[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
Jeanette Winterson is the author of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Sexing the Cherry and Passion. She writes beautiful prose about fascinating characters, some of whom really existed, and there is always an element of magic or the fantastical in her work. Her latest book, The Daylight Gate, is set in Lancashire, England, early in the 17th century, and reimagines the infamous Pendle Hill witch trials, focusing her storyteller’s lens most closely on the character of Alice Nutter.
Alice Nutter, a real-life person, was a wealthy, land-owning widow who was tried for witchcraft, along with ten others, in 1612. One was acquitted; the others, including Alice, were found guilty and hanged. On the surface it would be easy to see Alice as a target of envy for someone, but it is also perplexing that, with the resources at her disposal, she did not escape the accusation and the trial. The Pendle witch trial is not so different from the hundreds of others except that writers and historians have a contemporary written account to draw on, as Winterson did. The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancashire was written by Thomas Potts, who appears as an unsympathetic character in The Daylight Gate.
The Daylight Gate was reviewed by some as a horror novel, probably because it was released in late October. It is certainly horrifying. I’m not sure it’s horror. I’m not sure what it is. I’m not sure what Winterson wants the reader to take away from this slim volume. I’m not sure what to make of Alice Nutter as Winterson portrays her. One problem with this kind of story, of course, is that it’s like reading about Titanic. You know where it’s going and it isn’t going to be good.
The easiest thing for a writer to do would be to say that Alice Nutter was completely innocent, unjustly accused and executed. Winterson doesn’t take the easy way. Alice may not be guilty of witchcraft but she is not an innocent. For one thing, she remains youthful-looking, far more youthful than her years. She has a falcon that comes when she calls it, and delivers messages to others on her command. In her younger days, Alice worked with Dr. John Dee, a seeker, alchemist, astrologer and mathematician. Dee made Alice the elixir that keeps her young and beautiful. Alice also ran her own business, making an independent fortune from the development of a magenta dye of an unusual luminosity that the Queen admired. Now, though, Queen Elizabeth is dead and her successor, James the First of England, is not interested in magenta. James hates Catholics, fears witches and distrusts women, and in 1605 a group of Catholics led by Guy Fawkes created the Gunpowder Plot, a scheme to blow up Parliament. The survivors of the conspiracy fled to Catholic Lancashire. Now it’s 1612, and the loyal fanatics of Scottish Jamie have conflated witchcraft with Catholicism. Thomas Potts continually prates, “witchery popery popery witchery,” as the king’s men beat the Lancashire bushes for witches, and for a defrocked Catholic priest who has returned from France. When asked by another if he thinks the Catholic mass is the same as a black mass, Potts barely hesitates before replying Yes.
Alice has allowed the Southern family to live in a ruined tower on her land. This seems like Christian charity, although the clan in question is notorious. The matriarch, Elizabeth Southern or “Old Demdike” as she is called, is a poacher and a thief, foul-mouthed and vile to her children. Roger Norwell, the local justice of the peace, is far more interested in tracking down Christopher Southworth, the priest, but Thomas Potts has seized upon the Demdike clan and wants them arrested for witchcraft. When the king’s men ride to Malkin Tower on Good Friday, they find the clan feasting, and Alice Nutter just arrived, making a total of thirteen. Potts insists that this is a coven (why else would they be feasting on a solemn fast day?) and they should all be arrested.
Alice says that her visit was one of charity and then lies, saying she brought the stolen sheep the others were eating. In a meeting with Roger Norwell, Alice espouses some strangely twenty-first century beliefs about women who turn to witchcraft.
Such women are poor. They are ignorant. They have no power in your world, so they must get what power they can in theirs. I have sympathy for them.
In 1612 England, sympathy for a woman accused of witchcraft was a dangerous thing to have.
Alice is not a twenty-first century woman, but she is a puzzlement. She does not go to church, Protestant or Catholic; she tells someone she does not believe in souls, and goes on to describe a world-view that comes close to eastern mysticism, or quantum physics. (“I believe that we are worlds compressed into human form.”) Although she is not Catholic, she protects the defrocked priest who is her lover. She says she does not believe in witchcraft, but magic happens around her, in particular regarding a letter written to her by Dee’s associate Edward Kelley, which includes a spell for conjuring up someone.
As Alice’s story unfolds bit by bit, it grows stranger. Alice knew Old Demdike decades before, in London, and both worked with John Dee and Kelley. Elizabeth Southern was beautiful, and the rumors were that she had sold her soul to the Dark Gentleman. Even though Alice does not believe in souls, she tried at the time to save her friend, and as The Daylight Gate progresses, she tries again, even though she knows they are both already doomed.
Even stranger is the fact that there is magic in the book; magic, and witchcraft too, it seems. The witches are able to put a curse on one of the king’s men; Alice and an apothecary manage to undo the spell. There are talking animals, and visions, and the Dark Gentleman himself appears — twice. Some things can be put down to suggestibility, drunkenness or dreams. Some cannot, and they are not explained.
Before things get really bad for her, Alice meets William Shakespeare and has an enjoyable evening watching a performance of The Tempest. Shakespeare warns her, “But, mistress, do not be seen 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.” Surprisingly, that sentence makes perfect sense in context. The real that is “clear” to Alice seems to be magic, and that magic will condemn her, but Alice continues to speak out. She fights for those she loves, Elizabeth Southern and Christopher Southworth.
The Daylight Gate is filled with horrors. The youngest of the women who are imprisoned awaiting trial are routinely raped by the jailor. Christopher has been tortured and mutilated. Old Demdike’s son sells his nine-year-old niece to Tom Peeper for the price of a meal and tankard of ale. Little nine-year-old Jennet, the product of a rape herself, is probably the biggest victim in the book, a child who is already damaged by the manipulations of others. Her innocent testimony about Alice is damning, but Jennet talks to a fetus in a bottle that her mother uses to conjure spells, and a severed head gives her direction when she is left alone at the end of the book.
On one level, Winterson seems to be contrasting the evil of witchcraft against the flesh and blood evils of abuse, corruption, rape and coercion. These latter evils, mostly male-authored, win out at the end. On another level, the story is a spiritual love story. Alice cannot succeed in saving Elizabeth, but perhaps she and Christopher will meet in another world. On yet another level, this might just be the study of a person who is trapped in the inevitable slumping-forward roll of history.
I found the book baffling, but beautiful. Winterson uses short chapters and her writing is intentionally sparser than other works, but characters are well drawn. Roger Norwell comes across as a man almost as trapped as Alice: a reasonable man who knows his jurisdiction and its people but is pressured by the fanatic Potts into actions he does not want to take. Alice is more plausible, maybe, as a woman who enjoyed freedom under the long reign of Queen Elizabeth the First, and did not adjust quickly enough to the rules of the misogynist who next held the throne. Whatever she is, she is a compelling character.
This is a dark, dark book. You can find a kind of triumph in it but do not expect a happy ending for anyone. Read it for the language and the beauty of the writing; read it for the questions it provokes.