The absolute forefront of British writing, that's where Jeanette Winterson has stood for me ever since I read her early fiction, particularly her 1987 historical novel, The Passion. She's a writer in the vanguard, moving against the traditional, decorous nature of the British novel — even during the decade or more when, in books such as Gut Symmetries and The PowerBook, she seemed to allow aesthetics and philosophy to overtake story as her main interest.
Now, good news for readers: The writer who exploded the contemporary English novel, the writer who presented life in the broad gestures of opera, in the key of high historical romance, the writer who located passion "between freezing and melting, between love and despair, between fear and sex" is back, with a daring historical novel called The Daylight Gate.
The book serves as a portal in prose, through which readers enter fully into the bloody, raucous England of the early 17th century. We begin some seven years after the undoing of the infamous Gunpowder Plot, in which Catholic terrorists attempted to blow up the Parliament of the anti-papist King James I. A frightened Lancashire peddler named John Law rushes through the countryside in a desperate attempt to put the darkening woods behind him. But he trips and falls into a bog. A witch — whom he later, possibly falsely, identifies as a Catholic woman known as Old Demdike — catches at his leg and nearly snatches the fearful traveler into the realm of darkness on the other side of what the local populace thinks of as the Daylight Gate.
The gate is itself a portal, a membrane of light and time, which appears at that hour of the day when the thinning light yields to dusk in the woods of northern England. At this magic hour anyone, from ordinary peasant to sorcerer or witch, may pass from the reality of everyday life into the land of the devil and his acolytes — or so people believed at the time.
An adoptive daughter of Pentecostals, Jeanette Winterson grew up with few books to read in her house. Since the mid-'80s, though, she has written more than a dozen books of her own, including The Stone Gods.
Peter Peitsch/Courtesy of Grove Press
But in fact, the ordinary English side of the gate has itself become a hellish realm for Catholics. In the wake of the Gunpowder Plot, many of them — especially those accused also of dabbling in magic and outré sexual liaisons — have already suffered hunger, prison, torture and death. Winterson's bold sentences and pithy but authentic scenes quickly build sympathy in the reader for these outcasts: the naysayers, the mad violated children, the same-sex lovers, and even one of the gunpowder plotters who has been emasculated by the king's torturers and taken refuge in the estate of a wealthy high-born Catholic woman named Alice Nutter.
But the king's men are on his trail, particularly Roger Nowell, the local magistrate who hopes to rid Lancashire — and all England — of witches and rebels. Nowell finds himself caught for a time between his desire for the beautiful Alice and his devotion to his legal and political duties. It's certainly easy to see why he falls for Alice, an elegant and intelligent devotee of the dark science, whom the devil himself, aka The Dark Gentleman, may or may not be courting. At first Nowell chooses to arrest a group of poor and degraded locals, mostly women, who've been denounced as followers of black magic.
Will Nowell's desire for Alice keep him from eventually rounding her up with the other suspects — one of whom is Old Demdike, a once-beautiful woman and a former lover of Alice's? Will Alice turn evidence against the tortured Catholic plotter whom she has hidden in her house? Even as the drama-charged pages reveal twists of shape-shifting — and a surprising visit from the Dark Gentleman — Alice retains her dignity and her admirable integrity, if not her own beauty.
Necks snap at the end, and blood flows copiously as the main characters leave this side of the Daylight Gate, bound for who knows where. Hell? Heaven? Oblivion? Any reader who crosses over into this novel will remember vividly where he or she has traveled — through the tumultuous years when English heroines and witches appeared interchangeable, and passion erupted at the gateway between love and despair.