Review: The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson
WERE Shakespeare's three witches simply malign "midnight hags'' casting spells?
Or were they instead social outcasts, women who could see most clearly the truth of the violent male world in which they lived, and who offered not prophecies, but sharp insights?
The academic Terry Eagleton pioneered the theme of the latter. And the idea finds a resounding echo in Jeanette Winterson's fictionalised account of a real case – that of the 1612 trial of the Lancashire "Pendle Witches".
Because this novella is under the imprint of "Hammer'', the venerable horror studio, initial expectations are all over the place: will this be finely wrought fiction or full-throated Grand Guignol? The answer is that it somehow manages to be both.
This is a book worth reading – utterly compulsive, thick with atmosphere and dread, but sharp intelligence too.
The 1612 trial involved a group of destitute women (and a couple of men) who had been living in a broken-down structure called Malkin Tower, near Pendle Hill, on land owned by Alice Nutter.
One of the women was accused of supernaturally striking down a pedlar. Other accusations of witchcraft swiftly followed — women within the group denouncing one another — and they were held in a dungeon in Lancaster Castle for months in conditions so horrific that one of their number died before the trial.
Landowner Alice Nutter was also arrested and similarly accused. And then they were hanged.
The story attained fame (indeed, there are still documentaries being made and walking tours being given) as it was the first witch trial to be documented, by a lawyer called Thomas Potts. He – together with the real women and men, Elizabeth Device, "Old Demdike", Chattox, Alice – are here in the novel.
Shakespeare himself gets a walk-on role too; but not in any light-hearted sense. For all its brevity, this is a poetically stylised and visceral read.
Here, King James's England is a land jittery with fear; the aftershocks of the Gunpowder Plot can still be felt.
Just as bad as being accused of witchcraft is being accused of Catholicism. Religious intolerance breeds institutionalised sadism and sexual abuse.
And the narrative centres on the intriguing figure of Alice Nutter — a rich, single woman who has made her fortune manufacturing exotic magenta clothes dyes, which were favoured by Queen Elizabeth. Alice's wealth, intelligence and independent nature — not to mention her preternaturally youthful looks — make her an object of suspicion to the local men.
Ultimately, Winterson combines compelling history and poetic dialogue with suspense, as a ghastly trap closes around Alice.
In a story heavy with evil, another theme finally comes shining through: that of the abiding endurance of love.
The old Hammer horrors were never big on redemption.
But this rather more sophisticated story would make a particularly vivid film. — The Daily Telegraph