Top positive review
19 people found this helpful
Short, readable, atmospheric
on 8 February 2013
I enjoyed reading this one afternoon over the Christmas holidays, so I was surprised to read the many negative reviews and wanted to restore some balance.
I freely admit I don't know a lot about the Pendle trials, and I do have a thing about historical accuracy, so this would possibly have annoyed me if I were an expert, but I have checked with a friend in the know and she advised that the case is remarkable for how few facts are established. Fiction based on fact always treads a fine line concerning truth and decency, but given that the writer has to be free to imagine his or her own story, I don't think Winterson - whose work I hadn't hitherto read - oversteps the line here at all. I do know a bit about 16th and 17th Century English history and I don't find the sexual content unlikely. By our standards this was an absurdly patriarchal and violent society after all, and these were people subsisting on the margins.
As for Alice Nutter's bi-sexuality, perhaps that is an indulgence on the author's part, but it's hardly an outrage or smear on her character to suggest it. I did wonder about the Southworths, and went back to Fraser's 'Gunpowder Plot' volumes to check, and yes, they (and the connection with Dee and Shakespeare) are an addition to the known truth, but again, hardly a heinous link. There are also objections to Alice Nutter's owning a brothel. It's a bit more tentative, in that she isn't the 'Madam', but the absentee landlady. Moral objections are beside the point: Winterson's Alice has risen thanks to learning and skill, and must continue to fend for herself. It could be argued that the prostitutes she allows room in her Thamesside home would otherwise be on the streets.
The other main criticism seems to be that the language is simple, and it is, I assume because of the Hammer branding, but again, this doesn't detract in any way from a dark and gripping tale. The writing is spare and beautiful, which is apt for a book about Pendle.
Comparisons to other fictionalised versions of the trials may be inevitable, and if you want a straightforward, sanitised version of events it sounds like 'Mist over Pendle' is the book for you, but this is an original and literary take on a very disturbing piece of history and a good read.