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by Jeanette Winterson
Grove Press, October 2013
240 pages
ISBN: 0802121632

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Visitors to Salem, Massachusetts late October will be able to participate in all kinds of activities that would have got them headed toward the gallows in 1692, the year of the Salem witch trials, in the course of which 200 persons were accused and twenty executed. Various events, like "Ghost Hunting 101," an annual Psychic Fair and Witchcraft Expo, and a free Salem Witches Magic Circle that allows tourists to cast their own spells all culminate in the Official Salem Witches' Halloween Ball. Nor is witch-kitsch just an American phenomenon. Travel to Lancashire and you may take part in the annual Walking with Witches Pendle Hill Ghost Hunt Vigil & Supper (set menu). Or if you are otherwise engaged on Halloween, Pendle Witch ExperienceŠ do year-round bus tours of the countryside associated with the witch trials of 1612 that saw eleven charged with witchcraft-related offences and ten executed.

The jaunty air of these celebrations and the comic illustrations of hags astride broomsticks that accompany the prospectuses reflect nothing of the deadly seriousness of the actual historical proceedings. Though witch persecutions in both America and Britain were considerably more constrained than on the Continent, when they did occur they took a terrible toll in human life and shattered communities. In the US, their witch trials have largely been interpreted as a caution against what has been called "the paranoid style in American politics." Britain tends to read theirs more sociologically and historically.

Last year saw the four-hundredth anniversary of the Lancashire witch trials and as part of the commemoration, Hammer, the British horror film production house, published Jeanette Winterson's novella as part of its new book list. If the name is unfamiliar, she is a highly regarded author of a number of novels and of and memoirs of growing up in Lancashire as the lesbian adopted daughter of Evangelical Christians.

The title refers to that moment of fading daylight just before the dark descends. It is the liminal hour, lying across a threshold, and this the territory that Winterson stakes out for her own account of the Pendle Hill witches. For although she bases it firmly on the historical record, she still is able to slide across historical and sociological fact into a world where there is magic, where a severed head speaks with a human tongue, where a spider comforts and counsels a confused and venal man, and where a seventy-year-old woman looks a youthful forty, thanks to the lotion provided her by the alchemist Dr Dee.

Those accused at Pendle Hill were a sorry lot. Desperate and destitute, they perhaps turned to necromancy (if indeed they did) in order to extract a meagre living from their neighbours. Perhaps they did nothing of the sort, but were merely vulnerable targets for ambitious men seeking favour at the court of James I, who had an abiding belief in witchcraft. They certainly landed square in the centre of the still on-going conflict between Catholic and Protestant, for, as the thoroughly unpleasant Thomas Potts, author of The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the County of Lancashire, is fond of chanting, "witchery popery popery witchery," treason and heresy, what's the difference? He is on the scene here, as is other historical figures, including a marvellous cameo appearance by William Shakespeare, retired from the stage but on hand for a performance of The Tempest.

Central are two other historical characters. Alice Nutter is the focus of the story and she is intriguing indeed. The real Alice was the prosperous widow of a yeoman farmer, and her inclusion among the riff-raff of the Pendle witches is still a puzzle. This Alice is also wealthy. She is, however, a self-made woman, one who made her fortune by inventing wonderful dye-stuffs, especially a splendid magenta that brought her to the notice of Queen Elizabeth herself. She was lovers with Elizabeth Southern, another of Dr Dee's circle, until one day "the dark descended" - Elizabeth had sold her soul to the Devil, or so she claimed, and left Alice for a life of dissipation. Alice is a ambiguous figure indeed. Largely a rationalist, she is an agnostic, sceptical of the real existence of magic and of the Devil. Still, she is swept into that world almost against her will.

What really gets her into trouble, however, is not witchery, but popery, or at least her relationship with Christopher Southworth, wanted as Gunpowder Plot conspirator and fugitive Jesuit. Alice and Southworth love one another and are lovers despite the terrible mutilation he suffered at the hands of torturers. In the end, it is love, not a thirst for mystical power, that catches Alice and brings her to the gallows.

THE DAYLIGHT GATE is a beautifully written meditation on a terrible moment in human history. Winterson's ability to incorporate the sort of lurid detail that characterizes a Hammer film into a moving and human narrative is astonishing. The book is perfectly paced and almost impossible to put down. At Halloween, we are bombarded with representations of witchcraft that are essentially unserious, even jovial. It is as well to be reminded that those who were accused of actually being witches were very far from jolly and came to terrible and undeserved ends.

§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, October 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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