After a very uncharacteristic phase of watching horror films late at night, I stumbled across a copy of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black in a charity shop and immediately knew I had to buy it. It was, after all, deep into December, and I knew that my desire to watch horror films would be overruled by my parents for Christmas classics and other family films, so a book would be the perfect way to give me those thrills at a time when I couldn’t indulge in The Silence of the Lambs or The Shining.
Fast forward five months, and in lockdown I finally got round to reading the book. A couple of months before I had attempted to read Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery & Imagination, a posthumous collection of his short stories written mainly in the mid-1800s, but after making it half-way through I was defeated by the overly descriptive narratives and quite frankly ridiculous plot twists. After taking a break to read three non-fiction novels, including Louis Theroux’s delightful Call of the Weird (2005), I decided it was time to return to the Victorian thrillers.
The Woman in Black isn’t actually a Victorian thriller
What struck me immediately, though, is that The Woman in Black isn’t actually a Victorian thriller. I was surprised to discover that it wasn’t actually written in the 1800s or early 1900s, but was actually first published in 1983. Moreover, throughout the novel, no concrete time period is given, but it appears to me that the narration of the book is actually set at the time it was written by Hill. During the main plot of the novel, numerous references are made to electric light switches, cars and even what sounds like a battery-operated torch. Furthermore, the novel references a gravestone dated 190_, yet it is evident that this must have occurred many decades before the protagonist visited the house as for a long period of time the house had had one sole occupant, who was then buried elsewhere. Moreover, the gravestone may be in reference to Jennet Drablow, the maiden name of Jennet Humfyre, and it is implied that this death occurred at approximately 40 years before the main events of the novel took place, as Jennet’s death followed that of her child’s, whose room had not been disturbed “for half a century”. The novel then skips forward in time again until the main character is considerably older and has children and grandchildren of his own. What distances the novel from the Victorian period even further is the protagonist Arthur Kipps’ use of the word “Victorian” twice in his narration.
To simplify the above, the novel can be split into three time periods: the life of Jennet’s son, Arthur’s visit to the Woman in Black’s house on Eel Marsh Island, and Arthur’s later narration of the book as an elderly man. I see these time periods set in approximately the late 1800s, the 1940s and the 1980s respectively.
This all came as a great surprise to me, as the 2012 film adaption of the novel is so clearly set in the Victorian era. Indeed, there are many elements of the novel that do lend itself to this, with a pony-and-trap being an integral part of the plot. The secluded nature of Eel Marsh Island and the Nine Lives Causeway, the rural way of life in the neighbouring town of Crythin Gifford, and the gothic nature of the novel itself, with the prevalence of funeral attire, storms and fog, all lend themslves to this retelling. Indeed, the change of time period in the film isn’t all that drastic and didn’t require any radical changes in the plot – the main difference is that the film is predominantly set in the 1800s, whereas only one plotline of the novel is, and even in the rest of the book Victorian imagery is heavily used, as both Jennet and her son, who form the supernatural elements of the plot, did indeed die in the Victorian era, and her son’s room has not been altered since then.
I found myself ultimately somewhat disappointed with the book, purely because I expected it to be something revolutionary
As someone who watched the film a whole eight years ago, the Victorian period of the film was the only memory that lingered, and the plot was long gone from my mind – this meant I read the novel essentially with a fresh pair of eyes. The plot indeed follows the tropes of the gothic ghost horror genre – a dead child, muffled screams, unexplainable noises, a derelict house, locals who refuse to speak of their horrors – but it ultimately adds nothing new to the genre, and instead relies on tried-and-tested elements seen in many other similar novels. While these tropes arguably work – overall I enjoyed the book and eagerly anticipated which plot twists would arrive on the next child – I found myself ultimately somewhat disappointed with the book, purely because I expected it to be something revolutionary. It’s a good book, but nothing exceptional, and the plot is not particularly original. What’s more, I found myself surprised by how short the book was – my edition is 160 pages – and was disappointed to stumble across some grammatical errors, mainly in the way of comma splices, but much of this is owed to my former experiences as an English Tutor which has fine-tuned my ability to sniff out even the most inconsequential grammatical inaccuracies.
There are reasons why both the stage and screen adaptations are better known that the novel itself. It’s a good read, and I wouldn’t recommend it before bed (I made that mistake myself), but I felt that something was lacking.
Cover image credit: Instagram @lifewithallthebooks
Last modified: 4th June 2020