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Witchcraft, the gothic, religious persecution and the aesthetics of a talking head: the NRB editors discuss Jeanette Winterson’s new novel.

Linda Funnell: This short book is like a little black cat:  sleek and swift and twisting, an omen of trouble, its eyes full of mysteries from beyond the veil.

Jean Bedford: That’s a lovely image and makes me want to reread the book. But when I finished it I lay awake for some time wondering if I thought it was a minimalist masterpiece or a rather slight piece of gothic pastiche.

LF: It certainly is gothic: the ruined tower where witches gather; the mysterious forests surrounding the equally mysterious Pendle Hill; the wretched dungeon metres below the ground; constant mists; a witches’ sabbat; a cauldron; grave-robbing; mindless cruelty and calculated evil; visions and visitations and plenty of blood.

But it also takes its inspiration from real events: the trial of Lancashire’s Pendle Witches in 1612. And there are cameos of real historical figures: William Shakespeare and the astrologer, mathematician and alchemist John Dee feature, as well as Thomas Potts, the lawyer who transcribed the Lancashire trials for posterity as The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancashire.

JB: I think the names of the real people tried have been kept, too, but Winterson has fictionalised their lives and relationships. I really liked the way the sprawling interrelated nest of witches from the tower was referred to by the collective noun ‘the Demdyke’.

LF: In her introduction Winterson makes the point that in the 17th century, witchcraft was often conflated with Roman Catholicism, particularly in remote parts of England like Lancashire. Both were illegal and likely to land practitioners in jail or worse.

JB: Idolatry might just as well be devil-worship, after all. And you have to wonder if accusing people of witchcraft wasn’t just an easier way of doing away with suspected Catholics.

LF: It’s worth remembering that back then being a Catholic was considered treason (this all goes back to the days of Henry VIII). And the Gunpowder Plot – when Guy Fawkes and other Catholic plotters tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament with the aim of overthrowing King James and installing his daughter as a Catholic queen in his place – was only seven years before the Pendle witch trials.

In The Daylight Gate, Alice Nutter has the following exchange with the local magistrate, Roger Nowell:

‘If you cannot try me as a witch perhaps you will charge me as a papist. Is that it?’

‘Your family is Catholic,’ said Roger Nowell.

‘And every family in England till King Henry left the Church of Rome. The Church of England is not yet a hundred years old and you wonder that many still follow the old religion?’

‘I do not wonder about that,’ said Roger Nowell. ‘But I wonder about you.’

JB: Nowell is interesting. Apart from brief appearances by Dee and Shakespeare, most of the male characters in this book are vile – corrupt, licentious, sadistic, puritanical or paedophilic – except for Nowell and the priest, Christopher Southworth. Nowell isn’t wholly a sympathetic character but he does try to preserve some decency and respect and clearly thinks the whole witch-hunting idea is oppressive and unnecessary.

LF: The character who holds the whole story together is Alice Nutter. Unlike the other accused Pendle witches, who are poor and live on the fringes of society, Alice owns property and is a successful merchant. There is the wonderful detail that she has made her money producing a particularly lustrous magenta dye, which found favour with Elizabeth I. Alice is strong, independent, outspoken, and unnaturally youthful. But her past is complex and she is bound to two people: her lover Elizabeth Southern, consort of the Dark Gentleman, and the Jesuit priest Christopher Southworth.

JB: Yes, Alice is a great character. Enigmatic, but full of integrity and loyal to her friends and lovers. I really liked the gradual revelation of her real relationship with the Demdyke. And it’s interesting the distinction Winterson makes between Alice’s refined alchemical magic and the crude and rather desperate Satanism of the witches.

LF: Well, they were desperate times if you were a woman and didn’t have money or male protection … Lack of power and lack of food are themes through the book.  Winterson is good at the nuances of human degradation; for example, she describes a prisoner gazing upwards at a distant speck of light while: ‘[a] rat runs over her foot and drinks from the indent of her shoe’.

And she doesn’t mind blood, either. She has a torturer training his apprentice:

His apprentice was hesitant. He was only a boy. He pushed his awl clumsily into the other side of Alice’s spine. Blood flowed.

‘Be firmer, boy! Try again and stab it straight down the back, one after another, an inch apart. You want to shove it right into the skin and flesh and muscle – that’s it, good and deep. Leave the buttocks. We’ll flay those.’

JB: In a book that is often cryptic and elliptical, the torture and rape scenes stand out. They’re detailed and horrific, reminding us of the real nature of violence and sexual abuse. And that the witch hunts allowed sadistic serial rapists and killers to indulge themselves fully, particularly in their hatred and fear of women.

LF: But at a couple of points I did wonder if this was an homage to the gothic or whether she was taking the piss. An apprentice torturer? And what about the whole talking head thing? Everyone upstairs complains about the stink when the cauldron is boiled with the head in it.

JB: I didn’t think she was taking the piss, quite. Perhaps kinder to say she’s having some fun with the genre and trying to inject some (bleak) humour into what’s otherwise a very dark book, full of anger and hatred. Perhaps she’s saying something here about the banality of evil, too. But I agree the talking head is a bit OTT and perhaps not a wise aesthetic decision. It didn’t add anything necessary to the story and doesn’t quite come off as horror.

LF: Elliptical is an interesting way to describe it – not all the connections are spelt out. And it is a very short book – a novella really, at just 208 well-spaced pages. Which, perhaps, combined with the elliptical quality, wasn’t enough for me to care about the characters as much as I needed to for the ending to really pop. But it’s quite a page-turner and very visual. There are some beautiful images in it – the falcon, the magenta dress, Elizabeth Southern’s green eyes – as well as the gruesome stuff.   The book has been published by Hammer – the people behind Hammer Films – in conjunction with Random House, so perhaps the idea is that we will see it as a film one day too.

JB: In the end I found I liked more about the book than I’d thought, particularly the spare and enigmatic writing. Reading it, I felt I wanted more meat on the bones too, but the main characters do emerge very strongly and stay with you. I suppose the period is so much written about that Winterson didn’t want to go into repetitive detail. I agree about the ending, and the manner of it is unpredictable in a way that doesn’t quite follow from the story. But I cared enough for Alice to be hoping for her rescue …

You’re right that the book’s like a little cat, sleek and sly, but I also thought it was like an iceberg – cool and refractive and only minimally on the surface. Interesting that it prompts such different images in two readers. I think I’ve decided it’s a minimalist masterpiece of gothic pastiche.

LF: Because it is based on real events, you can certainly read it as a reminder of the brutality of state-sanctioned misogyny. But I also think Winterson is having great fun with the genre. Who doesn’t love a haunted hill on a misty night when the moon is full?

Jeanette Winterson The Daylight Gate Hammer 2012 HB 208pp $19.95

You can buy this book in paperback from Abbey’s here or from Booktopia here.

To see if this book is available from Newtown Library, click here.