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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Jeanette Winterson: "The Daylight Gate"

Author:  Jeanette Winterson
Title:  The Daylight Gate    
Plot Type:  Historical Horror; Witchcraft; Romance      
Ratings:  Violence-5; Sensuality-4; Humor-1 
Publisher:  Grove Press:  New York
      This novella is based on actual events that took place in England during the reign of King James I of England (successor to Elizabeth I). James was so obsessed with the evils of witchcraft that he wrote his own book on the subject: Daemonologie. The king hated witches because he believed that they had cursed his ship and almost caused him and his new wife to drown. That incident led to the North Berwick witch trials of 1590 during which more than 100 women were tortured and/or killed. The king also hated Catholics because a group of them tried to blow up Parliament in the famous Gunpowder Plot of 1605.  

     This story takes place in 1612 in a borough of Lancashire called Pendle, the site of Britain's notorious Pendle witch trials. This was a time of unrest in England, and Lancashire was a haven for Catholics, most of whom had fled there after the Gunpowder Plot. It was also a time of danger for women, particularly elderly, unattractive women who dabbled in herbs, and for young, attractive women who refused the attentions of men more powerful than they were. After all, "Fornication was a sin but not with a witch who had put a spell on you." (p. 29) All it took was one accusation for a woman to be accused, tortured, tried, and hanged or drowned. As one of heroine's acquaintances warns her, "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." (p. 106)

     All of the characters in the story were real people, and most of the events are depicted as described by historians. Even William Shakespeare turns up in a cameo role. In her "Introduction," Winterson explains, "The store I have told follows the historical account of the witch trials and the religious backgroundbut with necessary speculations and inventions." In other words, this is historical fiction, so the author imagines events and conversations that might have happened as true events played out. 

     The heroine of the story is Alice Nutter, one of the accused. Not much is known about her except that she was a widow of some wealth who was probably a Catholic. In this story, the author imagines the events of her life in the days prior to, and following, her arrest. 

     Hammer Films has recently acquired the movie rights, so you may soon be seeing this story at your local cinema. Click HERE to read an excerpt from Daylight Gate on its page. Just click on the cover art at top left.

           THE STORY             
     Although Winterson weaves her fictional romantic horror story through the true events surrounding the Pendle witch trials, her story is definitely not a dry or scholarly summation of that sad and scandalous affair. Instead, she fabricates events in the lives of three of the actual participants with the least amount of known biographical information. Please note that all of the characters named in the story were real people who played their parts in the Pendle trials. 

     The story begins when the overweight and unhealthy peddler, John Law, has a confrontation with two supposed witches deep in Pendle Forest. When one tries to trade him kisses for his wares, he pushes her away and she curses him. By the time Law runs in a panic to a local tavern, he has time only to name the two women before he collapses, unconscious and near death (probably from a heart attack due to his weight and general condition). That is enough to get four women (two each from rival clans)Alizon Device and her grandmother, Old Demdike, and Mother Chattox and her daughter, Nance. The two pairs are bitter rivals, each giving false evidence against the other, so they are all jailed for practicing witchcraft. On Good Friday, the Demdike and Chattox clans hold a meeting at Malkin Tower to decide how to break their relatives out of jail, only to have it interrupted by Roger Nowell, Magistrate of Pendle Forest, who imprisons them all for witchcraft: gathering a coven of 13, practicing magic, and eating stolen meat on a holy day.

     Alice Nutter has allowed the Demdike clan to live in the wretched depths of Malkin Tower on her land for reasons that will not become clear until late in the story. Alice, unlike the rest of the women, is a respected and relatively wealthy land owner, but she has managed to maintain her youthful, attractive appearance for so many years that people are suspicious. Alice did not inherit her money; she earned it through her invention of an iridescent magenta dye favored by Queen Elizabeth I. Some of the lower-class men in her community don't believe that a woman could possibly have been smart enough to build such a successful business. They are also certain that a woman should not be allowed to control that amount of money and land. To make matters worse, Alice rescues one of the Demdike clan from being raped at the hands of the local constable and his despicable sidekick, both of whom are among those who are already accusing Alice, along with her tenants, of being witches. 

     Add to this volatile mix Thomas Potts, Recording Clerk for the Prosecution and the Crown, "a proud little cockerel of a man; all feathers and no fight" (p. 19), who is determined to become famous by writing a book about the witch trials. Potts is certain of the women's guilt before he knows any of the facts. He reminds Nowell that all of the Catholics have fled to Lancashire. "What is worse, sir? A High Mass or a Black Mass? To practice witchcraft or to practice the old religion? Both are high treason against the Crown. Witchery popery popery witchery. What is the difference?" (p. 22)

     Nowell had been planning to allow the witchcraft situation to simmer for awhile in the hope that the accusations would eventually be forgotten, but Potts insists on immediate action. Nowell, though, has an even larger problem. One of the Gunpowder plottersthe Jesuit priest, Christopher Southworth, has been sighted in Lancashire, and Nowell plans to capture him.

     Winterson describes the events leading up to the witch trials with historical accuracy. But then she begins to tell Alice's story, which comes directly from her own imagination. As events proceed quickly to their horrendousand foregoneconclusion, we learn of Alice's complex romantic life and her unlikely ties both to Old Demdike and to Christopher. 

     Winterson is a terrific story teller who reports the facts of the case like an investigative reporter, but doesn't spare us the gruesome details. This was a world in which women, particularly poor women, had absolutely no powernot even over their own lives. When you read of the conditions in their dungeon, the fact that these descriptions are absolutely factual will make your blood run cold. It is difficult for us here in the 21st century to imagine a world in which torture was of the worst kind and was applied as a first line of questioning (and, believe me, all of those grisly details are included here).  

     This is terrific book that is written in language pared down to its visceral basics, allowing the disturbing details to stand out in their depravity, without the need for adjectival enhancement. Just the bare, raw facts are enough to horrify us. Winterson recognizes that this is not a story to be told in gorgeous, flowing sweeps of metaphorical eloquence, and she is a master at evoking the atmosphere of this dreadful place and timeAs one reviewer (Sarah Hall in The Guardian) says, "The sentences are short, truthfuland dreadful." Here are some examples: "The Well Dungeon…measures twenty feet by twelve feet. It has no window and no natural light….The prisoners…roam around their stall….The place stinks. Drainage is a channel cut into the earth under the straw. Their urine flows away, their faeces pile into a corner….They are fed stale bread and brackish water twice a day. When the bread is thrown through the door, the rats squeal at it and have to be kicked away. There are four or five rats. There were more. The rest have been eaten." (p. 90) In a few ominous words, Winterson makes us feel the hopeless horror of Malkin Tower: "It stood…grim and windowless, except for slits that looked east and west, north and south, like narrow suspicious eyes. There was a stagnant moat around the tower, filled with thick green algae. The sun did not shine here." (p. 30) Here, Winterson describes young Jennet Device, the child who eventually becomes the explosive ammunition that destroys her family: "vicious, miserable, underfed and abused. Her brother took her with him to the Dog to pay for his drink. Tom Peeper liked his sexual conquests to be too  young to fall pregnant." (p. 29) 

     In this dark, dangerous world, paranoia reigns, and poor, diseased, abused, superstitious women and their starving children practice folk magic in the belief that it will make them stronger than their abusers. Is the magic real? Well, yes…at least magical things happen here and there. A poppet speaks, a boy transfigures into a hare, a woman remains ageless. But the horror is not in the magicit's in the human (mostly male) behavior that diabolically uses these women as scapegoats for their own selfish (political, sexual, monetary) purposes. The horror in reading this book does not come only from the heinous actions that are taken against the defenseless. The real horror comes from the realization that these events actually happenedthat humans did indeed treat other humans in this vicious manner, and that they got away with it. 

     This is a story of mob violence of the worst kindthe callous, mindless, accusatory condemnation that guides the actions of people in search of someone to blame for incomprehensibleor even imaginaryevents. To put a modern spin on it, think back to when you (probably) read Rod Serling's "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" back when you were in middle school, and you'll get the picture. (Click HERE or HERE to read the full text of that play.) At the end of that play, the narrator concludes: "The tools of conquest…are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudicesto be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all its own for the children…and the children yet unborn…And the pity of it is…that these things cannot be confined to…the Twilight Zone." How fitting that Winterson's "daylight gate" and Serling's "twilight zone" are one and the same!  

           MORE INFORMATION             
 Here are some links to additional information about the Pendle witch trials and related people and events:   

     > Click HERE to go to the official Pendle Witches web site

     > Click HERE to read the full text (in your choice of formats) of Thomas Potts' book, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster

     > Click HERE to read the historically accurate retelling of the actual events leading up to the Pendle witch trials, by Robert Poole, who has written extensively about the events

     > Click HERE to see the statue of Alice Nutter that was recently erected in her home village of Roughlee. This site has additional links to information about the Pendle witches.

     > Click HERE to read more about Guy Fawkes, one of the primary perpetrators of the Gunpowder Plot. The failure of that plot is still celebrated each November 5th, a holiday that is called Guy Fawkes night.

     > Click HERE to read a full-text version of Harrison Ainsworth's once-famous 1849 novel, The Lancashire Witches: A Romance of Pendle Forest, in your choice of formats.

     > Click HERE to read reviews from the [London] Times Literary Supplement of four relatively recent books on the Pendle trials and on witchcraft in general.

     > Click HERE to read an excerpt from Philip C. Almond's 2012 book entitled The Lancashire Witches: Persecution, Politics, and Murder in Early Modern England 

     > Click HERE to read the full-text of Daemonologie (in your choice of formats), the book on the occult written by King James I of England in 1597.

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