Book Review: The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson

I finished reading The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson yesterday, and whilst it’s not an entirely pleasant book I enjoyed it (by ‘not entirely pleasant’ I mean that it’s pretty gruesome & disturbing in places, with frequent mentions of rape, death, and torture. But then it is a historic horror novel, so they’re not out of place!)

Set in 1612, The Daylight Gate is loosely based on the Pendle Witch Trials. It focuses mainly on Alice Nutter, a wealthy woman and one of the accused, and her struggle to clear her name and gain justice for the other women. In that respect, this novel captures the corrupt social and religious attitudes of the time perfectly, with a bit of alchemy and mystery thrown in.

I found Alice Nutter to be a likeable main protagonist, and I was rooting for her throughout. It was frustrating to know her motives and intentions when the other characters were so ignorant, but that was also part of what made me become so engrossed in the story. You know it’s a good read when you want to scream at fictional people less than halfway through.

Although, I say fictional…

Most the characters in The Daylight Gate are based on real people who lived at the time and were involved in the trials. Many even have the same names. This is where my rant comes in. In the introduction, Winterson explicitly states that her Alice Nutter ‘is not the Alice Nutter of history’ as she has woven a story of her own creation around her that ‘has no basis in fact.’ So, whilst real events, people, and places are used, they are only a stimulus for the story and this book is NOT a rigid, factual account of what really happened. Winterson did not intend for all of it to be true, and she says this right at the beginning so as not to mislead her readers.

However, some of them obviously chose to overlook that bit, for I have seen a lot of reviews online criticising this book for its historical inaccuracy. Criticising someone for something they plainly stated they did not set out to do is ridiculous. Also, if you’re looking for pure facts then turning to fiction for research probably isn’t the best idea.

The Daylight Gate is full of delightfully rich, dark Gothic imagery and offers a plausible scenario as to why Alice Nutter was condemned for witchcraft. It has brought her, and the other accused women, to life and given them the voice which they lacked at the time. For anyone interested in the social aspect of the trials, forgetting the fictional aspects this book paints a speculative yet realistic picture as to how women were treated and why.

If you’re looking for an unsettling yet engrossing story and a little bit of history then this is it. You can find the truth behind it elsewhere, just enjoy the words first. Winterson’s style of writing is clipped and precise, and will give you enough suspense and haunting description to last until long after you’ve closed the back cover.

And to all the reviewers out there slating it for the wrong reasons — next time, pay more attention to what the author has to say before you attack them. Introductions are there for a reason!

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Amelia Starling is a writer and folklorist. She graduated from the University of Winchester with a degree in Creative Writing, and is Senior Editor for Folklore Thursday. She loves travelling and collecting stories, and spent 15 months living in Japan doing this alongside teaching English. Currently she is living in Scotland and studying for a masters degree in Ethnology & Creative Writing. Amelia blogs about folklore and fairy tales at The Willow Web. You can follow her on Twitter @amyelize.

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