Next up in this year’s Extravaganza, we have a name that’s probably already familiar to readers of mainstream queer fiction: Jeanette Winterson, author of several novels including well-known past award winners like Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985) and Written on the Body (1992). She’s one of the better-recognized queer women writers working over the past thirty years, but she hasn’t exactly written much that would get her discussion in this end of the publishing field.
So, naturally, I was pretty excited to hear about her newest novel The Daylight Gate: set during the Lancashire witch trials of the early 1600s, it happens to have a touch of the supernatural that makes it a strong candidate for a speculative-fiction readership otherwise potentially unfamiliar with her fiction. And it’s got John Dee and Shakespeare in it.
It’s also technically more of a novella than a novel—one of those “big text small pages” deals—and it’s immensely graphic in some uncomfortable ways. Nonetheless, I found myself wanting to write about it in the Extravaganza, because sometimes a complicated reader-response can be productive too. Not all texts are going to be ideal.
Winterson’s prose is perhaps the first thing that a reader will notice when picking up one of her books: it’s dense, poetic, and lush. Descriptions come to life with vivid clarity, and the cadences of speech and interaction have a lyrical beat to them. Her work is generally a pleasure to read, something to savor, and in this sense, The Daylight Gate is no exception. Each short chapter takes up a brief focus on a character or a moment, putting together a patchwork of brief interludes that narrate the story of Alice Nutter as a whole: her charity to the Demdike family, her previous experiences with the mystical through John Dee and associates, her love for a young woman who sold her soul and her love for a Catholic priest who was associated with the Gunpowder Plot, et cetera.
The addition of actual magic and actual spirits to this particular witch trial is intriguing, providing as it does an otherwise difficult to figure connection between the poor and destitute who were accused and executed in the trial and the wealthy Alice. The sharpest moments of the uncanny in the text—a floating piece of paper, a felt presence, the visiting spirit of Dee—are all increasingly vivid and increasingly convincing, whereas at first, Alice’s insistence that there’s no such thing as witchcraft feels quite sincere. It’s a slow reveal and a slow build, though a short text, that has a sort of twilight power to it. The Daylight Gate, the moment of thinning between the worlds, therefore seems an apt title for a book like this.
But unfortunately the first solid thought I had, upon finishing The Daylight Gate, wasn’t about the prose or the supernatural. Rather, it was that the book had a stunning—perhaps even gratuitous—amount of sexual violence, sometimes in detail and other times a passing occurrence. But either way, there was a lot, ranging from incestuous child abuse to the rape of female prisoners to the rape of a male Jesuit priest. Within the first few minutes of reading, there’s a gang rape. And that’s just a light preview for what’s going to happen over the rest of the text.
I have complex feelings about the “historical accuracy” argument and the “authenticity” argument in cases like this. Because yes, sexual violence was—and is—endemic. But there’s also a point, when reading a narrative this short, that the repetition of scenes of rape becomes overwhelming. Or, as I ended up feeling in this case, it begins to seem like the easiest shot at horror, the simplest method for showing the brutality and awfulness of a time period or a person’s cruelty. The constant focus on sexual violence ends up stealing the actual potential for affect, for horror, by becoming so relentlessly common in the text that it ceases to have an impact. It also, in this sense, begins to feel like a cheap effect rather than a commentary or a rendering of truly nightmarish personal experience.
And so it seems sort of—disrespectful. Disrespectful of the real experiences of rape that readers might have, and of the potential for fiction to explore the gravity of those experiences. Because I’m totally not on board with a “never write about this” line of thinking, and I do find it important to write about and talk about and explore… But I also am exhausted by the television crime drama style of dealing with rape, where it’s just a shocking act of violence that can be used to manipulate the audience’s reactions.
I wanted to feel that this book, this story, was doing something else. I suspect that the intention was to represent the caustic brutality of the witch trials, and of life in the sixteen hundreds, in an immediate and visceral way, but I don’t think Winterson succeeded in creating that kind of atmosphere in the text. Instead, the regular—and I mean regular—descriptions of sexual violence become a sort of litany of expected horrors that flattens after a while. It was difficult to find a point to it in the text itself; perhaps just that the world is an awful place and awful things happen in it? But if so, this isn’t a particularly nuanced way of pointing that out.
It’s certainly gritty, and certainly awful, but I’m left as a reader scrabbling to find a point to the whole thing. Winterson’s handsome prose is gripping, and the story of the Lancashire trials (plus real witchery and spirits) is engaging, but in the end, I felt off-put by The Daylight Gate. And it’s not because I’m a soft-hearted reader, I promise—that’s not usually a problem I have. There was just something gratuitous and manipulative under the surface of the violence, here, that I didn’t appreciate. It left a bad taste in my mouth, in the end.
So, I’m pretty reluctant to recommend The Daylight Gate. It’s gorgeous in a lot of ways, but ugly—perhaps pointlessly so—in others. That makes this a bit odd as an Extravaganza post, I suppose, but it also felt necessary to talk about queer speculative books that miss the mark, or that are problematic in their own ways; to acknowledge that things aren’t always peachy in the genre. Stuff can get complicated. With this book, proceed at your own discretion, and maybe go pick up Written on the Body instead.
Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.