In the Pendle district of Lancashire on 21 March 1612, a woman called Alizon Device bumped into a pedlar called John Law. She asked him for pins, and he refused. A few minutes later, Law stumbled and fell, perhaps because of a stroke; he survived, and when Alizon visited him a few days later, she confessed her witchcraft and asked for his forgiveness. From this little incident flowered hatred and supernatural story-making on a scale not seen in England before. It cost 11 lives.
Alizon, her family, and another family who were their rivals as cunning folk were soon enmeshed in witchcraft accusations, dragging in those normally immune because of their higher social class, such as prosperous Alice Nutter. Both the families believed that they could use tweaked Catholic prayers to cure diseases, such as this eerie evocation of the crucified Christ: "He is nailed sore by the heart and hand,/ And holy barne Panne". This was the kind of prayer condemned by reformers as rank superstition and devil-worship. Charms became deadly.
Nobody has ever wanted this banal story. It is not even the story the first teller, Thomas Potts, wanted to tell. Potts is our only source for the 1612 trials in his pamphlet The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, and for him the tale was about Catholic plotting by both the convicted witches, and the Jesuit priests Potts thought had coached one child witness. He saw both superstition and pacts with Satan as outcomes of unreformed religion. After Potts came William Harrison Ainsworth's successful novel The Lancashire Witches (1848) and Robert Neill's Mist Over Pendle (1951). Now the 400th anniversary of the trials has brought new work about the Pendle witches.
Jeanette Winterson's novella The Daylight Gate is lurid, but that word barely begins to describe her efforts to fill in the blanks in Potts's smug narrative. In her first 39 pages, we have the gang-rape of a suspect witch, and a child traded for liquor by her brother; a child who is the product of the rape of her mother.
Later, we have red candles and black altar-cloths, a hairy-handed Black Gentleman, alchemical symbols, and witches dreading being burned – needlessly, since witches were never burned in England but hanged. We have no end of torture, including male-male rape and a harrowing scene of castration. We have human sacrifice and the sale of souls to Satan. Improbably, we have William Shakespeare, who knows about absolutely everything.
Winterson is always a strong and bitter flavour, Seville oranges. By now most intelligent readers will know if they like the taste or not. If you loved her other novels, you will adore this.
Winterson is perhaps the very last writer to subordinate herself to a patient search for the past. She has done her homework, and the facts are all in place, but there are slips of tone and interpretation, since the book is eager to use the Pendle trials as a springboard for the kind of intense and romantic tale in which she specialises. Full of leaps of faith, it reassures us that the present is far better than the smelly past.
Rightly for a Hammer publication, The Daylight Gate is possessed by the ghost of Witchfinder General, the 1968 horror film starring Vincent Price. Price's Matthew Hopkins is turned on by the pointless torture of nubile suspects, and so too are the interrogators here. Ken Russell's even more lurid The Devils (1971) is also an underlying model, with due feminist correction. In that film, the Loudon witch trials in France are caused by Sister Jeanne's lust for Urbain Grandier: a plot nicked from Arthur Miller's overpraised The Crucible (1952), in which Abigail Williams has her age boosted so her illicit desires cause all the trouble in Salem. In the same way, Winterson's Alice Nutter's loves are causal here, and though Winterson wants to endorse rather than condemn, the diagnosis is still wrong.
In The Daylight Gate Alice is pansexual, sharing the love of Satan, John Dee, Pendle witch Elizabeth Southern, and castrated priest Christopher Southworth. Whether it's the Romans, the Tudors, or the witch trials, the only link to the past is sex. We have sex, and they had sex. Away with dull ideas about the vertical cliff face of the class system in 1612, or that boring stuff about religious conviction and how much it mattered.
Winterson's Device family do understand hunger, and are nearly hallucinating with it after their imprisonment, and there is a terrific moment when the immediate cause of Jennet's betrayal is the bribe of a roast chicken. But like Harrison Ainsworth, Winterson chooses the richest accused woman as her main character. That allows her to write about sex and not food, as the better-off can afford desires not about survival.
It's not all Alice's fault. Winterson rightly tells of the collocation of meshing agendas – Jennet's sexploitation, Alice's success, Potts's mania about popery, the government's directive that priests be arrested. What undermines this subtlety is that she also wants to give the witches real magical capabilities and a real Devil for their dealings. There is a fox in this hole, an idea which does much to vindicate the paranoid. Yes, it's fun to have witches who sell their souls and copulate with Satan, but it's also a vile calumny, because the whole point of the Pendle witches is that they were completely innocent.
What could be more horrifying than being engulfed by someone else's fantasy about you? It must have been like a hideous combination of being stalked and having your voicemail hacked by the government.
What holds attention throughout the novella, however, is the beauty of the writing, exemplary in its pared-down simplicity. It's so seductive that by the middle I was hooked. I stopped caring about its blatant messing with history, its breakage bill of lives and dreams. But reason will keep shrilling that the Pendle witches are not fictional characters, but real victims of cruel injustice. Being on their side for the wrong reasons is to add insult to that ancient injury. This is a telling fantasy novel, but should not be mistaken for history. It matters.
Diane Purkiss teaches at Keble College, Oxford; her books include 'The Witch in History'
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