The Woman in Black
Susan Hill

This book was written in 1983, and as such is a good 200 years out of period. The date at which the novel is set is never precisely established, though details such as London's pea soup fogs and steam trains would seem to indicate a date in the 19th C or early 20th C. This deliberate vagueness is quite in keeping with the tendency of the Gothic genre towards archaism; the terrors and horrors of the fiction can be enjoyed at a safe arm's length by being placed in the past. In classic Gothic fiction, however, the action also takes place far away: The Monks set in Spain, Udolpho moves between Italy and France, Dracula is located in various parts of Eastern Europe, as well as London, but is another late piece of Gothic (1897). In Northanger Abbey Henry Tilney chastises Catherine for believing that Gothic excesses could take place in, for them, contemporary England. The action of The Woman in Black does take place in England, but it is a very "remote part of England" (p26) which almost seems to be a world apart. Eel Marsh House, cut off from the rest of the area by the salt marshes and only sometimes connected by the Nine Lives Causeway (and how about that for a superstitious place name?) might as well be in Spain, for all its connection with the civilised world of England, located in Arthur Kipps' mind in London, smog notwithstanding.

Chapter 1 - Christmas Eve

The opening paragraph introduces the protagonist of the novel and its narrator. This novel is told as 1st person narrative, which is not traditional to the genre. Both Lewis and Radcliffe used the technique of omniscient narrator which gives the scope to be everywhere at once whilst presenting events through the eyes of a variety of characters. The 1st person technique used here identifies us exclusively with Kipps and his viewpoint. This is valuable later as we are forced to share his intense feelings about the events at Eel Marsh House without any opportunity to escape. (Charlotte Bronte also uses 1st person narrator in Jane Eyre, another out of period Gothic novel. Dracula, by using various characters' journals, takes advantage both of the dramatic impact of 1st person narrative and the ability to switch viewpoint. ) Immediately the narrator is shown to be slightly removed from the society around him - a little alienated, though he is voluntarily excluding himself at this point. He is, of course, telling the story retrospectively, which means he tells it in such a way that the reader is always a step ahead of the narrator, having the hindsight which he lacked at the time.

As the narrative continues and Kipps fills in the background to his present situation we see why he should hold himself aloof in this way. This novel is told in flashback; the main events of the novel happen before the novel begins.

The name of the house in which Kipps is now living is Monk's Piece, which has Gothic overtones which don't seem to go anywhere. Maybe it's just to create ambience. However, Kipps' discovery of the house and his claim to

"an absolute conviction that I would come here again, that the house was already mine, bound to me invisibly"(p12)

are redolent of Gothic superstition and supernatural, though the supernatural events of the novel do not actually happen there. The description of the way the weather has been and of the isolated nature of Monk's Piece suggest a kind of toned down, domesticated Gothic.

In his admiration of nature Kipps is associated with the type of Gothic and Sentimental hero who find the sublime in the contemplation of nature and whose moral worth is gauged by their response to the beauties of the natural world. Later in the chapter, however, care is taken to establish Kipps' Augustan credentials;

"I had never been an imaginative or fanciful man and certainly not one given to visions of the future" (p13)

- though we begin to see that he clings to this Augustanism through fear; earlier he has mentioned

"occasional nervous illnesses and conditions, as a result of the experiences I will come to relate" (p11)

and we now learn that

"since those earlier experiences (he) had deliberately avoided all contemplation of any remotely non- material matters, and clung to the prosaic, the visible and tangible." (p13)

Certainly he sees the value of a lack of sensibility; whereas his wife wishes her daughter to be

"a little less staid, a little more spirited, even frivolous", (p16)

Kipps is happy with his step- daughter's Augustan qualities, seeing in them a protection for her;

"I would not have wished for anything to ruffle the surface of that calm, untroubled sea." (p16)

Through both of these characters we see Augustanism presented as the safe option. This can be compared with St Aubert's desire to keep Emily safe from sentimental excesses by rooting her in reason. Within the Gothic genre reason is seen as the safe place whilst sentiment and superstition (and sexuality, but we'll get to that later) are seen as dangerous. We have talked about the tendency of Gothic writers to only go so far in their Gothic rebellion before retreating to the safety of the known.

Hints as to some traumatic event in Kipps' past continue to be dropped in this chapter, with reference to

"the long shadow cast by the events of the past" (p14)

We learn that these events happened at Eel Marsh House subsequent to the death of Mrs Drablow and, despite his current happy situation, still have the power to fill him

"with mortal dread and terror of spirit" (p15)

This technique of generating and building suspense is very Gothic and owes much to Radcliffe who used it to great effect in Udolpho with regard to the black veil, the mysterious apparitions and disapparitions from the locked chamber, the inexplicable voices in the walls and other more minor mysteries.

When the family begin to tell ghost stories, all of the Gothic cliches spill out, of -

"dripping stone walls in uninhabited castles and of ivy-clad monastery ruins by moonlight, of locked inner rooms and secret dungeons, dank charnel houses and overgrown graveyards, of footsteps creaking upon staircases and fingers tapping at casements, of howlings and shriekings, groanings and scuttlings and the clanking of chains, of hooded monks and headless horsemen, swirling mists and sudden winds, insubstantial spectres and sheeted creatures, vampires and bloodhounds, bats and rats and spiders, of men found at dawn and women turned white haired and raving lunatic, and of vanished corpses and curses upon heirs". (p19)

Kipps describes these stories as wild and silly, yet the unease they create in him suggests that

"the rising flood of memory" (p19)

is bringing with it something to match or outdo these tales, which makes him feel an "outsider to their circle" (p19). His response to being asked to contribute a story is extreme; he loses track of himself for fifteen minutes in "a frenzy of agitation" (p21). All this is leading up to his confession that

"I had a story, a true story, a story of haunting and evil, fear and confusion, horror and tragedy" (p21)

and that the memory of it is "like an old wound" (p22). Kipps determines to commit his story to paper, as a kind of exorcism, thus setting up the context for our possession of the narrative.

At the close of the chapter all our expectations are in place, our hero has been characterised as a trustworthy narrator of sound Augustan values and suspense has been generated; we want to know what Kipps' much hinted at experience actually was.

Chapter 2 - A London Particular

The fog described at the beginning of this chapter has, in physical terms, the same effect as is experienced within Gothic fiction when characters become decontextualised -

"disguising the familiar world and confusing the people in it" (p25).

This smog, though rooted entirely in natural causes, creates a traditionally Gothic ambience of darkness and uncertainty. That Kipps should begin his adventure on such a day is entirely in keeping with the Gothic technique of using landscape and weather to indicate forthcoming events and emotional states. The vocabulary chosen conjures up images of Hell -

"sulpherous yellow light... flares... red-hot pools of light... a great, boiling cauldron... evil red smoke... red-eyed and demonic" (p26-27)

and there is specific reference to Dante's Inferno. In retrospect this language can be seen to reflect the personal hell he is shortly to enter, though it equally serves as a graphic description of a foggy November day in London at that unspecified time in history.

In this chapter Kipps is told of his destination - Eel Marsh House, across the Nine Lives Causeway. As is typical of Gothic novels, the exact location of Eel Marsh - "in ____ shire" (p29) is not revealed, though a series of credible directions is given. This gives the advantages of an aura of reality together with anonymity, thus preserving maximum terror possibilities. The fact that access to Eel Marsh is determined by the tide increases the potential for isolation and decontextualisation. At this point in the novel Kipps himself is aware that the situation sounds fictional:

"The business was beginning to sound like something from a Victorian novel" (p31).

This adds to his Augustan credentials as a "sturdy, commonsensical fellow" (p26) We read

"I saw that Mr Bentley had not been able to resist making a good story better, and dramatising the mystery of Mrs Drablow in her queer-sounding house a good way beyond the facts" (p31).

Plainly he is not expecting anything out of the ordinary to happen; he is no Catherine Morland.

At the end of the chapter we are thrown somewhat to read of his fiancee, Stella, given that we know him to be married to Esme. However, subsequent events push this inconsistency from our minds until events resolve the discrepancy. The ground for future plot events is very subtly and economically laid in this way.

Chapter 3- The Journey North

In this seemingly uneventful chapter we meet Samuel Daily, who will become important later.

It's not so much what he says in this chapter that is relevant, so much as how he says it; when Kipps teases him "you're not going to start telling me strange tales of lonely houses?" we read "He gave me a straight look.

"No", he said at last, "I am not." (p37)

The straight look and the fact that the response was not immediate suggests that all is not being revealed.

We are reminded of he geographical isolation of the area -

" I .. was feeling an unpleasnt sensation of being isolated far from any human dwelling ," (p38)

and informed of some useful Gothic architecure -

"a good wild ruin of an abbey with a handsome graveyard" (p38).

Kipps feels that Daily has been exaggerating

"the bleakness and strangeness of the area" (p39)

but this does not prove to be the case.

Chapter 4 - The Funeral of Mrs Drablow

Once again it is the manner of Mr Daily's delivery rather than what he says that makes an impact; he offers Kipps his card "should you need anyone.." (p40) and meets with a "straight" (pagain) stare Kipps' suggestion that the business will be straightforward. We receive the distinct impression that there is a mystery here, and Daily knows more than he is letting on.