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December 14, 2012

How to Handle a Witch (or Several): The Daylight Gate - Jeanette Winterson

Posted by Lincoln Allison

The Daylight Gate
by Jeanette Winterson
Pp. 208. London: Hammer, 2012
Hardback, 9.99

About twenty five years ago our family, a married couple and three sons, set off at the end of October on a routine trip to the Pendle area of Lancashire where I grew up. The purposes of the visit were shopping in the mills, watching football and walking, though meeting with friends and relatives in pubs and a slap-up version of fish and chips were also part of the tradition. But on this occasion we had difficulty getting to where we wanted to go because of a police cordon at a five mile radius around Pendle Hill to prevent a vast "Hippy Convoy" - an estimated 5000 people - which was expected to converge on the area for Halloween.

During this period the Pendle District Council was discussing proposals to create a "Witchcraft Theme Park" though they were held up by fundamental differences of interpretation and purpose. At one end of the spectrum were local businessmen who wanted to cash in on broomstick rides, Halloween masks and lots of appropriate tat; at the other were feminist Labour councillors who wanted the park to educate its customers about the grim history of proto-feminists and free thinkers tortured and murdered by patriarchy in the name of religious orthodoxy. The figure of 20 million such martyrs in Europe as a whole was often bandied about, though serious scholarship sees this as an exageration of geometric proportions.

The project was never going to get off the ground and it didn't. At the same time an evangelical minister from Blackburn was getting himself a lot of publicity by claiming that there were far more practising witches than practising Christians in East Lancashire. In short, it was the case that in the place I called home witchcraft was not only the main topic of debate, it occupied second and third place as well. There was an interesting irony to all this: the textile industry of the area was part of the early industrial "revolution", the sort of thing considered jolly important by the likes of Karl Marx, but it had now been and (more or less) gone and we were back to talking about witches again.

All of this is because of the execution at Lancaster in 1612 of ten witches from the area, a figure which is complicated by a couple of acquittals, the execution of witches from other areas and the execution of a further witch from just over the nearby Yorkshire border: this took place, appropriately, in York. But the incident is generally agreed to have been the largest such prosecution ever to take place in these islands and it has been kept at the forefront of public consciousness by a series of narrative versions.

There was an immediate version by the prosecuting lawyer, Thomas Potts, which he called, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancashire. In 1848 Harrison Ainsworth published his novel, The Lancashire Witches, which put his sales ahead of those of Charles Dickens for a while. In 1951 Robert Neill wrote what turned out to be his most successful novel, Mist Over Pendle, about the witches; in the United States it appeared as The Elegant Witch.

Now we have Jeanette Winterson OBE, on the 400th anniversary of the events, publishing The Daylight Gate. As one would expect each account reflects its period: Potts's is a self-righteous condemnation which might be said to take witchcraft more seriously than it takes itself in line with his own sovereign's diatribe on the subject. Ainsworth produced a "Gothic" horror story in the tradition of Mary Shelley in which the events in Pendle resonate from a monk's pact with the devil in the previous century. Neill's version, though highly atmospheric, is strictly realist: the "witches" are portrayed as a rural underclass maintaining - at least to a greater degree than their contemporaries - the ancient superstitions in a society in which religious orthodoxy is bitterly contested between Catholics, Puritans and moderate Anglicans.

All accounts give a central place to Alice Nutter, the wealthy and sophisticated widow from the Rough Lee (now the village of Roughlee) who was implicated along with the others and whose involvement seems much more complicated.

So what of Ms Winterson's update? The most obvious remark is that it is very short. Mist Over Pendle was the normal sort of length for a twentieth century novel, half the length of Ainsworth's effort; The Daylight Gate is barely a third of Neill's book, a mere 30,000 words - a novelette, if such a word still exists.

As an interpretation it plays with several approaches. Winterson sets up the possibility of a largely feminist approach by having Alice Nutter in dispute over land with Roger Nowell, the magistrate eventually complicit in her prosecution, but she then eschews this possibility and has Nowell (the sympathetic central character of Neill's book) behaving honourably. (I am sure that if a well known writer had written a novel based on these events in the 1980s it would have had to be a feminist interpretation, but times have changed.)

In this version, Alice visits the Malkin Tower, where the witches meet, in order to offer them charity; it is, in any case, her property. This would allow the possibility of portraying her as a tragic innocent victim. But having set up this possibility Winterson then gives Alice an elaborate and supernatural "back story" involving chemistry, alchemy, Satanic rituals and a lesbian relationship with one of the witches. The last part might be considered a bit predictable on her part, but that doesn't necessarily render it ineffective. In short she seems to shift from writing the first third of her tale on realist assumptions akin to Neill's to the majority which is "Gothic" in the style of Ainsworth.

Historical novels are a problem for those of us who are logical (boring? male?). For instance, I read Bernard Cornwell's Azincourt, the story of an ordinary English archer at Agincourt. I devoured it as one might devour a great greasy kebab with the same sorts of feelings of indigestion afterwards. I then read Anne Curry's scholarly book on the battle which, for example, quotes more than two dozen near-contemporary sources which differ enormously even on the size of the two armies. I want to know what really happened and, if it isn't knowable, I want to know why. A story could never be a substitute for the story. An historical novel is one person's imaginative reconstruction of what might have happened. Fair enough, but I would prefer my own and, in any case, most novelists choose to go beyond this and change what is known.

The supernatural adds another dimension of difficulty, though there are interesting possibilities because modern social science suggests multiple ways of blurring the distinction between the natural and the supernatural. All versions of the story of the Pendle witches begin with the cursing of a pedlar who then becomes severely ill. In Winterson's version this is a fat, lustful fellow who is in sexual negotiations as a result of which he is taunted and cursed and has whatt appears to be a stroke. Which he might well have if he believed in the power of the curse. Here (p.46) Alice Nutter raises the question of how belief is a sort of reality, but with limits:

If they believe they are witches, does that make them so? They will not be escaping the Malkin Tower by broomstick however much Master Potts wants to see them fly over Pendle Hill.
But we know that Winterson has taken us into real magic when she has Roger Nowell, the magistrate, fall desperately ill as the result of a curse even though he does not know about it.

Contemporary novelists worry a great deal less than I do about any distinction between the "real" and the "unreal". Here, Winterson gives the last word to Shakespeare. (Yes, that Shakespeare because in this as in other respects Winterson is a loyal Lancastrian who subscribes to the theory that the bard's "missing years" were spent in Lancashire.) Here he returns for a private staging of The Tempest and warns Alice (p.92):
I have written about other world's often enough, I have said what I can say. There are many kinds of reality. This is but one kind . . . But, Mistress, do not seem to stray too far from the real that is clear to others, or you may stand accused of the real that is clear to you.
The title of The Daylight Gate refers to dusk when things change shape and worlds meet. This is a story which changes shape in such a way as to lose its way. I am inclined to comment that the magic of reality is enough magic. Winterson shows a strong sense of the landscape, but it proves not enough for her. For those who don't know the place, the land has two real, opposed aspects: it varies from dark, acidic peat bog and millstone grit to the light of limestone with green grass, fertile woods and bright pale rock. Those who want a coherent historical tale about what happened in this landscape should probably stick to Robert Neill.

But one must acknowledge that the crucial word in this book may be the name of the publisher: Hammer, now revived and in partnership with Arrow. Whatever you make of the coherence of this story, the imagery is never constrained by fear of excess. Beautiful women ride across dark moors and are joined by mysterious falcons. Even more beautiful women are stripped naked in front of roaring fires and prepared for ritual events. Feral underclass urchins watch the drama from behind bushes. The well of Lancaster Castle is a rat-infested, crone-ridden hell on earth. This is a Hammer film script; it could make East Lancs the new Transylvania.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career at the University of Warwick in 2004 - and again in 2008 - to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. His latest book is My Father's Bookcase: A Version of the History of Ideas, available as a Kindle download from amazon.co.uk and from amazon.com.


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I'm interested to read this one as I've enjoyed most Winterson I've read to greater or lesser degrees. Its a good point about authors who pile on too much, too many plots or digressions. Quite a few need to learn that less is more. Some of my favourite books, and films for that matter, and very neat and tight and focus on one small thing but do it very well.

Posted by: Saul at January 8, 2013 02:28 PM
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