Category Archives: Jeanette Winterson

The Daylight Gate – Jeanette Winterson

There are some books with which, due to their subject matter, you find yourself being extremely excited about and all at once rather dubious or nervous about before you read them. This was the position I found myself in before reading Jeanette Winterson’s latest novella ‘The Daylight Gate’, for the revived Hammer Horror imprint, as the book centres around The Pendle Witches and their trial. These historical English events have just had their 400th anniversary and still to this day are rather seeped in myth and mystery. Would the book do justice to the legend or was this going to read like a commissioned cash cow? Those were my fears before I turned the first page.

****, Hammer Books, 2012, hardback, fiction, 194 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

‘The Daylight Gate’ opens with the events that really caused the Pendle Witch Trial. As pedlar John Law met Alizon Device on one of the many tracks around Pendle Hill, on the 21st of March 1612, and she asked him for some pins. He denied her where upon she placed a curse on him. It is from this point that several things including the effects of Alizon’s curse, rumours the Device family were all witches and a supposed meeting of witches in the Malkin Tower on Good Friday that lead to a trail of thirteen people, the biggest England had seen to date. One of these people was Alice Nutter, a loose thread in the whole trial as unlike the other twelve she was a woman on means and money. It is Alice that Winterson focuses on for her fictional telling of the events.

Through Alice we see the events as they unfold with the Device family as they live on her land; we also see what happens when she becomes accused and what life is like in the dungeons of Lancaster Castle, which Winterson brings almost too vividly to life. We also, through her past, get to see how society is at the time, from the reign of Elizabeth I, who we discover is in part responsible for Alice’s wealth, to the reign of James I, a man who brought fear to a nation through fears of his own. I did find the historical context really interesting and have since been off finding out more. I did also find it interesting that Winterson used Alice almost as a thread of narrative on how ill treated independent women were, and with what suspicion they were treated.

With a novel about witches and one by Hammer the natural question is of course’ is this book scary?’ Well no. However it has got the trademark Hammer Horror guts and gore theme running through it. In many ways, with rape, murder, witchcraft rituals and methods of torture all described in quite ‘The Daylight Gate’ is more horrifying than it is scary but that in itself is scary, just not in the ghostly way some people might be expecting. I certainly had no quibbles with being made to feel very squeamish rather than simply screaming my way through reading it.

My only slight quibble with the book was that Alice’s back story, whilst being an integral part of what Winterson’s fictional version of events and enjoyable, seemed to take over the book a little too much. For example she ends up meeting Shakespeare as the trouble is brewing in 1612 and then we hear how they met before, yet oddly it didn’t add anything to the story apart from placing Shakespeare in the narrative. I would have rather had those pages go back to Old Demdike and all that was happening in the castle as it was there that the book worked its magic the most.

Pendle Hill as taken by me in February, more on that tomorrow…

Overall though I was really rather spellbound by ‘The Daylight Gate’. I came away feeling like I knew more about the Pendle Witch trials, if not the witches so much, and how people’s lack of knowledge and some men’s desire for infamy created it all. I also just fell into the story even when it took me places I wasn’t expecting, but that in itself was all part of the enjoyment. I would definitely recommend this for curling up with on a dark and stormy night by the fire.

I will be back tomorrow with more from Pendle Hill itself.

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Filed under Hammer Horror, Jeanette Winterson, Review

Stop What You’re Doing and Read This!

A few weeks ago I got very excited about the arrival of some books about books. The one I decided to read on and off first was ‘Stop What You’re Doing and Read This!’ The idea behind the initiative of this book from Vintage is to remind people about the joy of books and to have them running out to read more. I had hoped to pop thoughts on this up on World Book Day yesterday however I was so conflicted by it I needed to mull it further.

Vintage Books, paperback, 2012, non fiction, 192 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

‘Stop What You’re Doing And Read This!’ is a collection composed of ten essays by authors (such as Blake Morrison, Zadie Smith, Jeanette Winterson, Mark Haddon etc) as well as people in the industry such as Virago founder and Man Booker judge Carmen Callil and Jane Davis, who is the founder and director of The Reader Organisation which this book is supporting, discussing the importance of reading and the joy that books can bring in their many forms.

The collection starts with Zadie Smith’s ‘Library Life’ which shows the importance of books and libraries in particular to her shaping as a writer and finding books and also as spaces for her to do her writing. It is an impassioned and political essay which looks at how the people making the decisions about libraries are probably the ones with enough income to have their own personal libraries and so may not be the best people to leave in charge of such issues. Blake Morrison, who I have never read before but now most definitely will be, follows with the superb ‘Twelve Thoughts About Reading’ which had me going ‘yes, that’s me, yes, that’s me again’.

I liked Carmen Callil’s essay ‘True Daemons’ but considering she set up Virago books I didn’t feel this was really discussed, it is mentioned but in a paragraph and actually an essay on why she had been so desperate to get the unknown/forgotten/overlooked books published and so set up her own publishing house would have been a phenomenal and far more apt inclusion, it felt a little like a missed opportunity as instead it became something of a piece on class and the books people feel they ought to read rather than ones they want to. The class thing interestingly leads me into my main issue with the book…

A book like ‘Stop What You’re Doing and Read This!’ could have one slight flaw to it and become worthy or preachy. Fortunately there was only one essay in the collection that, to me, jarred and that was Tim Parks, unfortunately it jarred and lingered. I don’t know Tim Parks, I have not read any of his books, but for me his ‘Mindful Reading’ came across as a little bit pompous and clever, in fact it read rather like a high brow person (who knows it and loves it) feeling like he was writing for low brow about how clever we readers are and therefore, not so cleverly, excluding the reader completely. I didn’t like it, and this broke the spell and made me suddenly ask the question ‘if I wasn’t a lover of books would this book make me rush out and read more?’ and I kept asking this as I read on and it left me in a real quandary. I am a book lover as it is, so naturally I would enjoy this book as would any book lover the world over, but is this going to be taken on board by the people it’s aimed at, which technically isn’t me because I am an avid reader, I was not convinced.

From this point on I doubly assessed each following essay and ones that proceeded it, well apart from Mark Haddon’s incredible essay ‘The Right Words in the Right Order’ but more on that shortly. I looked back at Carmen Callil’s essay and found myself thinking ‘I know who she is because I love books, would anyone who didn’t love literature know who she was and would her essay therefore work as well?’ As someone who isn’t a fan of poetry I thought Jane Davis’ essay on the power of it (and indeed reading aloud and why she started The Reader Organisation) was incredible and very moving. There were a couple of lines that almost went into a rather worthy and preachy mode; I put this down to simply her passion, would anyone else who happened upon this book feel the same or would they think ‘who does she think she is?’ With Michael Rosen’s ‘Memories and Expectations’ I found the book lover in me thinking ‘wow, this has made me want to run out and grab Great Expectations right now’ because of Rosen’s poignant memories of storytelling, but also thinking ‘this is a wonderful piece of writing but is it only going to appeal to readers of The Guardian, myself included, rather than the layman who doesn’t read?’ I feel bad writing that, because I enjoyed the book so much personally, but once that one essay made me question the whole collection that question wouldn’t leave.

Three essays in the second half (along with the wonder of Blake Morrison’s essay earlier on) almost erased it however. Nicholas Carr’s ‘The Dreams of Readers’ is a wonderful essay on how no matter what technology comes next nothing will ever beat the novel, he won extra brownie points from me when I found out he writes about technology, it almost doubled the power of the point he was trying to get across. Jeanette Winterson’s ‘A Bed. A Book. A Mountain.’ is a wonderful piece on where a story can take you and the thrills and experience it can bring from wherever you are. The essay that steals the show though has to be Mark Haddon’s ‘The Right Words in the Right Order’ I don’t care if you love books or loathe them, read this and you’ll be converted or simply love books even more than you thought naturally possible. It is brimming with wonderful ideas about reading and books and I loved it. I was going to quote lots from it but frankly you should buy the book for yourself and everyone you know simply for this one essay.

A rather rambling and conflicted set of thoughts on ‘Stop What You’re Doing And Read This!’ overall. As a book lover and on a personal level this was a sublime read in many ways, but I am left with that questions of ‘am I the audience this book should be hitting’ and ‘if I was to give this book to a non-reader would they become converted’ and I am left unsure. If you read this blog I know you love books and so will, if you haven’t already, be off to get this book swiftly (and quite right too as it supports a great cause). Yet what about all those people who don’t read the broadsheets or blogs or who might not see this on a shelf in Waterstones though? It is something I can’t really answer.

Who else has read this and what did you think both as a book lover yourself and then coming from the perspective of someone who doesn’t normally read books? Am I being too critical, is the question of audience with a book like this really relevant? I would be interested to hear other people’s thoughts on this. I am also wondering how I can get involved in The Reader Organisation too; mind you after this review they might not want me – oops. I am coming from a good place with my thoughts though I hope.

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Filed under Blake Morrison, Books About Books, Jeanette Winterson, Mark Haddon, Review, Zadie Smith

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit – Jeanette Winterson

‘Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit’ by Jeanette Winterson is a book that I have always felt I should really read and then never gotten around too. However as I have been preparing for this years Green Carnation Prize I thought it was time that I turned to some of the LGBT classics and so I picked it up and started to read… I simply couldn’t put the book down.

It is hard to decide if ‘Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit’ is a memoir or a piece of fiction, not that the label should matter as it’s a corking read, so I think the best way is to say it’s a mixture of the two. We are told the story of Jeanette as a young girl growing up under the fierce some and ever watchful eye of ‘Mrs Winterson’ her highly religious mother who has already decided that her adoptive daughter will become a missionary. However the problem with that is two fold. Firstly her daughter, whilst having respect for the church, has a mind of her own and rather strong wills. Secondly, which we discover as we read on, her daughter is one who suffers from the ‘Unnatural Passions’ and falls in love with someone of the same sex.

Being Jeanette Winterson’s debut novel it would be easy to simply label this work as ‘writing what you know’ and yet it is so much more than that. The character of Mrs Winterson whilst being a retelling of her mother has a slight fairytale like ‘wicked stepmother’ to it. In fact as the book goes on Winterson inserts small tales starting ‘once upon a time…’ as we go on giving the whole book a slightly magical feel. Her domineering yet quiet tyranny over Jeanette’s childhood could have lead Jeanette to become a down trodden doormat. Instead a small fire sparks somewhere and we see a young girl both caught in conflict between religion and sexuality and also pushed on by it.

“I might have languished alone for the rest of the week, if Elsie hadn’t found out where I was, and started visiting me. My mother couldn’t come till the weekend, I knew that, because she was waiting for the plumber to check her fittings. Elsie came everyday, and told me jokes to make me smile and stories to make me feel better. She said stories helped you understand the world. When I felt better, she promised to show me the basics I needed to help her with numerology. A thrill of excitement ran through me because I knew my mother disapproved. She said it was too close to madness.”

I wasn’t expecting to laugh as much as I did through the novel. This is no misery memoir, though of course its labelled fiction, and whilst in parts it is harrowing (I admit I was petrified of Mrs Winterson often, especially when she did things quietly) there is a lot of joy and hope in the novel. I found the fact Mrs Winterson changed the ending of ‘Jane Eyre’ for her own benefit very amusing and also sad at once as if she could do that there clearly was more to her than met the eye and maybe she just didn’t know how to show it.

‘Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit’ is not only a tale of ‘coming of age’, religion and sexuality. It’s a tale of the England and its prejudices and thoughts in the late sixties and early seventies. It wasn’t always as swinging as people might believe. It’s a book I am very pleased I finally took the time to read, and one that I would definitely urge others to read, if you haven’t already of course. 8.5/10

I am pleased to see that Winterson has quite the back catalogue to get through and so will have to read some more of her novels (I fortunately have a few on the TBR), any you would suggest as recommended reading? Have any of you read this yourselves? What’s the adaptation like?

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Filed under Jeanette Winterson, Review, Vintage Books, Vintage Classics