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I've loved a lot of Winterson's writing, and have enjoyed other books in this Hammer series - but sadly this combination just doesn't work here. Taking her cue from the real case of the Pendle witches, Winterson pulls together a heady brew of Satanism, anti-Catholicism, rape and sexual violence, torture and death.

The problem is that there's far too much going on in such a short novella, and that the whole thing gets increasingly convoluted as stray characters walk in and out. We have incursions, for example, from the retired Shakespeare making cryptic comments about magic, John Dee and Ned Kelley casting spells and appearing both in the flesh and after death, a lesbian love-affair (this is Winterson, after all!), an ex-Gunpowder Plot conspirator, and a magic elixir of youth...

The narrative shifts between `witches' as poor women who are victims of anti-female, anti-Catholic prejudices - and real witches who have sold their souls to the devil, which tends to dilute any political message that the text might want to make. It's also extremely disappointing that the one boon our `real' witch has is the aforesaid magic elixir of youth which keeps her young and beautiful...

So I'm afraid this is a disappointing read which is actually a bit incoherent. There's no historical sense of the seventeenth century, and the gory sex `n' torture scenes feel a bit gratuitous and sensational. An interesting experiment from Ms Winterson but, sadly, not one which worked for me.
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on 19 February 2014
If you have read (and enjoyed) "Mist over Pendle" by Robert Neill, as I have, then I don't think you will like "The Daylight Gate." Both are based loosely on the events leading up to the witchcraft trials of the early seventeenth century in Lancashire. Their timelines overlap but are not coincident - "The Daylight Gate" starts with an event that occurs two-thirds of the way through "Mist over Pendle" and ends with the execution of the witches, while "Mist over Pendle" ends with the arrest of the witches. My main problem is that, whereas Robert Neill gives rational and plausible explanations of the "witchcraft," Jeanette Winterson seems to imply that there are really supernatural forces at work. In addition, the Lesbian relationship introduced by her seems to me to be gratuitous, unnecessary, and unlikely.
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on 21 August 2012
Enjoyable read but not a long read. Having spent my formative years in the shadow of Pendle Hill the story is not unfamiliar.
However to me this book is just a reworking and dramatisation (insertion of lots of sex) of the excellent "Mist Over Pendle" by Robert Neill first published in 1951. Many of the same characters and storyline appear in the Daylight Gate whilst some from Mist Over Pendle, including my namesake Richard Baldwin are omitted.

"Mist Over Pendle" is a far better read and if you can get hold of it "Lancashire Witches" by William Harrison Ainsworth is pretty good too - although being published in the 1820 some of the dialect is difficult for non locals.
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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.
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on 7 December 2012
In 1612, ten women and two men were tried for witchcraft at Lancaster Castle. Of the accused, ten were found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. One was acquitted, and one died whilst awaiting trial. The Pendle Witch Trials have passed into folklore as one of the most bizarre and arcane incidents in English history. Arthur Miller demonstrated that witch trials and panics are fertile ground for fiction, providing a historical canvas for authors to project modern concerns onto. Thanks to the efforts of a zealous clerk, Thomas Potts, we have an unusually full account of the trials at Lancaster, which provide the basis for Jeanette Winterson's The Daylight Gate.

While much of the text remains relatively faithful to the known facts, Winterson allows herself the occasional flight of fancy, especially the incorporation of Dr Dee and Shakespeare into the narrative. Her Alice Nutter is a very modern figure, an entrepreneurial sceptic with male and female lovers. This seems to have generated some rage amongst purists, but her more fanciful notions never detract from the emotional punch of the text. Winterson's skill as a novellist is revealed most strongly by her treatment of the witches' beliefs, and by the manipulation of the starving peasant children by their worldly interrogators. The destruction of the women as they await trial in Lancaster castle's squalid dungeons is especially affecting.

At 194 double-spaced pages, The Daylight Gate feels a little insubstantial, but Winterson's narrative provides a hefty dose of drama in a short volume. The pace never lets up, as characters are drawn ever further into the mass of lies and betrayals which will ensure their downfall. The characters are well drawn, with none falling into stereotype, and we see multiple viewpoints. Subplots engaging with Elizabethan mysticism and the Jesuits add further spice to the text.

The Pendle Witch Trials are a fascinating piece of English history, and Winterson's novella is a great starting point.
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on 7 October 2013
I've read a couple of Winterson's novels and thought her autobiography (Why be Happy when you could be Normal?) was one of the best books I read last year, so I thought I would try her latest novel.
Unfortunately it comes across as hastily written (the hardback copy I received from Amazon was riddled with typos), the language is not particularly evocative, and the ideas behind the basic plotline are muddled. I found a lot of it completely implausible and I didn't really feel any empathy for any of the characters. The talking head just made me laugh (sorry!)
I wasn't expecting historical accuracy, but from Winterson I would have expected a bit more scepticism and a feminist outlook on the events of 1612, not so much actual real witchery popery popery witchery, which just came across as faintly ludicrous. I don't mind graphic details, but to be honest a lot of this was lurid and trashy.
Of course, writers don't always do what you might expect them to do, and that's fine, but it just didn't work for me. Probably didn't help that I'd just finished Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, and as a piece of historical fiction this didn't match up to it in any way, shape or form.
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 18 August 2012
Jeanette Winterson has again produced a novel that hits the reader with a narrative to ponder over. Not one for mincing her words, she has produced a book that is based on fact with the writer's prerogative to drive in her message with added creative embellishment.

England in 1612 is the background. The time of James 1st, a time of Catholicism, accusation and torturous purgatory. Witch-hunting and politically appropriate (in)justice is at the heart of the book. The Pendle witches' trial is infamous. Placed on trial in Lancaster, they were in a no-win situation. Guilty of sorcery or treason? Jeanette Winterson graphically leaves the reader to decide. Powerful Thomas Potts was the clerk of the courts with royal approval, later to circulate the proceedings of the judicial events in a 1613 publication. Inevitably, fate took its toll on the accused. The interim vivid accounts of the alleged misdemeanours of the witches are sickeningly hideous of their victims' fates. Unimaginable and justifiably and appropriately punished, if as it seems, true. Are the 'black arts' they practice of any reality or foresight? The rivalry between the families of Demdike and Chattox seems to have been one based on territory. Alice Nutter is a character with a past that is fundamental to the plot and remains mysterious until the end (no spoilers).

Winterson writes an atmospheric horror novel with a historical basis. Fact and fiction are expertly and seamlessly interwoven. Incisive, short narrative adds to the punch of the book. This isn't gratuitous, but is a reflection of a time when scapegoats were victims to satisfy individual or higher authorities. This is an absorbing, illuminating story of the life and times of an era where treading carefully was advisable. The legend of the Pendle Witches is still a money-earner in Lancashire. No smoke without fire, perhaps?

A read not for the squeamish but so well-constructed and intriguing from the author that a high recommendation is easily made. I did not feel it too short. It was concise. (Kindle price a bargain). A foundation for a film, probably.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 15 August 2012
An interesting novella which brings an additional dimension to both Winterson's previous work and the Hammer "genre" itself.

The writer has considerable "style" and from the opening sentences about "the north" you know you are in the hands of a master (mistress?) crafts-person.

However the book does feel rather more like a treatment for a potential film project than a fully fledged novel. There is little sense of developed characterisation and some errors in detail (eg how long it would have taken to get from France to Lancashire etc). As a result you don't really engage in the narrative or really care about the characters or plot.The biggest problem is identifying who this book is intended for and this has been picked up in several paper reviews. Still, breaking the rules is very typical of JW and this mixture of magic, historical fact and decidedly "gothic" chills, defies easy definition. So with very substantial caveats I would recommend it as a pre-Hallowe'en read or for anyone visiting the Pendle area who wants a rather more imaginative re-telling of the story of the local witches than those pamphlets available at the tourist information centre. However this book is neither 'Mist over Pendle' or Aimsworth's 'The Lancashire Wiches' both of which have considerably more detail and narrative power. "The Daylight Gate" is simply a rather slight "diversion" which left this reader occasionally entertained, bemused but ultimately unsatisfied - and as an admirer of Winterson and much of her work, disappointed too.
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I am curious as to how this commission may have come about. An Arrow Books
publication in association with Hammer (as in Hammer Films), the jacket
indicates that the book is "Soon To Become A Major Hammer Film". God forbid!
(One imagines a man in a black cloak coming to Ms Winterson's room at midnight
offering a sheet of parchment and a sharp pin. A contract signed in blood perhaps?)

This retelling of a tale of witchcraft and persecution in early 17th century
Pendle, Lancashire (the trials referred to took place in 1612) is a clumsily
written and grotesquely sensationalist account of an unimaginably horrible crime.
I found myself increasingly troubled by the author's absorption in the
ghastly finer details of abuse and torture of the hugely vulnerable group of
woman and children at the heart of her narrative. One has a sense that the
horror has been ramped-up to the nth degree to fulfill a cinematic brief and
that she has lost touch with the true awfulness of the actual historical events
and the unimaginable suffering of the victims. It is a crude and inhumane vision.

This grubby invention seems in every way to shamefully compromise her craft.

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on 19 September 2012
Living near Pendle and having a keen interest in the history of the witch trials, I was very excited to hear about this book. I thought that a well respected writer would do a good job of re-telling the story, but I was to be very disappointed. To say that the book is based on fact is utterly misleading. The names used are the names of real people, and yes, the places are too, but that's where any research into the subject matter ends. On the 400th anniversary of the trial, there has been a call to pardon these people for the so called crimes they committed and in a more enlightened age we understand that the evidence brought against them was unreliable at best. We also know that they were not witches, but possibly Catholics practising "the old faith" as with Alice Nutter, or desperately poor , destitute and disabled women hated and feared for their differences. To suggest that they really were witches and to give them such degrading attributes (brothel keeper, for instance) is downright disrepectful to them. Had it been the 40th anniversary instead of the 400th, relatives would be suing.
As if that wasn't bad enough, the story isn't really any good. It isn't scary, haunting or chilling as it lacks atmosphere, which is quite an achievement when writing about a place so rich with it. The characters are one dimensional and the Shakespeare cameo is frankly a naff attempt to demonstrate the link between the real life witch trials and the playwright's efforts to please the king by writing plays that would appeal to his interest in the supernatural (Macbeth, The Tempest). When I saw the extracts lifted straight from Shakespeare, I imagined the character from Little Britain who is only interested in her word count.
I have previously enjoyed Ms Winterson's writing style, but this book felt clumsy and childish with its overuse of simple sentences. There are also proofreading errors, which together with the poor story, scant research and short length of the book make it feel like a rush job either to squeeze some cash out of the 400th anniversary market, or else Ms Winterson had an unexpected bill to pay off.
It doesn't work as an insight into the witch trials, Robert Neill's Mist Over Pendle does a far better job, nor does it really work as a horror story independent of the Pendle story. One to avoid.
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