Book Review: The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson

Book Review: The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson

Reviewed by Sarah Morgan

“You cannot walk here and feel you are alone. Those who are born here are branded by Pendle. They share a common mark. There is still a tradition, or a superstition, that a girl-child born in Pendle Forest should be twice baptised; once in church and once in a black pool at the foot of the hill. The hill will know her then. She will be its trophy and its sacrifice. She must make her peace with her birthright, whatever that means.”

So begins Jeanette Winterson’s novella about the Lancashire Witch Trials of 1612.

Winterson, whose interest in the occult and Elizabethan magic has been a recurring theme throughout her career, wrote this story for the 400th anniversary of the trials, and blends well-researched history with local legend and her trademark poetical magic realism to weave a tale that includes not only the Pendle Witches and their accusers, but also John Dee, Edward Kelley and William Shakespeare. She explores the religious and sexual politics of the age, as well as the personal disputes that background the trials, and weaves those seamlessly with the high magic and folk magic of Elizabethan England; the pursuit of immortality and the perfected soul through the scientific magic of Alchemy, and the use of wortlore and cunning-magic to solve practical rural problems, through healing or harming. Winterson has done her research well, and captures the essence of these, finding a place where they meet without contradiction; the witch-trials become the Daylight Gate of the title – a liminal space between worlds, linking not only High and Low magic, but also a population caught between two Christianities, between the twin blasphemies of “witchery and popery”, between piety and superstition, love and fear, salvation and redemption, between fear of the Devil and old folk traditions, the restrictions of wealth and of poverty.

At this crossroads, history is written.

And she tells a compelling story in the process; Winterson brings 17thC Lancashire to life in all five senses, delighting in language without holding up the tale, and sacrificing neither magic nor realism in the telling. This is a brutally-real world in which magic exists. Teeth rain from the sky, a severed head talks. A background in the history of the Pendle Witches isn’t required, but those who have one can appreciate the historical accuracy and poetic license – and readers with an interest in Alchemy or pre-Gardnerian English witchcraft will find a lot to recognise as well. At 194 pages it’s a short read and a pleasurable one, and a fine introduction to Winterson’s work for a Pagan audience.

This piece first appeared in Volume 3, Issue 5 (Imbolc 2016) of our old newsletter, Spokes of the Wheel.

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