I live about a half hour away from Salem, Massachusetts, which, at this time of year, is overrun with tourists in costume visiting haunted houses, taking haunted trolley rides, and, of course, visiting countless souvenir shops devoted to memorabilia about witches, warlocks and all things spooky. When the 21st-century interpretation of the infamous Salem Witch Trials include t-shirts, snow globes and "My Other Car Is a Broom" bumper stickers, it can be easy to forget the atmosphere of fear and brutality that led to the witch trials in the first place. In her short novel, THE DAYLIGHT GATE, Jeanette Winterson aims to explore that milieu --- although in England, not in Salem.
"Winterson's novel is both an excellent example of how fiction can enhance our understanding of history and a perfect illustration of how writers and readers alike can (and should) consider events like the witch trials (in England and the US) through the lens of cultural history and interpretation..."
For many Americans, it might be news that England had its own version of Salem's trials. The case on which Winterson focuses is the 1612 Trial of the Lancashire Witches, the first witch trial to be documented. According to Winterson's introduction, many of the places mentioned in her novel --- including the horrific "Well Dungeon" where the suspected witches were kept in captivity --- are real places that can be visited to this day.
Winterson's account is based on fact, but her retelling, appropriately enough, skillfully walks the line between fantasy and reality, between magic and more mundane concerns. She especially effectively illustrates the intersection between politics and witchcraft in her account; several of the most avid witch-hunters are motivated not only by fear of the supernatural but also by hatred of Catholics, spurred on by the Protestant king James I. "Witchery popery popery witchery" is a phrase uttered several times in the novel (as well as in the original historical accounts, illustrating just how closely aligned these two "menaces" were in the 17th-century English mind.
THE DAYLIGHT GATE focuses primarily on the character of Alice Nutter (whose name comes from history but whose character is Winterson's own invention), a beautiful and powerful woman whose background in science (or, rather, alchemy) and her romantic involvement with men and women alike bring her to the attention of both the authorities and the so-called coven of witches at the center of the Lancashire trial. Alice is drawn into the drama more or less reluctantly, having her own reasons to put her life in danger rather than to do the more rational thing and flee entirely.
Winterson's novel is both an excellent example of how fiction can enhance our understanding of history and a perfect illustration of how writers and readers alike can (and should) consider events like the witch trials (in England and the US) through the lens of cultural history and interpretation, especially, in this case, through a feminist re-reading of the events in question. And it shouldn't be overlooked that THE DAYLIGHT GATE is just really good storytelling: sexy, gruesome, suspenseful and spooky in a way that has nothing to do with kitschy haunted houses or dressing up in costumes.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on November 8, 2013