Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Recollections - 2013-14 Session Four: Jeanette Winterson's The Daylight Gate and the end of the our Autumn Semester Schedule

Last week the Gothic Reading Group ended its first semester of the 2013-14 year with a vibrant session on Jeanette Winterson's The Daylight Gate. The novel itself wasn't particularly festive, but its atmosphere was suitably winterey - and that's without resorting to terrible author-name puns. Here Mark offers a brief recap of the discussion last week before previewing things to come and wishing all members and readers a very Merry Christmas.


As we wind up for Christmas, there won't be a full follow-up to our Winterson session, but I'd like to quickly record some of the particularly interesting topics that our discussion explored; or, at least, those that I appear to have noted down. This is also one of the few texts our discussion might reasonably be said to 'spoil' and I'd like to avoid that - our group enjoyed reading the novel and it's a text we'd recommend to other readers and particularly to other Gothic Reading Groups. 

We returned a few times to the way in which the novel defines witchcraft, exploring this question from the perspective of the actual historical context for the Pendle trials and the presentation of witches and witchcraft in early modern and modern literature from Shakespeare onwards. Our sense was that Winterson wasn't necessarily commited to clarifying her characters' 'witchcraft' so much as exploring responses to that question on the part of different characters and the definitions they offer. An alternating third person point of view narration emphasised individual subjectivity, whilst the focus upon Alice Nutter and her history moved the focus away from the trial itself for much of the novel. 

Nutter's story provided an arena for Winterson to answer the question she sets herself in her preface, why, historically, a relatively wealthy yeoman widow was accused along with the poorer Chattox and Device families. This involved an exploration of relationships between urban and rural communities and it seemed that definitions of witchcraft were bound up with this. The novel's action represents the application of centralised (perhaps incoherent) doctrines upon peripheral communities that possessed their own histories and traditions. At the same time, Winterson seemed to suggest that the 'magic' of the Pendle community had its own origin in this world - a world within which Nutter is, in effect, a successful businesswoman, utilising capital and contacts to sell a successful product. The ambiguity of Nutter's position as a wealthy, independent and landowning woman was something the novel addressed in her relationship with other agents of authority, as well as the Chattox and Device groups. 

Other aspects of the novel's portrayal of gender took up much of our discussion. As we might have expected, the text was frequently explicit, albeit flexible in its deployment of specific detail. In making the novel about Nutter and her past, Winterson also made it about her personal relationships and centred her own activity in the trials upon these. The novel seemed to define ideals of sexual congress that were effectively genderless, yet we noted the degree of violence - including violence towards men - that seemed implicated in this. Elsewhere the novel seemed to have a strange attitude to trauma: most of its characters had suffered or were suffering and this was evident in their psychology, but also strangely placid. 

Finally - for the sake of this brief recap, at least - we were interested in the fact that The Daylight Gate was the first publication by Hammer, operating as a new literary imprint. We wondered what the relationship between Hammer and Winterson was and what - if any - impact the Hammer brand and its associations had on the shape the novel eventually took. This was left as an open, but intriguing question. The black and white cover and the generally subdued visual palette might be said to owe something to a 'Hammer aesthetic' (if such a thing exists) yet, in many ways, the novel, with its shifting perspective and focus upon interiority, was far from being easily cinematic. There is, apparently, a film adaptation being produced from the novel so we'll have to wait and see. . .

The Daylight Gate: what the Hammer film of the Hammer novel (probably) won't look like. . .

The discussion of The Daylight Gate (2012) brought to a close another semester of activity for the Gothic Reading Group. Whereas last year's meetings were grounded in more traditional eighteenth and nineteenth century texts, we've mixed things up in 2013-14 with our first twentieth and twenty-first century literature. As the follow-up posts on this site hopefully reflect, our discussion has continued to be lively and wide-ranging with a surprising number of questions and perspectives recurring across multiple sessions focusing on apparently very different materials. 

We've now put together our selection of texts for next year's meetings and will be finalising those dates and times very soon. Our aim is to use the same venue and time-slot (2-4pm in RRB79) that we've used this term, but we're open to suggestions from current and / or prospective members who don't find that slot convenient. In the meantime, the draft schedule is now live here.

All that remains for now is to say a big thank you to all of the members and organisers who took part in the four sessions so far this term and particularly to those who've helped get this website off the ground by providing blogs previewing, supplementing and recapping our meetings. It's early days yet, but we're already starting to build up a nice record of the group's activities. Remember that you (yes, you!) can get still involved with the website and blog - we're always looking for volunteers to introduce or review meetings, but we'd also be interested to hear what members are reading (or watching) and what they'd recommend. 

In wishing you all a Merry Christmas and in lieu of a gift, I'll offer a link to this classic 1968 adaptation of M.R. James's "Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You My Lad" (1904). It's a deservedly revered adaptation (I'm not 100% sure it should be on youtube, actually) and well worth a watch. We should really have snuck in a Christmas session on M.R. James. Note for next year. . .

Merry Christmas everyone! Keep a watchful eye on your linen and if you do find a strange whistle in a collapsing cliff-side grave, don't blow it. If you do, at least wash it first.


Mark Bennett is a PhD student in the School of English studying Gothic and travel writing. He's currently blogging about his research over at Romantic Textualities. He reads M.R. James with the lights on.

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