Strange transits through “The Daylight Gate” (review)

The Daylight Gate
By Jeanette Winterson
Grove Press (2012)

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Unfailingly dire, unflinchingly bloody, full of love and license, and brimming over with real devotion and all-too-human devilry, Jeanette Winterson’s “The Daylight Gate“ is at once a history lesson, historical fiction, and a romantic tale of the fantastic.

Set in the grim aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, this post-Elizabethan milieu is peopled with historical figures Winterson has made entirely her own: Alice Nutter, Elizabeth Southern, Alizon Device, the degraded Demdike clan, the abused child Jennet: victims all of the hysteria, misogyny and rapacity of England’s first recorded witch trials and executions. Their prosecutor — a zealous servant to King James, the London lawyer Thomas Potts — also lives and breathes in these pages, as does Queen Elizabeth’s court magician Dr. John Dee, and no less than William Shakespeare himself.

A keen observer and reporter of human passions, Winterson presents these characters as entirely plausible — their beauty and brilliance, their violence and selfishness, their love and loss, their extraordinary acts of cruelty, and their desperate fumblings with the unknown.

Equally convincing is the magic. Winterson’s aptitude for the uncanny, surreal and magic-realist — which I first encountered as subtle flourishes in her weirdly enthralling 1987 novel “The Passion” — is in full effect here: A spider whispers promises to a witch’s treacherous son as he cowers on the floor before the local constabulary. An ensorcelled poppet will most certainly be stuck full of needles. A winged familiar brings an unwilling witch evidence of necromancy — a collection of teeth gathered from a desecrated grave. The devil himself manifests as a Dark Gentleman, and dances a wild dance with his victims. 

And there are ghosts — echoes, really, of lost love, visible, audible, but untouchable. As memories they are perhaps the one thing that cannot be robbed from these unfortunates, besides any dignity they can claim for themselves in the face of calamity.

Written in clean, precise, plainspoken prose, Winterson’s great talents as an author of human feeling are underpinned by resonant depictions of real places and their mythic power: Rough Lee, Read Hall (”a confident, handsome building, old and large, riddled with medieval rooms and extended with later additions”), Malkin Tower, the Lancaster castle gaol and its dreadful “well dungeon” — all have solidity and presence that anchor the telling.

Geographically, the story centers on the Forest of Pendle and its hill, “alive in its black-and-green coat cropped like an animal pelt.” Pendle is the heart of witch country, and as close to safe harbor as Catholics and covens alike can find in this bedeviled countryside:

The hill itself is low and massy, flat-topped, brooding, disappearing in mists, treacherous with bogs, run through with fast-flowing streams plunging into waterfalls crashing down into unknown pools. Underfoot is the black rock that is the spine of this place.

Alice Nutter, an independent woman of means who made her fortune supplying Queen Elizabeth with a magenta dye of her own invention “that held fast in water and that had a curious dark depth to it,” is at home in this vivid place-in-time. As the story progresses, she is drawn ever more inextricably into the web of desperation, hatred and moral bankruptcy that is England under James, the Scottish king, and the scourge of Catholics and witches alike.

Themes of social justice emerge at this point around the plight of the most unfortunate — women, the impoverished, and impoverished women in particular — who turn for simple survival to dark powers, or “the left-hand path,“ that King James and his sycophant Potts find indistinguishable from what we today would consider the everyday Catholicism of the crucifix.

Yet the villains and victims are not always easily distinguished. Such is the toll of poverty and ostracization on mortal souls. 

“The Daylight Gate” does not end happily, but it ends truly, and its most sympathetic protagonists tear some scrap of dignity from the inevitability of England’s most notorious witch trials.

Winterson’s fiction, draped like rich but stained and rent cloth over the unyielding frame of some historic mannequin, might be considered in that regard a gift to past and present alike. 

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Joshua Wilson

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