This month’s review of the novel read by the book group at the Oxfam Bookshop in Muswell Hill has been difficult to write. The book we chose, ‘The Daylight Gate’ by Jeanette Winterson, created strong negative reactions and as the group did not meet in the regular way comments have been shared by email.
The novel is based on the history of the Pendle witch trials and falls into the category some reviewers might describe as “faction”. Winterson mixes historical fact with the overtly prefaced acknowledgment of the imaginings of her own creative bias; a vividly disturbing presentation unfolds. The historical events she uses occurred in the early seventeenth century, a few years after the Gunpowder Plot and the paranoia of that time, known historically as ‘the age of anxiety’. After reading the novel one is left in no doubt about the unjustly calamitous effect of King James’s obsession with the viewed evil epidemics of Catholicism and Witchcraft. A horrific portrait is painted of the squalor, poverty and ignorance of the most vulnerable in society who are, by turns, both the hot bed for the creation of the desperate manias which drive the plot as well as the powerless scapegoats who become its remedy.
‘The Daylight Gate’ is not an easy read but proved to be thought provoking. We knew that Winterson wrote elegant, muscular prose but in this novel she has pared her style down to the scraped-bare bones. The sentences are short; adjectives are limited and carefully chosen. Descriptive passages are kept to the minimum required to carry the impact of the scene and this gives the novel a bleakness that is rarely relieved. We felt that there was an awkward tension between what could have been a literary novel and what is presented as a horror story. Did Winterson have to beef up the horror element to meet the requirements of the new Hammer imprint that publishes ‘compelling and intelligent horror’?
Alice Nutter, the main protagonist, is presented in the early chapters as a strong, capable, independent woman who has spent time in London society in the company of John Dee, the royal alchemist, and his circle of friends. She is willing to challenge the power of the witchfinder, Thomas Potts, observing that the poor who practise witchcraft on her land ‘have no power in your world, so they must get what power they can in theirs’. Her wealth comes from a magenta dye she has invented that has implied magical properties. This is a significant piece of artifice that galled us as chemical dyes were not known before the mid-nineteenth century. Alice Nutter’s magenta dyed cloak is used in the novel as a symbol of her wealth but felt to us more like a symbol of illusion behind which Winterson tried to hide the loose strands and flimsy skeleton of her novel, not to mention the leaps of imagination made from the historical facts. We felt that Alice did not have authenticity as a character; she appears to be used as a puppet that can be placed in any scene, rather like a cut-out character moved about on a cardboard strip in a toy theatre. One reason for this is that she is perhaps an uncomfortable cipher for the writer’s presence. It was disappointing to find that Alice is eventually revealed as a witch and, worse still, as a victim – we had hoped her to be the rational element in the story.
Interestingly, there was a feeling that the story has valid parallels in the scaremongering and scapegoat hunting of modern society. We thought about the recent press stigma focussed on Roma communities in the UK, as well as the political stigmatising of people who require help from the welfare state. Additionally we were saddened by the fact that the C17th Protestant-Catholic religious tensions were still so recognisable in today’s world.
Please see the Groups, Clubs & Associations listing for more details about the Book Review Club.