Tuesday 5 February 2013

The family from Hell in the local tower (block)

The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson (Hammer 2012)

The Daylight Gate, Jeanette Winterson’s story of the Pendle witches published under the Hammer imprint, contains some repulsive and horrifying scenes and suggestions of a ‘dark one’ being evoked. There is also plenty of sex, gore, and torture. It also gives some historical context for the witch trials at Pendle: the still prevalent Catholicism in Lancashire and the drive by King James to eliminate both it and witchcraft which become fused into one thing by the lawyer Thomas Potts with his repeated rants on ‘witchcraft popery popery witchcraft’.

There is no attempt to rehabilitate the unfortunate Pendle witches or their accusers as real people with breadth of character of the kind which might be achieved by imagining a way past the real Thomas Potts’ account of them in a ‘Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the countie of Lancaster’. The humanity of the accused witches is sacrificed in the name of evoking horror and pity.

The story begins with the accusations made by a pedlar, John Law, who has been harassed by two women who want him to give them some of his goods, and who has become ill, apparently as a result. Shortly after this, we are introduced to the Pendle witches, inhabitants of the Malkin Tower: Old Demdike, her daughters Elizabeth and Sarah Device, grandchildren Alizon, James, and Jennet Device, and Chattox and her daughters Agnes Chattox and Nance Redferne.

We never know much about these characters. Throughout the novel they remain a sort of raped, diseased and abused lumpen conglomerate, differentiated only by various repulsive physical characteristics and traits such as Elizabeth Device’s odd eyes, Jennet’s starving devouring of food (chicken including all the bones) and James’ madness etc. They are hungry, desperate, and defiant but this is countered by little else in the way of dreams, hopes, friendship or love. As they are not successful elsewhere in life, they play on evoking others’ fear of them to get by. They sell each other out only too easily: Elizabeth Device has encouraged James to take her daughter Jennet to be raped by her own father Tom Peeper, over and over again. James gives up his mother at the witch trial and his sister gives up her brother and her mother.

There is little or no attempt to give any of them an inner life, and unlike the witches of Shakespeare, (Shakespeare makes an appearance, mainly to reinforce the one historical point being made over and over about witchcraft popery popery witchcraft), they don’t even really have any symbolic effect over events either. They believe they can work magic but this seems to be used to add to the idea that they are revoltingly subhuman. In one scene a tongue cut from a boy who has raped Elizabeth Device, is stitched into the rotting head of a corpse which has been boiled, along with a ‘bottled baby’ which the child Jennet Device has assumed to be her toy.

Shakespeare has a token presence and it is rather silly. It doesn’t particularly move the story on, and it doesn’t do Jeannette Winterson any favours for readers to be reminded by Shakespeare’s presence of the rather more interesting characters with complex inner lives of his plays, particularly the downtrodden ones. In spite of the performance of ‘The Tempest’ that takes place in the book, Elizabeth Device is no Caliban calling down curses on Prospero, even when she does have a boiled head for magical purposes.

The novel’s heroine and one character with any depth is Alice Nutter. A landowner who has made her fortune by inventing a magenta dye favoured by Queen Elizabeth and who has worked with a famous alchemist who has given her an elixir of mercury, she lets the Pendle witches live in the Malkin tower on her land and keeps them from complete starvation with gifts of food. The reason why unfolds as the novel progresses: Old Demdike, or Elizabeth Southerns, is Alice’s ex-lover. Demdike really has sold her soul and gone over to the dark side. She married a man called Device and this excellent surname, really the surname of some of the Pendle witches, only adds to the implication that she has married the devil. She has had children and most certainly lost her looks. Alice, on the other hand, is an attractive woman, riding a horse like a man (at least, when no-one else is around to see), wearing her magenta dress, and hunting with a tame falcon. The local magistrate Roger Nowell finds himself inconveniently attracted to her, even though they have had a dispute over ownership of some land, and in the end, tries to help her save herself from trial and execution as another of the Pendle witches. Alice appears to be young but Old Demdike’s family suspect she is really as old as Demdike. ‘Nobody knew how old. Old enough to be soon dead, and if not soon dead, then as lined and wrinkled as the milk-and-water-well-behaved wives of religious husbands with their hidden mistresses’.

Alice Nutter’s elixir of mercury, it is implied, has given her both youth and freedom. Freedom is not just liberty presented as a contrast to the incarceration of the witches, or the freedom of Alice’s wealth in contrast to their poverty, but also freedom from more typical expectations of women such as marriage and family. Its magic is that it helps Alice make money and run her life as she chooses. She has lived openly making money from her magic. But there is a fine line between magic and witchcraft, although the latter was usually the accusation levelled at peasants.

Alice has a lover, Christopher Southworth, who took part in the Gunpowder plot. As Southworth is a Catholic who has been exiled to France and is on Thomas Potts’ list of wanted men (witchcraft popery popery witchcraft), betraying his presence at her house to Roger Nowell could potentially save Alice’s life, but instead she helps Christopher to hide, to visit his devoutly religious sister who is also kept in Lancaster Castle along with the witches, and ultimately, to get away. In doing so, she seals her own fate.
While Alice Nutter is a more interesting character, the Pendle witches themselves seem to have come straight out of some throw-up-our-hands-in-horror story of the local family from hell: the feral underclass family, grooming children for sexual exploitation, living off handouts or going on the rob, with poverty as an excuse for their behaviour. They are revolting, gobby, and one-dimensional. The reasoning presented for Jennet turning prosecution star witness becomes increasingly weak and increasingly modern. ‘Jennet looks at them. Her brother who sold her. Her mother who neglected her. Her sisters who ignored her.’ At the end Alice goes to her execution not only because she has helped Christopher Southworth escape, but because she has not given up on her ex-lover Elizabeth Southerns, the matriarch of this family from Hell. ‘I had no doubt that I was to be a sacrifice, though I did not know what kind of sacrifice.’

The moral failings of the Pendle witches are reflected in those of their ordinary accusers and pursuers: the rapacious constable and his henchman Tom Peeper; the syphilitic prison guards. There is no attempt to explain how widespread the belief in witches was among ordinary people who could otherwise raise families, make money, do jobs, and run households, and who, shock horror, might not be either rapacious, evil, hypocritical, or abusive. In order to do this, those people would have to be seen as otherwise ordinary, and an attempt made to portray their inner lives, too, as worried by unexplained misfortunes and circumstances. Winterson does show that all seventeenth century people, irrespective of their education or income, had some beliefs in magic, but only those of Alice Nutter, and to a lesser extent Christopher Southworth are made psychically real to the reader, and these in a fairly extreme way. The underlying lack of explanation for events and misfortunes, and the related sense of lack of control over their fate of many people in the 17th century, would perhaps be a more mundane starting point, but nonetheless could be a worthy subject for a more impressive kind of horror.

A quick search on the Pendle witches reveals that a trial at the same assizes heard by the same judge let a bunch of accused witches, the Samlesbury witches, go free. There were also plenty of instances of real witch hunts falling apart and women and men not being found guilty of anything because they had other people coming to their defence. Even eight of the real Pendle witches were acquitted. Those sort of cases might not suit the Hammer imprint, and of course, it is four hundred years this year, since the Pendle witch trials. But ignoring this kind of ‘noise’ in the real story is not just down to the horror story tradition, the best of which leave one perturbed and unsure, rather than feeling life’s certainties have been reinforced. The Daylight Gate does not leave the reader feeling perturbed or unsure. Like many Hammer horror films, it tells a story we already know only too well. This time it’s of feral families, of terrible rapacious men, of religious intolerance, and women brutalised and killed as a result. All the magenta dye in the world cannot cover the grey dreariness of these familiar themes.


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