Review: The Daylight Gate

18Mar14

Temporarily turning from my challenge lists to my reading notebook, I find myself contemplating Jeanette Winterson’s short novella, The Daylight Gate. Based on actual historical events, the book packs a hefty wallop into a relatively short number of pages, and makes the reader want to know more about the Lancashire witch trials.

Image taken from the L.A. Times - click through to read a longer review.

Image taken from the L.A. Times – click through to read a longer review.

England in the early 1600s was not a great time to be Catholic, a woman, or a witch. If you were some combination thereof, your problems multiplied exponentially, and even if you were otherwise innocent, just being female was enough to get you into trouble. Winterson’s heroine, Alice Nutter, is a wealthy widow who finds herself caught up in the witch-hunt frenzy of the time, accused of witchcraft not just for being a rich woman alone, but for having the wrong friends and the wrong past. It doesn’t help that she has a tendency to stand up to bullies when they harass other, weaker women in the community. It’s pretty much a recipe for disaster as it is, but…there are also complications. Like the fact that Alice knows a thing or two about magic (not to be confused with witchcraft, and Winterson deftly delineates the differences between the two). Or the fact that she’s taken some pretty controversial lovers. None of it bodes well for the women of Pendle Hill, but Alice may be able to face death on her own terms.

The narrative moves along swiftly, driven by short paragraphs and frank descriptions. Violent, unpleasant things happen to most of the women in the story, and even the men of rank are revealed to be of low character (though far more polite about their transgressions, as society and law demand). It’s not at all a pleasant story, but there are glimmers of actual magic underneath the era’s hysteria, the sense that, in a time when calmer heads prevailed, women like Alice would have been venerated–or, at least, somewhat more appreciated. Even Shakespeare makes a cameo appearance, a fictional one, but one both advances the narrative and helps Winterson make the case for real magic in a misguided world.

If you’re one of those people who feel like they never have time to read, and you’re open to historical fiction, you might enjoy The Daylight Gate. Current fans of Winterson will, of course, eat this up with a spoon, as will readers who insist on viewing the past through realistic, rather than rose-colored, glasses. Bonus: though it’s over 200 pages long, its compact design is the perfect size for throwing in a purse, backpack, or carry-on bag for vacation reading.

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