight Gate
3rd Oct 2012
When I first heard that Jeanette Winterson was writing a novel about the Pendle witch trials for Hammer Horror’s new publishing imprint, it was like all my Halloweens had come at once. One of my favourite authors taking on some of Britain’s most infamous witches, to be published by the company who used to be the byword for horror? Sign me up.
And The Daylight Gate doesn’t disappoint. Whilst Hammer in its heyday might have been synonymous with campy flowing capes and pulchritudinous vampire brides, Winterson has given them a novel that plays with cliché like a cat with a mouse.
Witch hunts have always been about so much more than magic. Single women, disfigured women, old women, clever women – they were all targeted, ensuring that the patriarchy’s wives and daughters were kept firmly under the thumbscrew. Winterson, ever the champion of the different or dispossessed, offers a scathing portrayal of 17th century England and the horrors it dished out to anyone who stepped out of line. In her faithful, poetic version of Pendle, a gaggle of powerless peasants – mostly women, the least powerful of all – cast spells and perform blood rituals in the hope of grappling for a handhold on a hostile world.
Magic, in Winterson’s Pendle, is both real and not real. Toothless old Demdike, imprisoned for sinister crimes, has a practical knowledge of herbs that is literally being killed off. Alizon the beggar, whose encounter with a peddler triggers the horrific events that follow, was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Winterson lulls us into believing that it’s all a conspiracy, which it partly is.
But not entirely.
Alice Nutter, who owns the tower where the makeshift coven meets, is both pragmatic businesswoman and witch. Ageless and unafraid of challenging the torturers, liars and rapists that make up the men of the district, she a former apprentice of John Dee, who numbers priests, women and the Dark Gentleman himself among her lovers. Her sympathy to her impoverished tenants, her status as an independent woman in a world that prefers them to be chattel, and her mysterious past all lead her to be implicated in the accusations that loom over the novel.
Even without witchcraft, Lancashire is a wild and terrifying place. Catholics flee there, hoping to escape conversion or torture. A Jesuit priest involved in the Gunpowder Plot seeks refuge in Alice’s bed, although he’s of little practical use following a bloody castration. The landscape itself is dangerous, “alive in its black-and-green coat cropped like an animal pelt” and it is in the geography of the place that Winterson’s writing truly comes into its own. It’s impossible to read her descriptions of Pendle Hill, “brooding, disappeared in mists, treacherous with bogs, run through with fast-flowing streams plunging into waterfalls crashing down into unknown pools” without a shiver. If magic exists anywhere, it exists there.
Of course the Pendle witches were innocent, and Alice Nutter never conjured anything stronger than the magenta dye on which she made her fortunes. But it’s so tempting to speculate… Then again, the men of Pendle thought so too.