Jeanette Winterson’s writing style is sparse. Her language is simple and clear, and her storytelling ability striking. Her words flow, making the story move forward with ease. Her narrator speaks in neutral tones, setting the scene for readers and allowing the story’s characters to live their lives, compelled to action through the motivations of love and desire, as well as those of religious and political power.
The Daylight Gate tells the story of the Lancashire witches trial in early seventeenth-century England, during the reign of King James I, in the spring and summer of 1612, seven years after the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. But with her characteristic voice, incisive and coolly passionate, Winterson weaves a fictional love story around the central player in this narrative—Alice Nutter, an established, wealthy Lancashire woman—and shows us how “Love is as strong as death.” Alice, long before we meet her, has had an intimate relationship with Elizabeth Southern, Old Demdike—the witch who dies at the novel’s end, despite Alice’s attempts to save her.
Alice is accused of being a witch by the magistrate Thomas Potts not just because of her relationship with the Demdikes, who have taken up residence on her property, but also because of her relationship with Edward Kelley and John Dee, the latter appearing for a moment late in the story from beyond the grave. Kelley was known for being a spiritual medium and Dee for his forays into magic, science, and alchemy. Alice, despite her age, appears forever youthful, another mark against her in the suspicious mind of Potts. And it is the vial of liquid she carries with her that keeps her young.
It is Christopher Southworth, however, another former lover being hunted down by Potts, who prompts Alice to save herself from execution. At one point, she goes to Pendle Hill to cross over into the other realm, during the Daylight Gate (the twilight hour), meeting John Dee there, who is about to help her cross over when she changes her mind and decides to save Old Demdike, her love for her stronger than her desire to save herself. This is self-sacrifice; this is love.
Winterson always transforms her larger theme with a tale of love and desire, two forces that always transcend time, place, and topic. Her larger theme, as I read it, is the suspicion cast on individuals and communities seen as detrimental to the established order and the results of that suspicion in the desired eradication of those individuals and communities to ensure the established order’s continued security. The established order here is the Protestantism of King James I, fighting to eliminate the “popery witchery witchery popery” of Catholicism in England, the two being conflated because Protestants believed the pope was the devil, and that witches were in league with the devil to seduce humans to their damnation. And it is for this reason (calling anyone associated with those believed or “proven” to be witches a “witch”) that Alice Nutter is taken to be one, because she willingly protects the Demdike clan, is known for her relations with Dee and Kelley, and appears forever youthful.
Winterson is not just depicting the complicated interplay of religion, morality, sex, and politics during the height of the witch hysteria sweeping the nation in the early seventeenth century. She is also showing us how even in the contemporary world narrow-minded groups quickly and forcefully, through physical and verbal attacks, cast doubts and mistrust on individuals based on their appearance, race, religious faith, and even political creed as a consequence of the fear and frenzy instilled in them by what appears to be an assault on and dissolution of the established order from within national borders as much as from without.
Jeanette Winterson is a formidable novelist and a master storyteller. Her voice is hypnotic, severe, and breathtaking in how it renders the world and the depths beneath it. Winterson illuminates the universal truths of human character and experience in short bursts of language that have yet to fail to make me shiver in awe at where her mind goes and what she brings back to lay down on the page, including lines such as these lines: “He [her falcon] scarred her arm where she had no glove but she did not care because she loved him and she knew that love leaves a wound that leaves a scar.”
For those who know and love Winterson and her fiction as I do, this is her voice; this is vintage Winterson.