Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Victorian Shades: The Woman in Black

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill (F HIL Main)

Reviewed by Jeanne

Young solicitor Arthur Kipps is sent by his firm to a rather secluded English village in order to tie up the affairs of the late Mrs. Alice Drablow, a recently deceased elderly client. The villagers don’t seem inclined to discuss Mrs. Drablow, or anything else for that matter, though they do make Arthur welcome. At the funeral service, Arthur catches a glimpse of a woman in black lurking around the churchyard, but his inquiries are brushed aside. Resolutely, he prepares to go to Eel Marsh House, Mrs. Drablow’s residence, which is in a marshy area accessible only at certain times due to the tides. Once there, he will be cut off from the outside world until such a time as the pony cart can cross the causeway to fetch him.

He’s going to wish he had taken a tide chart with him.

The subtitle of the book is “A Ghost Story” and that’s exactly what this is, in the best sense of the phrase. The old fashioned setting, the formal narration, even the nature of the story itself harkens back to those wonderful early ghost tales where the chills and thrills came from the mind and not blood spatter. Hill has perfectly captured the flavor of these Victorian tales but without the sometimes purple prose. It’s beautifully written; Arthur, the narrator, is looking back at an event which shaped his life and he tells his tale without hyperbole or exaggeration. It has the ring of authenticity.

The book is just so wonderfully atmospheric. I could practically smell the sea air and shivered a bit in the dampness. While there were definitely warning signs, the book wasn’t over laden with signs and portents. The villagers may not have been over communicative, but there was nary a pitchfork nor cackling crone in sight. Arthur enjoys a hearty meal at the inn, a warm fire and a comfortable bed. The skies are blue and largely clear but cold. No air of menace hangs overhead.

The haunted aspects come later.

The ending is abrupt and I was taken aback at first, but it is the perfect ending. He has told his tale; there’s no analyzing or rationalization that this might have been just his imagination. This is what happened and, like the villagers, he has no wish to discuss it further.

My impetus for reading this book came originally from a mention on DorothyL, the listserv for mystery lovers. At the time I wasn’t really in the mood for either a ghost story or a period piece, so I put it aside for another time. I was reminded of the book when I saw that Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe had chosen it for his next role. I was a bit curious as to why, so I tried the book again. This time I had no trouble starting the book at all and certainly see why it’s a plum part. I puzzled a bit over how some of it will be handled, but discovered there has been a stage version running in London’s West End for a couple of years now. I’ll still be interested to see how they rework the book for the screen, but I don’t think it can possibly measure up to the scenes Hill evokes in her novel.


  1. Daniel Radcliffe will be perfect in the role! We enjoyed him in the role of Rudyard Kipling's son in "My Boy, Jack."

    Have you figured out where Woman in Black is set? The causeway reminds me of Lindisfarne, but he changed trains at Crewe which is near the Lake District. (I know it's fictional, but susan Hill must have a place in mind.)

  2. Donna, to say that I am geographically challenged is an understatement! I did post the question at Susan Hill's website and will let you know what she says. The geography is almost a character itself.

    Thank you for commenting!