"Dreadful, Mad Hunger”: The Danger of Silence in
The Woman In Black
words by Caitlyn Downs
Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black has seen numerous adaptations since its publication in 1983.
In addition to the seminal made-for-television film, we’ve seen a hugely successful stage play, a 2012 Hammer reimagining, and Hill’s novel as part of the GCSE-level curriculum. While The Woman in Black is undoubtedly in the gothic tradition, its 1980s release date and Edwardian setting separate it from other English ghost stories. Such tales rarely have happy endings, and Hill’s Woman is particularly cruel, with a focus on how her central character (Arthur Kipps) is irrevocably changed by his experience and a relentless supernatural presence that primarily targets children.
Perhaps the most famous writer of English ghost stories, M.R. James, had deeply Victorian sensibilities, even when transported to more modern settings. They were also intensely moralistic and puritanical tales, with supernatural elements designed to punish characters for even small transgressions. Writers like Mark Gatiss have explored the idea that James’ work focused on inherently masculine spaces like academia and a preoccupation with other men that suggests James may have been closeted. The ghost story format works incredibly well for queer subtext, given that so many stories look to unearth what has been hidden and their characters are closeted by the secrets they keep. Indeed, Gatiss has used the ghost story to tell a more explicitly queer tale in The Dead Room. The focus in so many ghost stories is how hidden secrets inspire behaviour that makes people monstrous and thus, ripe for a haunting.
Writing in 1983, Hill undoubtedly drew upon the wealth of existing ghost story material available which informed the piece and allowed her to subvert some of the expectations while maintaining those themes of dangerous silence and complicity. One of the chapters in the original novel is titled Whistle and I’ll Come To You – an explicit nod to M.R. James. While The Woman in Black doesn’t have an overtly queer subtext (although a reading of such is certainly plausible) it is worth exploring the danger of secrecy as it pertains to a female-authored work that places a female villain at the centre of an otherwise male-dominated story.
This article will focus on the 1989 version of The Woman in Black, written for television by Nigel Kneale, so consider this a spoiler warning. Kneale’s adaptation alters numerous elements of Hill’s book, most notably the ending, Arthur’s name (from Kipps to Kidd), the Woman’s name (from Jennet Humfrye to Jennet Goss) and situates the action slightly later than the Edwardian period of the original novel. The script was written within 10 days and it is a testament to Kneale’s talents as a writer, despite Hill’s discomfort with some of the alterations. Hitting the screen on Christmas Eve of 1989 on ITV, The Woman in Black came much later than the celebrated Ghost Stories for Christmas. The tradition of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve is itself a Victorian development, perfect for Jamesian tales of woe. The Woman in Black certainly fits that mould of downbeat conclusions that seem to permeate the ghost story. On one level, it is a story about women wanting their experiences heard and validated. The desire for silence and covering up transgressions is coded as masculine behaviour, whereas the desire to be heard and bring things to the surface is coded as feminine throughout.
In the 1989 version under discussion, Adrian Rawlins plays Arthur Kidd – a solicitor sent to the town of Crythin Gifford to assist in the settling of property following the death of the reclusive Alice Drablow. As he sets to work on the Drablow estate, he is beset by repeat sightings of a woman in black and a sound of a terrible accident on the marsh. While working through the paperwork and sound recordings he uncovers the secret of Jennet Goss – a woman who spiralled into mental illness after her illegitimate child was taken from her. On one fateful night, Goss took her son and attempted to flee to Eel Marsh House, but both drowned along with their horse and trap due to the dangerous conditions. Following a particularly harrowing night of torment in Eel Marsh House, Kidd is rescued and brought back to the town to rest before returning to London, but the vengeful spectre is far from finished.
Some of the scariest ghosts are those who have no reason to undertake their haunting and while the Woman does not fit this description, she retains a great deal of scare factor because of her complete lack of mercy. Whereas other ghosts may target those who wronged them in life, her desire to disrupt and wreak havoc is visited upon everyone. The tragedy here is that some vengeance has no end. Arthur is a dedicated family man with a gentle, playful side that we see before he makes his journey to Cryffin Gifford. Upon his arrival from London, his confusion at how to navigate the small town quickly sees him taken under the wing of Sam Toovey (Bernard Hepton). It soon becomes clear that Arthur has not been given much information about the area, or of the standing of Alice Drablow as a recluse, cut off from the rest of the town, both physically by the causeway and mentally by past events.
The Woman’s first appearance before Kidd is notable for its simplicity and quiet. Devoid of the usual scare chords that accompany a ghostly presence, everything is held within Pauline Moran’s stance and stare. More effective for it, her silent judgement of him feels like a challenge – will he mention her? Rawlins plays the moment incredibly well – appearing to be the only one who sees her. This is furthered by her second, striking appearance in the graveyard. As Kidd starts to question Pepperell (John Cater) it is the first time he is notably silenced. Pepperell turns his attention to shooing the children and then moves away from Arthur’s line of questioning. Not responding to inquiry is behaviour repeated by other men within the film. Arthur is told repeatedly to “leave it so” and later, is assured that everything is “all done”. These repeated assertions seek to stem Arthur’s curiosity and prevent further examination.
The men are undoubtedly the focus of the action, with the female characters (aside from the titular Woman) mostly side-lined, but how they feature is incredibly important in reading the themes of silence and tacit complicity. In his eagerness to talk, Arthur becomes almost feminised – something perhaps best outlined by Mrs Toovey’s (Fiona Walker) interested questioning of him at dinner. In observing his interest and affection for their dog Spider, Mrs Toovey soon turns the conversation to his family. Her enquiries become more intense and excitable as he shares, a clear indication that not a lot of sharing, especially about family, goes on in the town. After she divulges that they “were never blessed” with children her husband soon calls a close to the conversation and sends her away. There is a marked shift in the conversation between Arthur and Sam. Sam posits a more rational explanation for Arthur’s sightings as an attempt to bury it. Still, it is clear that he knows something but reintroduces Arthur to danger by way of his refusal to directly confront what has happened in the town. Alice Drablow’s use of sound recording is further evidence that hers is a voice unheard by others.
Notably, Jennet’s most dramatic appearance to Kidd occurs in the bedroom. The sudden cut to her looming over the bed is the only moment in which she is transformed into something outwardly, thunderously monstrous. With Jennet’s ostracisation from society due to the shame an illegitimate child would bring to the family, she is positioned as a sexual being. In her quest for revenge, this sexuality has become brazen, dangerous even. It is one of the few times where the film completely turns up the volume. Jennet is a woman who refuses to go quietly and the next time Arthur awakens he is faced instead with the caring treatment of his wife – a clear attempt to oppose the two.
Arthur’s wife Stella (Clare Holman) is warm, softly spoken and positioned as a caretaker – first for their children and later Arthur during his recovery. A moment where Toovey remarks that “she’s lovely”, feels like both a warm compliment and approval of her position. She is directly opposed to Jennet, who Arthur comments looked at him with a “dreadful, mad hunger” that had “turned to hate”. She is dismissed from the room to speak with Mrs Toovey before the men begin to discuss the events of the previous few days. Again, Sam and Arthur’s conversation is filled with an inability to say anything audibly and an intense desire from Sam to close off the event. Between the well-observed performances of Rawlins and Hepton, it becomes obvious that Sam has burned down Eel Marsh House with the hopes of containing the spectre. That Arthur returns and sets fire to the offices when he discovers that possessions from Eel Marsh House have arrived provides final evidence that he too has succumbed to their ideal of strength in silence and destruction.
Bessie (Robin Weaver) and Stella’s Mother (Caroline John) make appearances late in the film and both are coded in domestic comfort. Stella’s mother has stepped in to take care of the Kidd children and cites “Granny’s privilege” when returning the caring duties to Arthur and Stella. Similarly, Bessie has prepared a cake – an offering intended to comfort the family and celebrate Arthur’s safe return. We learn little else about the characters other than their desire to please and provide care and comfort. There is, however, a sense of openness between the female characters. All are aware of Arthur’s misfortune and need to recover. It is something that they can share, and in their sharing, divide the duties.
What the spirit of Jennet Goss attacks is the silence and complicity that led to her untimely death. The total lack of discussion of a potential father to her child in every version is unusual – he is at once incredibly important, yet never important enough to mention. Her rejection of happy family units is positioned as revenge against the comfortable domesticity she never had the chance to partake in. Arthur succumbs to the same silence as the men around him, further attempting to erase her. Where The Woman in Black feels radical in its fallout is her retention of this fury, undefeated by the burning of the house and unrestrained by space or time. She operates as a lingering punishment for poor treatment and the further concealment of the misfortune she faced.
Horror often explores how human behaviour leaves an indelible mark on people and how those consequences can be extended, continuing to haunt those who facilitate walls of silence to excuse poor treatment. The most horrific element of The Woman in Black is that Jennet’s trauma turns her deathly spirit upon all, even the truly innocent. By viewing the film through the binary of masculine and feminine behaviour it unveils a further level of meaning in Arthur’s journey and the sad conclusion it leads to. The Woman’s horrific cycle continues because no one is willing to truly confront the injustice at the heart of her desire to seek revenge.
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