The story of the Pendle witch trials in 1612 is well known, thanks to the publication of The Wonderfull Disoverie of Witches in Lancashire by Thomas Potts, clerk to the Lancashire Assizes in which ten of the 12 accused were condemned to death by hanging. But it is also unknown because Potts’s certainties are not ours. We know who was accused of what but not why, although several of the cases collapsed into each other, with one defendant being released after a witness was ‘proved’ to have been in the pay of a Catholic priest. Witchery and popery were equally reprehensible, target culture making it imperative for Potts and his cronies to nail someone for something.
Jeanette Winterson is the latest in a long line of fabulists to be attracted to this mix of information and its opposite, and she swoops on the story like the falcon she gives to her heroine. Alice Nutter, one of the condemned, was an oddity at the time because of her gentry background. In Winterson’s hands she becomes the very model of a modern Mrs Warren, who has made a fortune and lost in love.
She has also dabbled in magic under the guidance of John Dee, but unlike her female lover she has not gone over to the dark side and has since attached herself to a gunpowder-plotting priest who has been tortured to within an inch of his life. Winterson here sets a new standard for the emasculated hero — at least Abelard enjoyed his oats before being parted from his bits.
In fact the love affair between the gay widow and Jesuit plotter is one of several garishly ahistorical strands in this short enjoyable book. The priest is strangely untroubled by the rules of the faith he is ready to die for — not only is he happily immersed in a love affair with a white witch, he also appears unaware of the sin of suicide.
Alice Nutter is better value, piecing together the danger she’s in on her own. At one point she bumps into an owlish playwright called Shakespeare and asks him if he believes in magic. He answers with a warning: ‘Do not be seen to stray too far from the real that is clear to others, or you may stand accused of the real that is clear to you.’
This Stoppardian interlude is fun, but the power of the novel lies in Winterson’s take on the witches themselves, who are very far from the free-thinking wise women of old-fashioned feminist revisions. The Pendle witch trials have always challenged the witchcraze = misogygny version because the 12 inconveniently included two men.
Winterson presents us instead with a snarling, cursing, incest-riven coven of desperate low-lifers who think nothing of interfering every witch way with a weirdly loitering corpse-robbing nine-year-old girl who turns key witness. And while the magistrate is a would-be decent man, the constable’s boy and the local jailer are also guilty of disgusting practices. In fact The Daylight Gate offers an unexpectedly reactionary vision in which the educated are civilised, while the have-nots are hell.