A review by Lenora
I first came across the Pendle Witches in Robert Neill’s novel ‘Mist over Pendle’ (Published 1951). At the time I really enjoyed Neill’s version of events but I recall that the witches, Alice Nutter in particular, were not viewed particularly sympathetically. A lot has changed since Neill was writing: feminism for a start and a much greater understanding of how the socio-economic and political climate can trigger events such as witch trials. With this in mind I was looking forward to reading Jeanette Winterson’s take on this most famous of English Witch Trials.
Background to the trials
The Pendle trials occurred in 1612 under the reign of James I of England (VI of Scotland). They were the first in England to be officially documented and set a precedent for allowing the testimony of a child to be accepted in court (previously the testimony of children had been considered unreliable). In this case however it proved crucial to the case and for many its effect was devastating.
James was a monarch known for his interest in witchcraft: he believed the Berwick Witches had tried to sink his ship in 1590; he wrote the anti-witchcraft tract ‘Daemonologie; and he wasn’t above personally supervising the torture of women accused of witchcraft. Add to this feverish brew the Catholic lead Gunpowder Plot of 1605 (after which many of the accused fled to Lancashire) and you have a recipe for a paranoid and bigoted realm with both king and government ready to purge the land of witchcraft and popery. The Daylight Gate examines both of these themes and how they become interchangeable – Thomas Potts has come to Lancashire hunting for witches whilst Roger Nowell is searching for fleeing Catholics.
The Daylight Gate
Although Winterson uses real historical characters and events (such as the meeting at Malkin Tower on Good Friday which set events in motion); she also creates an effective fictional back story for Alice Nutter that via the alchemist and occultist John Dee and his assistant Edward Kelley, links her to Old Demdike. This helps to provide a reason why the well to do Alice was accused along with such a motley crew of broken and abused women of the Demdike and Chattox clans – and why she was at Malkin Tower on that fateful night. The tale also uses magical realism such as when the Demdike’s, holed up in Malkin Tower, brew up spells and make severed heads speak in macabre scenes reminiscent of Macbeth.
However effective this is for the purposes the fictional story, for me this creates a historical problem. Winterson portrays vividly and vicerally how brutalised and abused these women were, trapped by their gender and their poverty in a harshly misogynistic world; she effectively shows how that real seventeenth century world was far more dangerous than any imagined threats posed by witches.
Nevertheless by making these women into practicing witches possessed of real demonic powers, I feel that in some way she is detracting from the historical reality of the suffering of thousands of ordinary women (and a surprising number of men) who found themselves wrongfully accused of, and executed for, witchcraft. It might have been interesting to look further at what drove some of these individuals to admit ‘guilt’ and to claim they had called upon The Dark Gentleman to obtain unholy powers – to examine why these disgarded and dis-empowered women would to try to claim the right of fear or respect from their neighbours at such a terrible price… however I suspect that this would have been a different story entirely.
Despite this caveat, I really enjoyed the book and I found the ending very moving. Winterson’s prose was beautiful and spare. Her descriptions of the most graphic events such as rape and torture were not voyeuristic but were rendered more brutal by the matter of fact language; the settings of Pendle and Malkin Tower were wonderfully dark and ominous; the sense of the net closing in was palpable. And the ending: a tragedy already written in the blood of real people.
Jeanette Winterson’s ‘The Daylight Gate’ is available to purchase from Amazon:
as is Robert Neill’s ‘Mist over Pendle’
Footnote on the Pendle Witches
Following the 400th anniversary of the witch trials there were calls for the accused to be pardoned and a statue of Alice Nutter was also erected in her home of Roughlee.