As Winterson notes in her introduction, “The Trial of the Lancashire Witches, 1612, is the most famous of the English witch trials.” For her characters — Alice Nutter, Mother Demdike, magistrate Roger Nowell and others — she draws on the contemporary account of Thomas Potts, author of “The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancashire.” Some readers may recall that this document also served as the basis for “The Lancashire Witches,” a once-celebrated 19th-century novel by W. Harrison Ainsworth.
Yet that book, though powerful, is garrulous and long-winded, while “The Daylight Gate” proffers a series of short, sharp shocks. It opens on Pendle Hill, one of the most haunted sites in England:
“The hill itself is low and massy, flat-topped, brooding, disappeared in mists, treacherous with bogs, run through with fast-flowing streams plunging into waterfalls crashing down into unknown pools. Underfoot is the black rock that is the spine of this place.
“Sheep graze. Hares stand like question marks.
“There are no landmarks for the traveller. Too early or too late the mist closes in. Only a fool or one who has dark business should cross Pendle at night.”
Nonetheless, late one afternoon a fat peddler named John Law is taking a shortcut through Pendle Forest near what they call Boggart’s Hole. He is hurrying along because the light has begun to thin and fade. “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.” But suddenly, Law is confronted by Alizon Device, who asks for a kiss, followed by her “grand-dam” Old Demdike, who begins to curse him. Frightened, Law runs to the inn at Newchurch in Pendle, where he collapses, dying, while holding up three fingers and murmuring a single word: “Demdike.”
In due course, the local authorities round up some — but not all — of the Demdike clan and throw them into the Well Dungeon of Lancaster Castle. In that hellhole, the jailer regularly rapes the younger women, who are grateful that he first allows them to wash up a little. Are the prisoners, as one suspects, simply scapegoats, victims of the period’s rabid fear of sorcery? Are they nothing more than deluded, hungry peasants?
That’s what Alice
, one of the region’s richest landowners, maintains. “Such women are poor,” she tells the well-meaning magistrate, Roger Nowell. “They are ignorant. They have no power in your world, so they must get what power they can in theirs. I have sympathy for them.” As the only benefactor of the Demdikes, Alice allows the family to squat in the decaying Malkin Tower on her land. Alice, herself, knows what it is to be poor. But, long ago, she created a deep magenta dye that took the fancy of Queen Elizabeth and earned her a fortune. Still surprisingly youthful and beautiful, Alice is widely respected, and Roger Nowell is clearly smitten with her. Nonetheless, there is something mysterious about her past.