The Woman in Black

Susan Hill, The Woman in Black (1983)

What it’s about: England, the early 1900s. Arthur Kipps, a retired solicitor, leaves peacefully with his wife Esme and her children at Monk’s Piece, his home in the countryside. On Christmas Eve, his family tell ghost stories, and ask Arthur to contribute. He panics and leaves the house, haunted by a past trauma, and then commits to writing down his story so as to exorcise his memories. As a younger man, Arthur was sent by his law firm to Crythin Gifford, a remote village in the north-east of England, to attend the funeral of an elderly client, Mrs Alice Drablow, the former resident of Eel Marsh House. On the long train journey north, he meets Samuel Daily, a local of Crythin Gifford, who comments that no one else will attend Mrs Drablow’s funeral. Arthur attends the funeral with Mr Jerome, a property agent, and sees a woman dressed in black with a heavy veil, obscuring a ravaged face and body. He mentions the woman to Mr Jerome who becomes agitated and nearly faints. Later, a local man called Keckwick takes Arthur in a pony trap across Nine Lives Causeway to Eel March House. In a burial ground outside the house, Arthur sees the woman in black again, loitering by a tombstone. After inspecting the house, which appears to be normal, he returns to the causeway to wait for Keckwick’s return, and becomes lost in the mist, hearing the sounds of a carriage accident and a child screaming. He makes his way back to the house and falls asleep for several hours, until Keckwick arrives for him in the early morning. After relating his experiences to a nervous Jerome, he arranges to return to Eel Marsh House for a few days to review Mrs Drablow’s papers. Mr Daily discourages him from returning, but lends him his dog Spider as a companion. Looking through Mrs Drablow’s papers, he discovers letters from her sister Jennet, who had a son out of wedlock, later adopted by Alice and her husband. Over the period of two days, he is progressively terrorised by cries inside and outside the house, the sounds of a carriage crash on the marshes and a locked door discovered open, leading to a child’s nursery. After he and Spider are nearly drowned in the marsh, Arthur sees the woman in black standing at the nursery window. Half dead from fear, he returns to Crythin Gifford. Mr Daily tells him of the death of Jennet’s son in a carriage crash, and that a village child has always died following a sighting of the woman in black. Arthur returns to London, marries his fiancee Stella and has a son. A year later, on an excursion to a park, he sees the woman in black. Moments later, Stella and his son are killed in a carriage accident.

Why it’s a classic: Published in 1983 to critical success, The Woman in Black became a literary juggernaut after the success of Stephen Mallatratt’s stripped-down stage production, which transferred to London’s West End in 1988 and has played continuously ever since. The novel is now taught as a set text to secondary school students, has been serialised for radio and television, and was adapted (with some plot changes) into a successful film starring Daniel Radcliffe as Arthur.

Its success as a piece of writing lies in Hill’s seamless pastiche of Victorian literature and Gothic horror stories, strongly recalling the Gothic sensation fiction of Wilkie Collins (especially The Woman in White, another story about a wraith-like woman who haunts cemeteries, seeking justice for her lost child). Readers gravitate back to Victorian literature not just out of nostalgia for the days of bonnets, corsets and social strictures, but because it’s a landscape, both geographical and imaginative, that still holds the possibility of encountering the uncanny, the supernatural and the liminal world of the dead. Our protagonist Arthur comes from the urban world of science and technology and man-made pollution (“a yellow fog, a filthy, evil-smelling fog, a fog that choked and blinded, smeared and stained“), and travels to a far-flung place where myths and curses and things that go bump in the night still hold sway. (“I had never imagined such a place,” he says of the Causeway; “we seemed to be driving towards the very edge of the world“). At first, he tells us, he adopts a position of superiority towards the locals, lost in their local superstitions, and describes the natural world with a scientist’s eye for observational detail. He’s an apparently reliable narrator with both feet firmly planted in the rational world – in other words, the perfect guide for a skeptical late 20th century audience into a terrifying tale of a vengeful ghost, lost children and a cursed village. Like Arthur, we become progressively overwhelmed by the landscape – the gleaming open spaces of the marshes, the fog that becomes a portal into the past, the storms that lash Eel Marsh House, indifferent to human whim and suffering.

Hill also doffs her cap to another late Victorian master of the ghost story – Henry James, whose novella The Turn of the Screw presents a is-she-or-isn’t-she scenario of a repressed governess who may or may not be imagining ghosts in the garden tower. Arthur’s intelligence and perception – and the intimacy of his first-person address – makes him an immediately more trustworthy narrator – but is he? From the beginning, Hill loads the bases, flagging Arthur’s anxious state of mind, and his fascination with strange deserted houses – his immediate attraction to Monk’s Piece foregrounds his later obsession with Eel Marsh House. We’re also aware that he’s highly susceptible to the emotional registers of landscape and weather. “My head reeled at the sheer and startling beauty, the wide, bare openness of it. The sense of space, the vastness of the sky above and on either side made my heart race,” he writes of the marshes. “I was aware of a heightening of every one of my senses, and conscious that this extraordinary place was imprinting itself on my mind and deep in my imagination, too“. His perspective, while not unreliable, might be easily swayed by his imagination, which may not be as stable as it seems. Arthur is continuously warding himself against foul moods: “I fell into a not unpleasant brooding, philosophical frame of mind, struck by the absolute indifference of water and sky to my presence.” At other times, his entire being seems to be unravelling: “All was so changed, so utterly changed that I might have been reborn into another world and all the rest had been some fevered dream.” Hill plants the sightings of the woman in black sparingly, keeping open the possibility that the scares may only be in Arthur’s mind. Yet still we believe him, carried into the story by the force and precision of his observations, to the horrible finale where all his fears and imaginings are brutally proved correct.

Bouquet or Brickbat: A bouquet of withered roses from Mrs Drablow’s grave. It’s easy to understand why The Woman in Black has become a set text in schools. Clocking in at a lean 200 pages, it delivers the thrills of a great Victorian epic in a brisk, efficient, beautifully written package, packing a big emotional punch than some novels twice its length. I was dazzled by Hill’s command of Victorian language and sensibility, and the immediacy and power with which she inhabit’s Arthur’s point of view. Like A S Byatt in Possession, another contemporary writer who feels at home in the Victorian age, Hill is incredibly good at describing the sensual details of Arthur’s world, and how the exterior landscape synchronises with his interior mental state. We’re so drawn into Arthur’s experience that every cry and creak of floorboards and mysteriously opened door feels terrifyingly plausible. After I finished the book, I spent the rest of the evening checking behind cupboard doors and under the bed for hidden spectres.

If I had one criticism, it’s that the revelation of the Woman in Black’s story feels somewhat rushed, spat out conveniently by Mr Daily, a character who seems significant but who never truly comes into his own. We’re told rather in passing of the deaths of the village children whenever the Woman in Black is seen in Crythin Gifford, but we never quite see or understand, up close, the effect that this has had on the townsfolk. Hill presumably plays this down so that Arthur can write it off as another superstition, setting himself up for a horrible surprise when his own son is killed, but it does feel like a juicy detail that isn’t fully exploited. (Screenwriter Jane Goldman makes infanticide a key motif in the film adaptation, with the Woman in Black as a kind of satanic Pied Piper, turning the village children into zombies who hurl themselves out windows, drink poison, set themselves on fire and walk in front of trains). I was also slightly underwhelmed by the final appearance of the Woman in Black in a London park, which seemed ontologically unsound. She’s a character who belongs to the windswept marshlands and the rattling windowpanes of Eel Marsh House – it feels a bit like cheating to have her transported to an urban landscape, even if she does only exist inside Arthur’s mind. (Again, I rather prefer Goldman’s screenplay, where Arthur and his son have their final encounter with the Woman on the train station at Crythin Gifford). But these are quibbles, in the light of an enormously enjoyable read and a highly accomplished piece of contemporary fiction.

Quotable Quote: [T]he combination of the peculiar, isolated place and the sudden appearance of the woman and the dreadfulness of her expression began to fill me with fear. Indeed, I had never in my life been so possessed by it, never known my knees to tremble and my flesh to creep, and then to turn cold as stone, never known my heart to give a great lurch, as if it would almost leap up into my dry mouth and then begin pounding in my chest like a hammer on an anvil, never known myself gripped and held fast by such dread and horror and apprehension of evil.”

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