I’ve been reading Jeanette Winterson’s just-published pot-boiler, The daylight gate, her take on the Pendle witches. In the first place, it interests me just how commercially vibrant 17th century witchcraft can be. That Pendle Forest area of Lancashire seems to have mobilised itself to promote tourism by playing up on those associations, and if the local tourist chiefs can keep a few tame archaeologists on their payroll, any word on the search for Malkin Tower can always be guaranteed to make the national news.
Heavens, I almost was tempted to put in a bid on a portion of Roughlee Old Hall myself, when it came on the market recently. (But think of the people with hair in green-dyed straggles you’d get banging on your door, demanding access to the place the latest and more debunking local historian says was not Alice Nutter’s house at all.)
The devil Ms Winterson has struck her commercial pact with is Hammer Films, a subsidiary these days to ‘Exclusive media’, and ‘Exclusive media “is a vertically integrated global filmed entertainment company”, or so their website is proud to boast.
So, someone at ‘Exclusive Media’ has noted the success of ‘The Woman in Black’, and had the idea to commission classy new tales of horror and the supernatural, and their publication can make money, and create a buzz by way of advance publicity for a film version, which makes even more money. (This is not bad thinking, is it?) Helen Dunmore has delivered a story about a haunted RAF greatcoat, and the author of Oranges are not the only fruit has gripped her own nose tightly with one hand, taken the money in the other, and delivered her version of Harrison Ainsworth’s The Lancashire Witches (1848/1849 - which is great fun in its prolix way) or Robert Neill’s Mist over Pendle (1951 - I haven’t read it).
I imagine Ms Winterson has some feel for the setting, as Lancashire born. I liked the scene-setting sketch of Pendle Hill, where “hares stand like question marks” (later the heroine sees a hare whose face seems oddly familiar to her – this hare being James Device in transformed shape). She certainly has fun dredging up from her memory of late Friday night horror films on TV the kind of tatty Gothic décor Hammer Horror’s set-dressers delighted to create: “(Elizabeth Device) was tending a cauldron coming to the boil over a dirty fire. A rough altar, a pair of sulphurous candles and a skeleton still chained to where its owner’s body had left it completed the furnishings of the cellar”. It must be fun for a literary author to let rip with some oozing fibreglass prose like that. You can almost hear the self-disbelieving giggle.
Authors who embark on the Pendle witches seem drawn to Alice Nutter, who was central in Ainsworth’s novel. Thomas Potts makes her participation in witchcraft (in the 1612 case) a matter of astonishment, something inexplicable:
“to attempt this woman in that sort, the Divel had small means: For it is certain she was a rich woman; had a great estate, and children of good hope: in the common opinion of the world, of good temper, free from envy or malice; yet whether by the means of the rest of the Witches, or some unfortunate occasion, she was drawn to fall to this wicked course of life, I know not …”
The inexplicable always draws lots of attempts to explain: a lot of surmise has clustered about Alice. Some allege that she was the victim of a property dispute with the magistrate Roger Nowell, or that her own family members were so avid to inherit her estates that they did nothing to testify for her, or otherwise sway the case in her favour in the way their status and wealth would have made easy. Others say that she could not produce an alibi for her purported attendance at the diabolical Good Friday feast of mutton, because she was Catholic, and had been at a Catholic mass: she died silent to save the priest and the congregation. My favourite local historian thinks that the historical Alice Nutter was an elderly woman, aged 70 or more), and perhaps senile, someone unable to plead properly.
Harrison Ainsworth’s novel shows a tender class-based concern that the soul of the gentlewoman witch be saved, as indeed it is, through the saintly behaviour of her daughter. As in Ainsworth, Winterson’s Alice Nutter escapes the devil and cheats the executioner.
But Winterson’s Alice, unlike Ainsworth’s, is not a witch. She is, rather, someone who possesses an “instinctive chemistry”, if you please, a literal understanding of matter and substances which recommends her to Dr John Dee. Alice diverts from assisting him in his ‘Great Work’ because she happens on a discovery that leads to great commercial success: she invents magenta dye. (To object that this takes place 250 years before its historical invention is just pedantry.) Alice just happens to be wearing her new colour in the audience at the Curtain theatre when Queen Elizabeth, slumming it on a day free of Armadas and traitors pops in to enjoy a show. Her Majesty sees Alice in magenta, and it’s all success from there onwards. Alice cushions her income from chemicals with judicious property portfolio, including lucrative ownership of a high-class brothel.
Throughout the greater part of the book Alice, an expert materialist, is characterised by a scepticism about witchcraft, the devil, God, and the soul. Her sustained disbelief seems unlikely, considering she is usually at the focus of a paranormal maelstrom. John Dee has set her up with an effective elixir of youth, and she herself has created a magical mirror. But we are to credit her with stubborn and rationalistic incredulity.
Alice, as chief character, also just has to be a lesbian. Winterson compromises a little, and makes her attractive to both sexes. Our author must have had to reflect a little about this, for one of the ways Hammer Horror films paid their way was by a liberal admixture of girl/girl action: think of Ingrid Pitt and her various undead girlfriends. How could Winterson exploit this subject without foreseeing an exploitative film? Perhaps the cheesy sleaze of ‘The vampire lovers’ was just too strong a memory?
Alice has two loves in her life. The most important is Elizabeth Southern (“naked she seemed like something other than, or more than, human”). If you know Thomas Potts and the 1612 Pendle case, you know what this means: “Elizabeth Sowtherns alias Demdike” – the central character’s adored lover and the ghastly Old Demdike are one and the same person. Alice is shielded from ageing by John Dee’s elixir, while Elizabeth Southern’s beauty deteriorates because of her fateful decision to ‘take the left-hand path’.
It all hinges on an awkward passage on page 61. I single it out as it is central to our understanding of the book. First comes the betrayal, the awful consequences of which Alice must try to expiate. Queen Elizabeth has just seen Alice at the Curtain theatre in her refulgent magenta gown:
“The next day the Queen sent for me.
And that was the beginning of my fortune and the beginning of my trials.
Elizabeth was jealous. She was a jealous woman by nature, and she was jealous of my success and of my money. I was at fault because I did not share everything equally with her. As I grew wealthier I invested my money. I bought her anything she wanted but I would not make her equal.”
This is sketchy prose. The elision of Queen Elizabeth into her jealous Elizabeth may be careless, or deliberate. “I would not make her equal” is not the same as ‘I could not’, and this difference is studied, but I wonder if it isn’t a little over-brief in its handling (in a book where phrase-making and a rapidly impressionistic prose encourage the reader to hasten forwards to the next sensation). Alice has succumbed to the pleasures of early modern capitalism, is busy with her investments (her money goes into heterosexual brothels, as we later learn), she’s absorbed in turning “gold into gold”. Elizabeth in her jealousy, denied equality by her lover, sells her soul to the devil, right on the very next page. After this desperate act, Elizabeth self-distances, and goes to live in a devil-funded party mansion.
Maybe I am just being obtuse about this, but I have to be honest and say that I don’t think Winterson does enough to help our understanding. This is why Alice protects the Demdikes, and is so anxious to win Elizabeth back from the devil: she precipitated the fall. I am tempted to wonder whether Elizabeth, “an angel” in body, isn’t an ideal of Sapphic womanhood that Alice-Jeanette has betrayed in her tawdry commercial deal to write a novel for Hammer Horror films. The speed with which this crucial explanation of motives goes by prompts a suspicion that the author has seen her own allegory, and doesn’t want to spell it out.
Alice’s other lover is Christopher Southworth. This character is dreadfully difficult to read about without seeing some toothsome Hollywood beau, tricked out with a shirt with dangling ties at the neck and dashing hair. Oh, and a crucifix about his neck, for he is a seminary priest. In the original events, not far away in Salmesbury, Grace Sowerbutts accused Jane Southworth of witchcraft at the behest of a seminary priest known as “Thompson alias Southworth”, retaliating for the Southworth family embracing Protestantism. Potts is obviously proud about the exposure of this (implausible-sounding) Catholic plot and (albeit grudging) final exoneration of Jane Southworth
The other striking thing about Winterson’s Christopher Southworth is that he has previously been arrested and tortured. The torture involved his castration. When he tells Alice that “I can’t be your lover”, he doesn’t just mean because of his vows as priest. Christopher has become a highly sympathetic man, virtually female, certainly without the offensive part, but satisfactory exponent of cunnilingus. His opposite in the novel is the incestuous paedophile Tom Peeper, a character more loathsome by far than any of the witches.
Alice does once have penetrative sex with the devil: Elizabeth leads her into this aberration. The other interesting male who turns up in the action is Shakespeare. I felt that the greatest male writer and the devil himself were curiously paired in the narrative. Winterson otherwise makes Shakespeare sympathetic: wise in the ways of the world and of the spirit, a man who has made it his business to know everyone interesting, a Catholic sympathiser.
The torture scenes are like the torture scenes Louis de Bernières tends to indulge in: one becomes uneasy about what is going off in the author’s little head. I guess one could concede that they are generic to the Hammer Horror genre that impinges so much on the author’s imagination. Torture of women, minors before the law, was not allowed in 17th century England, but that’s one of those things that the magenta-coloured imagination of the author doesn’t worry let get in the way of another description of male sadistic/sexual behaviour.
It’s a brief work: I doubt there are 45,000 words here. Since J K Rowling, there hardly seems much distinction any more between ‘young adult’ and ‘adult’ fiction. Winterson hasn’t wasted words: it’s a book with a film in mind. I hear the trailer now. It will sound and look like this: cue sepulchral over-amplified voice, punctuated by thunder claps, falcon swooshes, dungeon doors crashing shut: “Every girl-child born in Pendle Forest should be twice baptised: once in church, and once in the black pool at the foot of the hill …”. Cue visuals, two young women laughing in bed (oh, Keira Knightly and Romola Garai). “With Patrick Stewart as Shakespeare” – visuals, Ms Knightly flouncing her magenta frock to senior actress as QE1 – “Alan Rickman as Dr John Dee …”, cue visuals, spikes being driven into Keira Knightly’s spine, “in Jeanette Winterson’s classic horror, brought to the big screen, The daylight gate.” Booms, crashes, screams of agony, a falcon’s beak, blood pouring down white skin, etc, etc, etc.