Jeanette Winterson’s work is known for postmodernist lyrical prose. She has never flinched away from darkness and gore, exploring various aspects of being human, and the human past. However, this novella is not lyrical; there is no beauty in the writing to alleviate the heaviness in the lives of the characters. It’s not that the writing is poor, only that it is straightforward.
In this piece historical fiction, Winterson weaves the aftermath of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot into the 1612 Pendle witch trials, with brief cameo by Shakespeare, setting the stage for exploring how man can become inhuman in hunting fellow men. A bit of an irony, really, as it’s the hunted that are frequently portrayed as beastial or fiendish.
The curiosity in Winterson’s story is that, in this fiction, as opposed to reality, some of the accused are actually witches. This is a bit of a moral dilemma to read, as these women were maligned to death with such accusations. And, other than, perhaps, our protagonist Alice Nutter, they were not “good witches,” either. This book, like much of historical fiction that is heavier on the fiction than the historical, is a romp through the “what ifs” – what if they were witches, what if the two historical events were connected more deeply than previously advertised, what if Alice had been killed more for her connection to the Gunpowder Plot than witchcraft, what if Alice and Elizabeth Southerns had been lovers, and on from there.
The Daylight Gate is not a fun read, nor a pleasant one. There is both rape and torture in copious amounts. It was, however, a reminder to myself that as horrible as things seem in the present, as awful as I sometimes feel about humanity’s ability to be kind to one another and the creatures we share Earth with — things just a few centuries before were worse, so much worse. Which gives me hope there can yet be improvement.