Category Archives: Winterson, Jeanette

‘You are stubborn,’ said Roger Nowell. ‘I am not tame,’ said Alice Nutter.

The Daylight Gate, by Jeanette Winterson

 THE NORTH IS the dark place.

Hammer Films used to be a British institution. From the late 1950s through to the 1970s it produced a wide range of independent British horror cinema, much of it very good. These films were made quickly and generally on a very low budget. Many were utterly forgettable, but some were absolute classics fondly remembered to this day.

Recently Hammer has had something of a revival. The brand was bought out back in 2007 and the new owners are putting out fresh horror cinema under that label (including the excellent low key British horror movie Wake Wood, which is in the best traditions of Hammer). They’ve also launched a publishing arm, which has put out horror titles by existing horror writers and in some cases by more literary writers spreading their (presumably dark) wings.

I’m a Hammer horror fan and a Jeanette Winterson fan, so when Hammer published her The Daylight Gate they pretty much had me in mind. Applying literary fiction techniques to genre though can easily come unstuck. Some writers (and readers) assume that genre is a lesser form of writing than literary fiction, the beetle-browed Neanderthal to literary fiction’s elegant Cro-Magnon. The truth of course is that genre is simply writing within a particular tradition with particular goals. Even so, if you don’t understand the tradition, or worse yet talk down to it, you can easily write a book which literary fans will dislike because it has genre elements and which genre fans will dislike because those genre elements aren’t very good.

Jeanette Winterson though isn’t a writer who has much truck with the concept of genre, or literary categories generally. As she said in the context of her Stone Gods: “I can’t see the point of labelling a book like a pre-packed supermarket meal. There are books worth reading and books not worth reading. That’s all.” So, is The Daylight Gate worth reading?

Yes, it is (I can’t be bothered with cliffhangers within a blog, they seem so self-important).

Daylight Gate

 THE PEDLAR JOHN Law was taking a short cut through that nick of Pendle Forest they call Boggart’s Hole. The afternoon was too warm for the time of year and he was hot in his winter clothes. He had to hurry. Already the light was thinning. Soon it would be dusk; the liminal hour – the Daylight Gate. He did not want to step through the light into whatever lay beyond the light.

John Law runs into some women of the Demdike clan on his journey. One asks him for some pins, and when he refuses shouts curses at him. he flees, collapses in a nearby inn where he promptly has a stroke uttering but one word, “Demdike”.

That incident, some mocking women and the collapse of an unhealthy man unwisely running through the dusk, leads to one of the most famous witch-trials in English history. The year is 1612 and the King, James 1st of England, is famously obsessed with witches. The book is fiction, but what it’s based on is real. There was a peddler by name John Law. Two women of the Demdike family did ask him for pins, he did collapse and they were later blamed. It ended in ten executions, nine women and one man. It was a pointless act of judicial barbarity, now part of England’s tourist trail.

The characters then in this novel are fictional, but not entirely so. There was a magistrate by name Roger Nowell who acted as prosecutor. There was a court clerk named Thomas Potts who wrote a detailed account of the trial that did wonders for his later career. There was an accused known commonly as mould-heels, and there was an Alice Nutter.

Alice Nutter was unusual among the accused. Where most of the supposed witches were uneducated and desperately poor, Alice Nutter was a wealthy widow. Her links to the other accused were slight, although there’s some evidence that she may have been a crypto-Catholic. Looking back all these centuries later she stands out as an oddity. It’s Alice Nutter therefore that Winterson chooses as the protagonist of her version of these terrible events.

Here Alice Nutter is that most dangerous of things, much more perilous than a witch, she’s a woman independent of the need for men. She has her own fortune made from a royal warrant granted to her by Queen Elizabeth for a magenta dye so deep and rich that none can understand how she makes it. She studied under John Dee, and her appearance belies her years for she perpetuates her youth with a lotion of Dee’s devising.

Is then Alice Nutter a witch? It’s hard to say. Her dye is a question of clever chemistry. Dee is part of the historical record so his presence proves nothing. The lotion could just be an early form of moisturiser, an unusually effective one now lost.

Alice herself is ambiguous in her beliefs about witchcraft. For her the other accused are immiserated, and so desperate for any form of power or control in their lives that they’ll take it even from a Dark Man who may or may not exist. The real crime here isn’t witchcraft, it’s oppression.

“‘Popery witchery, witchery popery'” cries Thomas Potts, “a proud little cockerel of a man; all feathers and no fight.” As the machinery of justice cranks into life it pulls in a wider circle of people. The desperate settle debts through accusations, hoping to help themselves by hurting others or at least to settle a few scores on their way down:

‘I will testify against them all.’ Constable Hargreaves refilled the tankards. ‘And what of Mistress Nutter?’ Jem took his beer and drained it off. ‘I will say to Magistrate Nowell that she promised to lead us and to blow up the gaol at Lancaster and free Old Demdike.’ He started to laugh – high, hysterical. They were laughing with him. He wasn’t alone and outside any more. Not cold or hungry or afraid. He would be safe now.

Alice Nutter believes herself above all this, protected by her wealth and position, and of course by her relative innocence. That’s unwise. She’s bisexual, tending towards a preference for women (this is a Winterson novel after all). She engages with men as equals, enjoys conversation with Roger Nowell who likes her but is all too aware that if he doesn’t comply with her prosecution his own reluctance could land him in the dock right next to her.

So, an intelligent woman able to see the contradictions of the society around her and unable to hide her own separation from it. Put that way it could be a description of Winterson’s first novel, Oranges are not the Only Fruit. It’s easy to see why Winterson found this story interesting, why she thought there was a book inside it. This isn’t though a historical novel (Winterson doesn’t write those), it’s a horror novel.

The horror here isn’t simply supernatural. This book includes graphic scenes of child abuse, rape, torture and relentless human degradation. This is a novel where two of the accused are slightly better off than the others because they’re young enough for their jailor to want to rape them, and so to let them out of the communal cell for a little while and to wash before he sets to. That’s horror, perhaps too much so. The horror genre is generally a comforting one because it’s terrors aren’t real, but there’s nothing reassuring in unjust imprisonment, brutality and sexual exploitation.

There are scenes too of witchcraft – because most of the accused here believe themselves to be witches, whether they really are or not. One particularly grisly sequence involves an attempt to animate a skull by sewing a dismembered tongue into it so as to summon imagined supernatural aid. In the main there’s no evidence it works, but Alice Nutter is again an exception. It’s not clear cut, but there’s some suggestion that during her time with Dee she may have been involved with matters beyond this world, and that this may be part of her present undoing.

‘Elizabeth has betrayed you. She sold her Soul to enjoy her wealth and power for a fixed time. Now, unless there is a substitute for her Soul, she will lose everything. You are the substitute.’ ‘I do not believe in those things.’ ‘It does not matter what you believe. Believe what is.’

If ever there were a writer comfortable with ambiguity it’s Winterson. Here the real and the unreal meet, but the unreal is a manifestation of the real. Some of the witchcraft is plainly superstition, but it’s uncertain if it all is. If magic exists though its expression is merely a reflection of wider social forces. Witchcraft is attractive because women born without power have few other options. Alice is dangerous not because she doesn’t grow old as other women do but because she thinks for herself. For once the old cliche is true, it doesn’t matter whether what the characters believe is real, all that matters is that they believe it’s real.

The book’s not without problems. There are inherent tensions in depicting real life horror and the supernatural in the same work, and as noted above it’s hard to care about the machinations of the Black Man when you’ve been reading about a serial child abuser a few pages previously. Possible horror, well written, makes it hard to care about impossible horror.

Winterson also overdoes some motifs, particularly the phrase “the daylight gate” which is frankly overused and so becomes rather tedious and the meanings of which are exhaustively spelled out for the reader. There’s a sense too that Winterson just plain crowds too much in, with John Dee entering the tale, and an encounter with Shakespeare, plus a wandering emasculated Jesuit priest (it’s telling that Alice Nutter’s only male romantic interest doesn’t have a penis). For a fairly short novel it’s dense to the point of overflowing, and it’s not as if the trial itself hasn’t already got a rich cast of characters and incident. The book doesn’t need to feel as if everyone of any note in Jacobean Britain is wandering through its pages.

It’s not then an unqualified success. Winterson is combining two forms that don’t easily sit together, and the results don’t always gel. She avoids though the main traps of this sort of exercise, she doesn’t patronise the genre, she doesn’t give the impression she thinks she’s slumming it, the concerns she explores here are concerns she’s explored before in other works and that genuinely interest her.

Ultimately it’s what it says on the cover – a Jeanette Winterson novel. It’s not her best and it’s probably not for those of her fans who don’t also like the odd slice of the macabre, but if like me you’re the target audience for a Jeanette Winterson Hammer horror novel then that’s precisely what this is. Like the Hammer classics of the 1970s it sometimes doesn’t quite convince, and sometimes you can see how the effects work, but for all that it’s still well made and a lot of fun.

Recent evidence by the way points to the Neanderthals being as intelligent and sophisticated as we are, which makes the analogy I used early on in this piece very unfair to Neanderthals. Sorry Neanderthals, and sorry about that whole driving you extinct thing too. Mistakes were made. As a final aside also I can’t write this review and not mention the (utterly unconnected save for subject matter) album 1612 Underture by the Eccentronic Research Council with Maxine Peake – easily the best electronic music feminist satire on the treatment of the Pendle witches out there.


Filed under Horror, Winterson, Jeanette

I’m telling you stories. Trust me.

The Passion, by Jeanette Winterson

The Passion is not history, except in so much as all our lives are history. The Passion is not romance, except in so much as all our lives are marked by the men and women with whom we fell in love . . .

After reading a book I hadn’t loved and a book I positively hated I needed my next to be something I could rely on. Something that I knew would be good.

Back in March I read my first Jeanette Winterson – Oranges are not the Only Fruit. I loved it. I thought it superbly written, beautifully observed, compassionate and generally just a little bit of a triumph. All that and it was funny too. What better to turn to then than another Winterson?


The Passion is set against the backdrop of Napoleon’s grand campaigns in Europe and Russia, but it would be misleading to call it a historical novel (in fact Winterson specifically disavows that it’s a historical novel, not that her opinion on the point proves anything either way). What’s interesting about Napoleon here isn’t that he conquered much of Europe, created a legal system still used to this day and lost an army in Russia; what’s interesting is the passion he inspired in others that allowed him to do all those things.

Henri is a soldier in Napoleon’s army. He works in Napoleon’s kitchens, and serves him his chickens. Napoleon devours chickens, eating almost nothing else (was that true? I have no idea, I wouldn’t be surprised if Winterson has no idea, it doesn’t matter). The first part of the novel tells Henri’s story. Henri loves. He loves Napoleon, so much so that he leaves home and family and risks his life for him. Later he loves a woman, Villanelle, but she does not love him.

It’s hard to remember that this day will never come again. That the time is now and the place is here and that there are no second chances at a single moment. During the days that Bonaparte stayed in Boulogne there was a feeling of urgency and privilege. He woke before us and slept long after us, going through every detail of our training and rallying us personally. He stretched his hand towards the Channel and made England sound as though she already belonged to us. To each of us. That was his gift. He became the focus of our lives.

The second part of the novel tells Villanelle’s story. She too loves. She loves another woman, but that woman is married and will not leave her husband. Villanelle also loves her city, Venice. Villanelle’s Venice isn’t the Venice that a million tourists arrive in each day by train or cruise ship, chugging through the same few streets to take their pictures of Piazza San Marco before complaining about the cost of a coffee and the smell from the canals. Villanelle’s Venice is the one that brings all those tourists, the dream of Venice.

The reason by the way most of those tourists don’t find the Venice they’re looking for isn’t that it isn’t there (though strictly factually of course it isn’t), and isn’t because it’s not in them to find it. It’s the nature of the cruise experience, the day trip. My first time in Venice was a day trip. We came out of the station, walked crowded streets crammed with other tourists and Piazza San Marco was heaving and overpriced. I hated it.

When I eventually went back, years later, a different we stayed overnight. We didn’t plan to remain long. We had flexibility though (I had just left one job and had a few weeks before starting my next), and Venice in the evening was a revelation. Given time, we stepped off those few streets and found an entire city of canals and back alleys. The city emptied out of an evening, the day trippers and cruise ships gone, and became a different place. It’s a city for me built for twilight, perhaps fittingly since while it’ll probably outlive me I doubt it’ll do so for very long. We extended our stay, and have returned several times. I hope we shall again.

THERE IS A city surrounded by water with watery alleys that do for streets and roads and silted up back ways that only the rats can cross. Miss your way, which is easy to do, and you may find yourself staring at a hundred eyes guarding a filthy palace of sacks and bones. Find your way, which is easy to do, and you may meet an old woman in a doorway. She will tell your fortune, depending on your face. This is the city of mazes. You may set off from the same place to the same place every day and never go by the same route. If you do so, it will be by mistake. Your bloodhound nose will not serve you here. Your course in compass reading will fail you. Your confident instructions to passers-by will send them to squares they have never heard of, over canals not listed in the notes.

Of course none of that exists. Winterson herself has said that she hadn’t been to Venice when she wrote the book. It’s not a city where the boatmen have webbed feet and can walk on water (as Villanelle can, being a boatman’s daughter).

Winterson chose her dream-city wisely, because nobody goes to Venice for its shopping or its restaurants. It’s draw is something much less certain than that. It’s an atmosphere. It’s Henry James, Italo Calvino, Death in Venice, Casanova’s history of his life, Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. In a way, it’s like Napoleon. It’s real, but the reality of it seems a small thing to explain the passion it inspires.

The first two sections of The Passion tell Henri and Villanelle’s individual stories. The third and fourth tell of how those stories join together and each become a part of the other. The two meet as Napoleon’s great doomed dream of capturing Moscow collides with the cold reality of the Russian winter. Winterson does not avoid the horror of war:

When our horses died of the cold we slit their bellies and slept with our feet inside the guts. One man’s horse froze around him; in the morning when he tried to take his feet out they were stuck, entombed in the brittle entrails. We couldn’t free him, we had to leave him. He wouldn’t stop screaming.

This is a story filled with the most extraordinary characters and images. Napoleon’s midget groom. A de-frocked priest turned soldier who if he closes one eye can see 20 miles with the other (“I asked him why he was a priest, and he said if you have to work for anybody an absentee boss is best.”). Villanelle’s stolen heart is kept by her lover in a jar. Henri is given a thread of gold frozen in an icicle that doesn’t melt even in the Venetian heat. This is not a literally minded book.

Running through all of it, like that golden thread embedded in its icicle, is the theme of risk. What really matters to you? What are you willing to risk? Life is risk. At home in Venice Villanelle works as a croupier. At various points she repeats her mantra, her philosophy: “You play, you win, you play, you lose. You play.”

In a casino of course you have a choice in that. You can choose not to play. You can choose not to risk. In life though the only way not to play is to die. As long as you’re here, you play, you win, you play, you lose. You play. The only choice you have is how much you’re willing to risk. What Henri and Villanelle have in common, with each other and with Napoleon, is that they would choose to play even if there was a choice and that they’re willing to gamble what they most value.

At risk of sounding hackneyed, the point being made here is that the act of love is itself a gamble. You place your life in the hands of another person, and sometimes that works out and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes they don’t love you back. Sometimes they betray you. Sometimes they hurt you terribly, in ways only they know how since only they know you so well. Most of us, me included, think the risks are worth the throw of the dice. It is though, however you cut it, a hell of a wager.

The Passion takes place against a backdrop of war. However terrible that war is, and however much it transforms the characters lives (and ends several of them), it is ultimately still just a backdrop. The war defines their times, but it does not define the characters themselves.What makes their lives is their passions. Their friendships. Their loves. What they choose to risk.

I’ll end on a final quote, not because it particularly illustrates anything I wanted to say but simply because I liked it too much to leave it out and what’s the point of having my own blog if I can’t use quotes that don’t otherwise fit? It is, of course, about Venice.

I got lost from the first. Where Bonaparte goes, straight roads follow, buildings are rationalised, street signs may change to celebrate a battle but they are always clearly marked. Here, if they bother with street signs at all, they are happy to use the same ones over again. Not even Bonaparte could rationalise Venice. This is a city of madmen. Everywhere, I found a church and sometimes it seemed I found the same square but with different churches.

Jeanette Winterson’s own page on The Passion is here. I’m not aware of any blogosphere reviews, but if you have reviewed it I’d love to read your thoughts so please let me know in the comments.


Filed under Venice, Winterson, Jeanette

‘So just you take care, what you think is the heart might well be another organ.’

Oranges are not the Only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson

LIKE MOST PEOPLE I lived for a long time with my mother and father. My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle; it didn’t matter what. She was in the white corner and that was that.

That’s the opening paragraph to Oranges, and it’s one of the best opening paragraphs I’ve read in a long while. I knew as soon as I read it that I’d like this book; that I was in safe hands.

For some reason I’ve long had the impression that I wouldn’t like Winterson’s work. She’s one of those writers who has a long shadow beyond their fiction, with a public persona that can seem arrogant and offputting (Hensher and McCarthy also spring to mind on that front). I was wrong though, because I absolutely loved this book and I’ve already bought her second novel. Winterson can write, and what’s more she has that unusual knack of writing serious fiction which is also extremely funny.


Oranges is about a girl named Jeanette Winterson, growing up in Northern England as part of a small evangelical Christian church in which her mother is one of the most important local figures. That’s also the early story of Jeanette Winterson, the writer. Does that make it autobiography? No, it just means that like many writers Winterson drew on her own life. It’s a story, and in that sense whether it happened like this or not (or not at all) doesn’t affect its truth. As Winterson observes: “People like to separate storytelling which is not fact from history which is fact. They do this so that they know what to believe and what not to believe. This is very curious.”

Jeanette’s mother divides the world into friends and enemies, and there aren’t many on the friends list. Chief of the enemies of course is the devil, but it also includes the next door neighbours, the godless generally, most of the world in fact. Her life revolves around her church, which gives her a permanent cause to fight for and an endless supply of foes to fight against.

The Missionary Report was a great trial to me because our mid-day meal depended upon it. If it went well, no deaths and lots of converts, my mother cooked a joint. If the Godless had proved not only stubborn, but murderous, my mother spent the rest of the morning listening to the Jim Reeves Devotional Selection, and we had to have boiled eggs and toast soldiers. Her husband was an easy-going man, but I knew it depressed him. He would have cooked it himself but for my mother’s complete conviction that she was the only person in our house who would tell a saucepan from a piano. She was wrong, as far as we were concerned, but right as far as she was concerned, and really, that’s what mattered.

Jeanette of course is among the friends, a virgin birth (well, adopted, which is almost the same thing). As a child she grows up steeped in bible stories, myth and history commingled and inseparable. She views the world through the lens of religion:

Our house was almost at the top of a long, stretchy street. A flagged street with a cobbly road. When you climb to the top of the hill and look down you can see everything, just like Jesus on the pinnacle except it’s not very tempting.

It all works very well indeed, until the local council notices that Jeanette isn’t at school and requires her mother to make her attend (no home schooling in those days, thankfully). It’s the first exposure Jeanette has to worldviews beyond her mother’s.

‘And why, and this is perhaps more serious, do you terrorize, yes, terrorize, the other children?’ ‘I don’t,’ I protested. ‘Then can you tell me why I had Mrs Spencer and Mrs Sparrow here this morning telling me how their children have nightmares?’ ‘I have nightmares too.’ ‘That’s not the point. You have been talking about Hell to young minds.’ It was true. I couldn’t deny it. I had told all the others about the horrors of the demon and the fate of the damned. I had illustrated it by almost strangling Susan Hunt, but that was an accident, and I gave her all my cough sweets afterwards. ‘I’m very sorry,’ I said, ‘I thought it was interesting.’ Mrs Vole and Miss shook their heads. ‘You’d better go,’ said Mrs Vole. ‘I shall be writing to your mother.’

Still, despite all these contradictions in her life (and whose life doesn’t have contradictions, however old they may be?) young Jeanette manages to balance her world at home with the wider world. To her church she’s a shining example, a young missionary with great promise. That’s what she wants, to grow up and one day take the Good Word out to the benighted peoples of the Earth. Unfortunately, not all contradictions can be reconciled. Jeanette falls in love, which might be manageable except that the person she falls in love with is another girl.

Oranges is sometimes described as a lesbian novel. Winterson doesn’t agree with that description, and she’s right not to. The key relationship here is not between Jeanette and the women she sleeps with as she grows into adulthood, it’s between Jeanette and her mother. This isn’t a coming out novel, it’s a novel about the gulf between parent and child as we come to realise that our parents may not, after all, be right about everything and definitely may not be right about us. (Well, that’s one of the things it’s about – no truly good novel is about just one thing.)

The problem Jeanette the character faces here isn’t an unusual one. She wants to be the child her mother wants, but who she is isn’t compatible with that. Here it’s because she loves the wrong people, but it could be too a child that realises they can’t face working in the family business; they want to marry outside their community or faith; they don’t want to be a doctor or concert pianist or whatever; there are so many ways parents can expect more from their children than just their happiness.

In part I actually found this quite a painful novel to read. It brought back a great many memories of my own childhood and adolescence; of trying to be someone I wasn’t and could never be. I was shy back then, terrible at sport and with no interest in it unlike my father’s side of the family who were (are) confident and naturally athletic. I was bookish, as were two of my grandparents but nobody else and the things that interested me were often so far from the interests of my family that we could barely talk to each other. I was transitional, born to a working class family but wanting more. None of this is unusual. As Winterson says: “Everyone thinks their own situation most tragic. I am no exception.”

Winterson of course, the real Winterson, left home and went to Oxford and from there became a writer. Winterson in the fiction leaves town too, escaping but at times returning, as most of us do. Few of us, however much we may wish to escape from home, truly leave it behind forever. Few of us truly wish to, because however much we may fight with our parents, our family, we love them and they us and that remains true even as we may deplore each others lives.

There is much pain here. Some people think you can have your cake and eat it. The cake goes mouldy and they choke on what’s left. Going back after a long time will make you mad, because the people you left behind do not like to think of you changed, will treat you as they always did, accuse you of being indifferent, when you are only different.

I talked above about the key relationship here being between Jeanette and her mother, and it’s that tension between expectation and love that it captures so well. To Jeanette’s mother Jeanette is unnatural, one of the Godless, damned for passions against God. Jeanette however comes to accept her nature, to be happy with who and what she is. Logically that must be a divide that cannot be bridged. How do you reconcile two such different perspectives?

Well, you don’t I suppose. Still, only in the saddest cases do parents and children remain permanently estranged. We make allowances, permit exceptions to our most vital beliefs, because the alternative would be to deny love. My maternal grandmother was a devout Catholic, in her later years she took to referring to the family as heathens for our lack of faith, but she wouldn’t have dreamt of rejecting us over so small a thing as god or the fate of our immortal souls.

I should add that Oranges is not as straightforward a novel as the (marvellous) tv adaptation of it would suggest. While most of the novel is told fairly straight, it dips from time to time into fable, stories which reflect the wider story but which introduce an element of myth into the mundane. It works, because it fits. Winterson, the real Winterson, is telling a story and there are more ways of telling a story than just saying what happened.

Oranges is a superbly written novel. I was never a lesbian growing up among Pentacostalists in the North of England but I found it resonant and unsettling for all that – it isn’t remotely limited to its own particularities. Winterson is adept at arresting turns of phrase, women with “shoulders bared and white like hard-boiled eggs”, “ripe plums of indignation”, but she’s not one of those writers who place one beautifully crafted sentence after another ending with a result that while beautiful is somehow sterile and cold. All that and she’s funny too. Frankly, I wish I’d started reading her sooner.


Filed under Winterson, Jeanette