The Daylight Gate

By Jeanette Winterson

(Grove, $24, 240 pages)

Who is this author?

Born in  England and raised in a mill town, Winterson is the adopted daughter of Pentecostal evangelists and author of 17  books, including “ Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit,” a fictionalized autobiography; “Sexing the Cherry” and “The Passion.” Her prizes are many and impressive, including the Whitbread Award for Best First Novel for “Oranges,” the John Llewllyn Rhys Prize, the E. M. Forster Award, and the Stonewall Award. “The Daylight Gate,” published first in the UK, was an instant best seller there.

As her website,,,drily puts it: “As a Northern working class girl she was not encouraged to be clever.”

Winterson goes on to say: “I think I started writing before I could read because I wanted to write sermons, because I was driven by a need to preach to people and convert them which possibly I still am…”

But a conventional clergy career was not to be, because at 16, Winterson had come out as a lesbian and left home

What is this book about?

“The Daylight Gate” takes a hard and beautifully written look at a very troubling subject: witchcraft trials in the early 1700s in England, when the Protestant king hunted down Catholics following the aborted Gunpowder Plot to blow up the House of Lords and assassinate him. Witchcraft and magic were accepted as real in those days, and religion and politics were inextricably mixed, to the benefit of neither….a lesson that perhaps needs to be re-learned.

The book is based on the true travails of Alice Nutter, a rich, beautiful and respected woman who was accused of witchcraft, like two of her friends, as well as being the lover of another woman. It is an historical novel that opens up a particularly dark era in Western history to some needed daylight and also a feminist novel that explores how some men are quick to accuse women striving to control their own lives of having or pursuing diabolical powers, a pernicious line of thought that regretfully has not disappeared to this day.


Why you’ll like it:

Winterson gets acclaim for the vividness of her writing, and her subject here is rich with opportunities for a writer with that kind of skill. Here are scenes of great wealth and privilege contrasted with abused women and their starving children; Renaissance-era libertines and alchemists, censorious clergy and brutal torturers, a mysterious woman with a pet falcon and myriad other characters of a period that sounds like a dark fairy tale but is based on reality. This is a short book but an enchanting one, the kind of historical novel where history and fantasy blend into a very powerful whole.

What others are saying:

“More than a shivery treat… This harrowing novel, set in early-17th-century England, touches on nearly every aspect of witchcraft, both historical and imaginative. In little more than 200 pages, Jeanette Winterson depicts starving hags, gorgeous Renaissance orgies, alchemists searching for the secret of eternal life, horrific torture and even the Dark Gentleman himself. Much of the story, moreover, is true…. The Daylight Gate proffers a series of short, sharp shocks… the reader … is gripped by the realistic horrors and brutality Winterson describes… Winterson neatly shifts back and forth among various “realities” throughout… Yet she never tries to dazzle the reader, keeping her sentences sober, precise and solemnly beautiful as the novel moves along with a steady relentlessness…. utterly spellbinding,” says Michael Dirda in the Washington Post.

Says Publishers Weekly: “To open The Daylight Gate is to be thrust into an England most Americans will have trouble believing ever existed. It’s a wild, superstitious place where the king (James I, Protestant son of the very Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots) has minions who prosecute (and, arguably, persecute) people suspected of witchcraft or Catholicism. Winterson starts with the historical record—the 1612 Lancashire Witch Trial really happened—and adds poetry, possibility, Shakespeare, Elizabethan Magus John Dee, a sexy priest on the run, a lifelong love between two women, and best of all, her version of real-life accused witch Alice Nutter. Using the fact that Nutter was from a different class than the group she was tried and executed with, Winterson creates a character straight out of fantasy. Alice is vividly beautiful, suspiciously young-looking, and while not a witch herself, acquainted with what witches call the “Left-Hand Path,” having worked with Dee on his alchemy and seen her female lover sell her soul to the devil, here called “the Dark Gentleman.” Disliked for her power and fearlessness—she rides astride and harbors suspected witches on her land—when the hunts for Catholics and witches converge, so too do her past and present. The book is short, violent (both torture and magic are depicted with full goriness), and absorbing. The language is simple and sometimes lovely, and to say that the book could have gone the extra mile and been a graphic novel is not to damn it, but to recognize the pleasure in its intensely visual qualities.

Booklist’s starred review says: “Winterson’s novels tend to be complex and invigorating. She excels at creating provocative and satirical meshes of tradition and innovation, as in her many-faceted riff on Robinson Crusoe in The Stone Gods (2008). But here wizardly Winterson hones her storytelling to a dagger’s point in an eviscerating variation on the epochal 1612 English witch trials in haunted Lancaster, a Catholic stronghold under James I, the new Protestant king. Like a witch over a cauldron, Winterson mixes historical figures (including William Shakespeare) with invented characters as she portrays a coven of horribly abused women and their starving, sexually exploited children, a desperate clan bravely defended by the mysterious and refined Alice Nutter. Wealthy, accomplished, and strangely ageless, Alice lives in solitary splendor, trusting only her falcon, and refuses to be intimated by the puffed-up witch-hunting lawyer, Thomas Potts, or the handsome, wily magistrate, Roger Nowell. But why does Alice risk all for the hideous crone, Old Demdike? Winterson summons up with forensic detail seventeenth-century filth, defilement, and torture while also conjuring occult forces and diabolical events. The result is a gripping tale of bloody religious persecution and brutal oppression of women and children, a heady and seething novel of fact, valor, ‘magick,’ and love.”

Says Library Journal: “This short novel brings to life 17th-century England during the reign of James I at the Pendle witch trials in 1612. The presence of witchcraft is clear, and Satan appears briefly, yet the accusations against 13 women are highly politicized, much like the Salem witch trials of 1692 in America. The protagonist is Alice Nutter (a real-life victim who was recently honored with a statue in the Lancashire village of Roughlee, her home before she was taken to Lancaster Castle to be tried), who speaks up for the condemned and finds herself facing charges. As we learn more about Alice’s history, we see how a great past love she experienced has and will cost her dearly. The story of Alice’s affair with another woman is erotic and gripping, and the story’s supernatural elements are intriguing. Alice is a complex character with a big heart, a woman who embraces her sexuality and stands up against the powerful. This is a suspenseful, disturbing novel about passion, injustice, sacrifice, and bravery in the face of hideous torture and execution. …”

Kirkus Reviews says: “Witchcraft in 17th-century England: from the prolific British author … a nightmarish novella that burns like a hot coal. It was a notorious trial. The Lancashire Witches were tried and executed in 1612. England was jittery. The Protestant king, James I, was intent on hunting down witches and Catholics. The Gunpowder Plot had been a close call; all the Catholic plotters had fled north to Lancashire. Winterson uses the historical framework, grafting her inventions onto it. Entering the past with her is like walking through an open door. You are there. It is a world of rape and pillage. The most conspicuous witches are the Demdikes, a fearsome family of wretched indigents. The gentlewoman Alice Nutter, wealthy from inventing a dye, lets them live in a grim tower on her land. It is Good Friday. The Demdikes are planning a Black Mass. It is Alice’s misfortune to be at the tower when the magistrate arrives. All of them, save Alice, are placed under guard. Alice does not believe in witchcraft, but she does believe in magic, which flickers throughout the narrative. Thirty years before, in London, she had known the alchemist John Dee and the beautiful Elizabeth Southern, one of her two great loves. Then Elizabeth sold her soul to the Dark Gentleman, but Alice stayed young, thanks to Dee’s Elixir of Life. Now she is in danger, for her other great love, the Catholic plotter Southworth, has materialized at her house. The magistrate offers a deal: Give up Southworth and go free, or be tried as a witch with the others. Alice refuses, sealing her fate. As the tension mounts, Winterson weaves into her story a voodoo doll stuck with pins and an eerie meeting on haunted Pendle Hill between Alice and the dead John Dee. There will be torture and false testimony. An electrifying entertainment.

When is it available?

You can borrow this book from the Downtown Hartford Public Library or its Blue Hills branch.

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