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Book Review: The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

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The Woman in Black is a good old-fashioned ghost story by Susan Hill, first published in 1983. It’s a “vintage” ghost story, written in the period and style of classic ghost stories by Wilkie Collins and M.R. James. This new paperback is a tie-in to the upcoming film adaptation (February 2012) starring Daniel Radcliffe as the protagonist and narrator, Arthur Kipps. The book had been adapted before into a made-for television movie, radio versions, as well as a stage play.

Arthur Kipps is a young solicitor with prospects — a promising career and a young fiancee. His boss, Mr. Bentley, tasks him with representing the firm in the estate of an old woman, Alice Drablow, who lived as a recluse in a remote part of England. Kipps is eager to please his boss and also to see a bit of the world and get away from London. He travels to the small village of Crythin Gifford to attend Mrs Drablow’s funeral.

Almost as soon as he begins his journey everyone he encounters clams up the moment he mentions his reasons for visiting their corner of the world. Mrs. Drablow was well-known in the area, but no one wants to speak of her. But Kipps is an unsuspicious sort of fellow and, at 23, naive enough to believe that his own strength and force of will can carry any day.

While at the funeral, which is bereft of mourners, Kipps sees a figure in the rear of the church, a woman “with a pale and wasted face,” dressed in black. He is curious who she might be, as no one else in Crythin Gifford wanted to pay their respects, but she disappears before he can speak to her. He needs to focus on his business and prepare for the next day, when he will visit the client’s house and start to go through her papers to see what might be of use to his firm.

Mrs. Drablow lived in Eel Marsh House, which is situated far beyond the town. Similar to Normandy’s Mont Saint-Michel, the house can only be reached at low tide, by crossing a long causeway. Kipps is taken there by a local in his pony trap, Keckwick, who promises to return for him when the tide recedes. He is later joined by a delightful dog named Spider, who truly proves to be man’s best friend.

Eel Marsh House and its creepy, marshy environs are portrayed with great detail and care in The Woman in Black. Hill creates a truly eerie atmosphere — there is a feeling of dread that surrounds Kipps from the very start of the novel. Strange sounds in the house, and a terrifying cry of a child in peril out in the marsh, are just the beginning of unsettling occurrences that Kipps encounters.

It’s an absorbing and entertaining read. The only criticism I might have is that The Woman in Black is a straight ghost story. There is nothing wrong in that, but if Kipps’s mental state had been in question, along the lines of the governess in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, that would have added another layer of subtlety to the story. But we never for a moment can doubt that what Kipps is dealing with is ghostly in nature.

Kipps and the reader are in for some genuinely scary moments, and like all good ghost stories, The Woman in Black leaves one with a feeling of unease, with questions unanswered. Could some of the happenings been avoided? It will be interesting to see how the film diverges from Hill’s story. It’s a perfect read for this spooky Halloween season.

[Wood engravings by Andy English from Susan Hill’s website.]

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  • Gerry Morris

    The release of the film “The Woman in Black” has prompted me to re-read the book (which I did with a good deal of pleasure). It’s also prompted me to take a closer look at the text and worry at a problem that’s been niggling away since I first read it.

    While the film firmly sets the period in the late Victorian / early Edwardian period, Kipps in his narrative seems to be some way removed from this in time (for example, he speaks of cars as a commonplace sight). When Mr Bentley describes the state of Mrs Drablow’s affairs, he finds himself thinking that it resembles “something from a Victorian novel”, and towards the end, reading through Jennet Humfrye’s letters leads him to contemplate the sad situation of “servant girls in Victorian England”. Moreover, the graveyard near Eel Marsh House includes one weathered headstone with a date beginning 190… The most precise pointer comes in the lengthy description of the contents of the nursery at the house which “must have been here for half a century” and include a jigsaw of the Boyhood of Raleigh. Millais painted “The Boyhood of Raleigh” in 1870.

    What, then, are we to make of the very Victorian family Christmas with which the book begins? Kipps describes his wife’s grandsons as sleeping with “stockings” tied to their bedposts; his stepson switches off “every lamp” for the ghost-story session; there is no mention of a radio or any other 20th-century conveniences. Even the family names have an unmistakeably Victorian ring to them: Esme, Isobel, Aubrey, Oliver, Will, Edmund. The house itself, Monk’s Piece, was first sighted by Kipps when “out driving in the trap with Mr Bentley”. Inhabitants of a remote farming community might still be travelling around by pony and trap in the 1920s; London solicitors in the following decades most certainly would not!

    I do not think this is mere carelessness on the author’s part (as in a book I once read set in 14th-century Europe where a man appears in his doorway smoking a pipe); the indicators seem to have been set out far too precisely for that. Kipps, we are told, married his first wife Stella shortly after the events at Eel Marsh House, was widowed 2-3 years afterwards through the malice of the Woman in Black, had been a widower for 12 years when he first sighted Monk’s Piece, and has been living there for a further 14 years when the Christmas ghost-telling occurs. Even by the most conservative time-frame, it is apparent that his stepsons are more likely to be playing their jazz records and arguing about the charms of Rita Hayworth or Jane Russell than telling ghost stories around the fire! Something not quite right is going on here.

    There are other disquieting details, too. After coming to Kipps’ rescue, Samuel Daily tells him that Jennet’s little boy drowned in the marshes with his little dog – the first (and last) we’ve heard of this unfortunate animal. But Kipps too is out on the marshes in the company of a little dog – Spider. When he finds the door to the nursery open he experiences a strange sense of deja vu to his own childhood: “It was almost the room I had just been remembering”. And later, recalling his exploration of the nursery, he says, “It was as though I had, for the time that I was in the room, become another person, or at least experienced the emotions that belong to another.”

    Did he, in fact, survive his struggle to rescue Spider from the quicksand outside Eel Marsh House? Or is Kipps, like the whole too-good-to-be-true family set-up at Monk’s Piece, in fact … a phantom?

  • That is a very interesting idea. I was caught up in the atmosphere, but didn’t consider there was anything ghostly or out-of-synch about Kipps. I will have to read it again with this in (open) mind. Thanks!

  • heythere

    I am reading it with a group and so far very interested at the way Susan turns your feelings and makes you feeling uneasy. I never realised this until now but I do agree. I have not watched the film but as much as I am a fan of horror films I am sure this is going to be a great deal amount of amazement. I think I am going to have to ring the group and tell them that we have to finish this Gothic story.