How Gruesome Does A Realisic Account Have To Be? – On Jeanette Winterson’s The Daylight Gate (2012)

A visit to a book shop on Friday evening led me to Jeannette Winterson’s latest book The Daylight Gate. It was in the fantasy section and from the description I gathered it was a book on the trial of the Lancashire Witches in 1612, the most famous of the English witch trials. Why this book was in the fantasy section wasn’t entirely clear to me as witch trials are a historical fact and hardly fantastic. Maybe it was because of the way it was written?

I’ve always been interested in the topic of the trials of witches. Interested and horrified. And I often pick up novels on the subject. In the past I’ve read Eveline Hasler’s amazing but untranslated Anna Göldin. Letzte Hexe (Anna Göldin. Last Witch) on the last witch trial in Switzerland, in 1782. The way the book was told is amazing because it reads like an old trial report. It’s sober and very impersonal which created an eerie feeling of realism. Maryse Condé chose an entirely different approach for her I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem – Moi Tituba, sorcière noire de Salem. That’s a novel I didn’t only find fascinating but really loved. It’s tragic but beautiful as well. A third novel which many people like but I found dry and unappealing was Erika Mailman’s The Witch’s Trinity.

I was keen to find out how Jeanette Winterson would treat this subject. It seems that content-wise The Daylight Gate is very close to Robert Neill’s Mist Over Pendle. Pendle Hill in Lancashire was said to be the home of witches. While there may be a similarity content-wise, there certainly is none in the execution.

Maybe the fact that it was in the fantasy section misled me. While I didn’t expect a fantasy novel as such, I most certainly wasn’t prepared for something this gruesome. This was by far the most gruesome book I’ve ever read. It’s really not for the faint of heart and it literally made me sick. For someone who is used to read accounts on war this is an intense reaction and it really made me wonder if the book had to be this gruesome to be realistic? Witches are frequent figures in fantasy novels and fairy tales. They can be black or white but some romantic ideas may often be tied to them. Maybe Jeanette Winterson wanted to prevent any idealization or romantic notions. While there are a few instances of magic in the novel – mostly linked to the figures of John Dee and Edward Kelley – the focus is on fanaticism. There is nothing romantic in women and men being persecuted by zealots. Women and Catholics alike were hunted by King James’ henchmen. King James, a fervent  and fanatic protestant, who believed he was attacked by witches, hunted and executed numerous men and women. And had them tortured. And this is the gruesome part, as the torture scenes are described in great detail.

Not only are we served detailed descriptions of torture but of incest and rape as well. Children are sold to their own father. Many a poor woman’s only chance at survival is to sell her body. Often they received not only food but many negative things in exchange. They got pregnant or contracted a disease. The scenes in the dungeons are hard to take as well. The dirt, the festering and oozing wounds, the stink…

To call the world of The Daylight Gate bleak would be an understatement. This is a dark, very dark and disturbing book. Finishing it felt like coming up for air after having been under water and deprived of oxygen.

Was there anything to like in this book?  Yes, I liked the story of Alice Nutter, a rich woman who acquired her fortune through the invention of a magenta dye. An independent and strong woman. Beautiful and free. She was convicted together with 12 other women and men. She seems to serve as proof that it wasn’t about witchcraft but that at the core of those trials was hatred. Hatred against poor people and women.

While I see why Jeannette Winterson chose this approach, I’m not sure it had to be this gruesome. A little less show but tell would have been my preference here. If we had read “He was emasculated” would we not have gotten the picture? Did we need to read how it was done in a page long, detailed description? We get a full blow. No room for romantic notions here, fanaticism and ugliness are laid bare.

To be honest, I could have done without reading this. As well written as it was, as much as I was fascinated by the story of Alice Nutter, I cannot understand how a writer can let loose such utter ugliness. If you know and like Jeanette Winterson, just bear in mind, this might be her most disturbing work.

What do you think? How gruesome should a realistic account of torture and pain be?