[page 9] Susan Hill’s neo-Victorian novella The Woman in Black (1983) chronicles the story of the suffering of Jennet Humfrye, who turned into a malicious and powerful ghost after her death and has since haunted the small town Crythin Gifford in her spectral presence. Concerning her ghostly shape, Mary Ellen Snodgrass remarks that “Hill conceals behind shuttered windows an eerie black-robed female ghost [...], who wreaks havoc on the living for depriving her of an infant son,” and identifies ‘revenge’ as one of the major motives for her return as a revenant(141). Seeking retribution within patriarchal Victorian society, which she held responsible for the tragic accident in which her son Nathaniel died, she continues to haunt Eel Marsh House and its surroundings even decades after his death, which already implies the long-lasting repercussions of the event. Published in 1983 but set in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, The Woman in Black is not only a work of “contemporary fiction” but a neo-Victorian ghost story (Cook 146). Since “neo-Victorian fiction serves not one but two masters: the ‘neo’ as well as the ‘Victorian’; that is, homage to the Victorian era and its texts, but in combination with the ‘new’ in a postmodern revisionary critique,” the story allows reading Jennet’s ghostly state as a comment on the strict values and mores of Victorian society (Carroll 173). Therefore, this paper seeks to combine an analysis of Jennet Humfrye’s presence as a ghost with trauma theory and, more specifically, the ‘modern’ concept of PTSD, which was officially recognized as a medical phenomenon in the 1980s. In this context, Jennet’s constant marginalization (to which she is exposed in both her living and spectral guise), the events predating Nathaniel’s death, and the traumatic incident itself – her son’s fatal accident on the marshland – and its consequences will be addressed.
Victorian notions of gender were extremely rigid and assigned men and women to different spheres, the male public and the female private sphere. This dichotomy, which continues to shape the image of gender relations in this period, includes that middle-class women find their “supreme destiny [emphasis added]” in marriage, children and domesticity (Murdoch xxiv). Jennet Humfrye, who most likely has a middle-class background, as she was of “genteel parentage,” was degraded due to an illegitimate child and was in all likelihood considered a ‘fallen woman’ (Hill 176).1 Bearing a child out of wedlock, she did not fulfill the Victorian [page 10] ideal of matrimony and family life but became “an outcast from society because of her own indiscretions” (Cook 148). Thus, her social status has been determined by the fact that the division of society into a private and a public sphere ultimately results in “essentially the same phenomenon: the marginalization of middle-class women” (Vickery 412). In addition, “no one was more of an outcast than the Victorian ‘fallen woman’” (Mothersole 190). Therefore, one can argue that Jennet Humfrye experienced and suffered from a double marginalization during her lifetime, which consists of her middle-class status, according to which she has to fulfill the expectations of society, and her status as a ‘fallen woman.’ Robin Roberts concludes that by giving birth to a child as an unmarried woman, Jennet, “[i]n contrast to the Drablows, [...] exists on the margins, impoverished, despised and denied her identity as a mother” (128). This loss of reputation within society, which Roberts addresses, is further reflected in the fact that she is no longer welcome at her parents’ house and needs to make her living by becoming a lady’s companion (Hill 184).2 Hence, she is not only an outcast from society at large, but also from her own family, who not only does not support her financially but also avoids her company. Val Scullion pursues a similar explanation with regard to Jennet’s marginalization and takes her ghostly shape into account: “The living and spectral mother of Nathaniel is diseased and disgusting. She therefore needs to be excluded or pushed to the margins” (302). Thus, even after her death, in the dreadful shape of the woman in black, Jennet remains a constant victim of marginalization, yet now she is equipped with disruptive and subversive powers that were denied to her while she was still alive.3
The continuous marginalization to which she is exposed in her afterlife as a ghost is, for example, expressed in her lack of a (narrative) voice as well as in avoidance of her proper Christian name. Throughout the entire story, the woman in black is denied narrative agency and, by being only indirectly referred to and hinted at, remains a passive part of the story in this respect. Even though neo-Victorian fiction often shifts its focus to the formerly excluded and despised figures at the margins of society, Jennet remains mute (Carroll 195). Instead, the narrative voice is given to solicitor Arthur Kipps, who narrates his own experiences at Eel Marsh House, set in the twentieth century, while at the same time reconstructing Jennet’s story, which took place in the late Victorian era. Despite the fact that she is “[d]enied the power of words, law and language, she demonstrates that the non-verbal can be horribly destructive and disruptive” (Roberts 129), which is mirrored in the fact that Arthur “does not sustain his [narrative] authority” (Scullion 296).4 Instead, the authority shifts between him and the woman in black, who constantly interferes with his narrative by appearing when he least suspects it. [page 11]
Even though she cannot express her concerns or her opinion (neither when the events took place, nor when Arthur aims at uncovering them) in Susan Hill’s novella, James Watkins’s movie adaptation is less restrictive in this respect. Although the ghostly woman is by and large limited to either silence or shrieking, Jennet’s voice is used for a voice-over to read out the letters she wrote to her sister Alice as soon as Arthur stumbles across and reads them (Watkins 48:42-50:32). The use of the voice-over equips her with an indirect and in fact bodiless voice and establishes an intimate and personal connection to the events. While reading out the letters, Jennet can be considered a voice from the past that came back to life for this short time, and, in doing so, she bridges the temporal gap between the writing of the letters and Arthur’s reading of them. In addition, she also gains a voice as ghost in the present when she whispers, “He will never be yours. He will never be yours” (Watkins 51:57-52:01). The repetition highlights that her thoughts of revenge and her bitterness have not receded and remain as intense as they were during her lifetime. Her whispering of these words is significant and can be seen both as her attempt to start voicing her concerns (which was denied to her as a Victorian woman) and as a means to make her appear considerably more eerie as a ghost. In deliberately equipping her with a voice in rare exceptions, the audio-visual adaptation highlights her resentment and hatred as well as her desperate situation from her point of view. Nevertheless, in the adaptation (similar to the novella), the woman in black remains voiceless for most of the time and is pushed to the margins this way.
Despite the fact that Jennet does not get a voice in Hill’s novella, Arthur undoubtedly wishes “to resolve the mystery of her hidden name and uncover her identity” by voicing and narrating her story (Cox 81). Since the villagers of Crythin Gifford refuse to talk about Eel Marsh House and/or the ghost, which adds to her mysterious character, the woman remains an outcast from society. As Robin Roberts puts it, “[a]s a ghost she is treated by the villagers as she was in life. They attempt to deny her existence by refusing to name or acknowledge her” (129). The rapid changes in conversations and the silences Arthur Kipps meets subsequent to his questions regarding Alice Drablow and/or Eel Marsh House exemplify this most bluntly.5 However, even Arthur seems to be partly unable to say her name (Jennet Humfrye) properly, as he frequently refers to her either as ‘woman in black’ or simply “J” (Hill 176). This denial of an existence by not using her Christian name reinforces the impression of her being pushed to the margins of society, while Arthur, through his curiosity to unravel the secrets that accompany Jennet’s [page 12] existence, simultaneously aims at bringing her back by placing her at the very center of his narrative.
Her exclusion from and marginalization in society during her lifetime in combination with the death of her son provide a fertile ground for Jennet’s trauma to develop and to continue in her afterlife as a revenant. When the male protagonist discovers the events that took place in the late Victorian era, he gradually becomes aware of the trauma that haunted Jennet; she is, just like a trauma patient, “possessed by an image or event,” which manifests itself in the tragic accident which caused her son’s death (Caruth, “Trauma” 5). Due to the fact that Jennet was forced to give up her illegitimate child, it can be concluded that she held the strict society (and her family more specifically) responsible for the death of her son. Michael Cook supports this assumption by stating that “Jennet’s experience had been profound and shocking. To be the helpless witness to the loss of one’s own child, is one thing, enough to be the ultimate torment for any parent, but to endure the whole tragic episode as a consequence of the circumstances imposed on her by social forces, is quite another” (152). He emphasizes that circumstances need differentiation and should not be generalized and highlights that the socio-cultural background intensifies the dreadful experience, as it puts Jennet in a quite helpless position, from which she can only witness what is going on but not interfere.
Her response to Nathaniel’s death, which eventually culminates in her return as a vengeful ghost, has been fostered by the restraints that Jennet had to face shortly after her son was born. As soon as Arthur has found and read the first bundle of letters from Jennet to her sister Alice while he is at Eel Marsh House, he becomes aware of the enormous mental pressure to which Jennet was exposed and describes her situation as follows:
In Scotland, a son was born to her and she wrote of him at once with a desperate, clinging affection. For a few months the letters ceased, but when they began again it was at first in passionate outrage and protest, later, in quiet, resigned bitterness. Pressure was being exerted upon her to give up the child for adoption; she refused, saying over and over again that they would ‘never be parted’. (Hill 138- 39)
In this condensed account, Arthur interprets Jennet’s manner of writing and traces the love for her son back to her “desperate, clinging affection,” which she felt as soon as her child was born. The development from “passionate outrage” to “resigned bitterness” implies that Jennet could not cope with being separated from him, even if he was born out of wedlock, which resulted in her social disgrace and her status as a ‘fallen woman.’ Her constant insistence on never being parted from him already [page 13] indicates that she was unable to overcome the separation from her child, which affected her state of mind severely. Especially the passion and uncontrolled outbursts of emotions she displays for him were considered to indicate mental illness in the Victorian period: “In mental disease, evolution was reversed: the ‘highest nervous centres’ disintegrated, leaving intact automatic, emotional, and instinctual conduct [emphasis added]” (Fee 634-35). Thus, her overly emotional response to the pressure which was exerted by her family is the reason why she is deemed ‘mad’ (Hill 185, 194).6 More importantly, however, her letters indicate that Jennet’s mental disposition was deeply affected even before the tragic accident took place, because she had to conform to the expectations of society.7
The death of her son in the pony and trap accident on the foggy marshland, then, has a lasting influence on Jennet and constitutes “an overwhelming experience of sudden or catastrophic events,” following the definition of ‘trauma’ given by Cathy Caruth (Unclaimed Experience 11). While she was already affected by the situation following the birth of her son, the final loss of the child is something Jennet cannot overcome. In the interplay between her ghostly appearance and her constant reliving of the experience, her trauma manifests itself profoundly and transforms into a post-traumatic stress disorder, which is characterized by recurring suffering and the constant re-experiencing of the event (American Psychiatric Association 274-75). The full scope of Jennet’s traumatic experience arising from Nathaniel’s accident is explained by Samuel Daily, who ultimately reveals to Arthur what has been left “unsaid [emphasis in the original]” earlier in the story (Hill 45):
[‘]The sea fret sweeps over the marshes suddenly, the quicksands are hidden.’ [Arthur:] ‘So they all drowned.’ [Samuel:] ‘And Jennet watched. She was at the house, watching from an upper window, waiting for them to return.’ [...] ‘The bodies were recovered but they left the pony trap, it was held too fast by the mud. From that day Jennet Humfrye began to go mad.’ [...] ‘Whether because of her loss and her madness or what, she also contracted a disease which caused her to begin to waste away. [...] She died eventually. She died in hatred and misery. And as soon as ever she died the hauntings began. And so they have gone on.’ (184- 85)
Watching from an upper window, Jennet had no chance to intervene or rescue her son, but became the involuntary witness of his painful death. Similar to the pony trap, which is “held too fast by the mud,” this experience is likewise etched in Jennet’s memory and later on potentially fostered a disease that ultimately caused her death. This experience can be argued to be one of those memories that “[become] obstacles that [keep] [page 14] people from going on with their lives” (van der Kolk and van der Hart 158) and is most bluntly exposed in Jennet’s transformation into a “living spectre,” which people evade in the streets (Hill 185).
After her death, Jennet returns as a prototypical revenant or walking dead. Revenants are generally not only a source of terror, but also “link the living with an unknown nether world by returning to familiar places and appearing to or greeting people they once knew” (Snodgrass 290). In combination with her trauma, it is even more significant that she returns not only to Crythin Gifford, the village where she grew up, but more specifically to Eel Marsh House, the setting of the traumatic event. Michael Cook also analyzed Jennet in the light of being a revenant and maintains, “[t]he loss of her son, which she experiences followed by her own untimely death, renders her as a revenant doomed to return to the scene of her tragedy” (148). Although he solely sees her return to Eel Marsh House in terms of her being a revenant, his thought can be extended and read in the light of trauma theory: she is absorbed by the traumatic event, which turned into a post-traumatic stress disorder twelve years after her child’s death, and relives the tragic experience time and again by willfully returning to the Drablows’ estate, which is the surrounding that triggers this unprocessed memory.
This idea is closely linked to the aspect of belatedness that is characteristic of traumatic experience/PTSD, as the observations made above tie in with a statement by Cathy Caruth, namely that “the response to the event occurs in the often delayed, uncontrolled repetitive appearance of hallucinations and other intrusive phenomena” (Unclaimed Experience 11). Despite the fact that the narrative is limited to the perspective of Arthur Kipps, it is telling that what he repeatedly hears on the marshes is precisely this accident:
The noise of the pony trap grew fainter and then stopped abruptly and away on the marsh was a curious draining, sucking, churning sound, which went on, together with the shrill neighing and whinnying of a horse in panic, and then I heard another cry, a shout, a terrified sobbing – it was hard to decipher – but with horror I realized that it came from a child, a young child. (Hill 87-88)
Unable to see what is happening due to the dense fog, Arthur is meant to perceive and revisit the scene of the tragic event, which can be read as the belated and repetitive hallucination to which Jennet is constantly exposed even after she died. It extends to the scope that Arthur can feel and visually perceive the event decades after the accident took place. This re-experience of this recurring and intrusive memory highlights that Jennet was unable to overcome the death of her son, even in her own afterlife as a ghost, and remains ‘trapped’ in this state, far from able to process the [page 15] memory. Since the event on the marshes is “somehow taking place over and over again” (Hill 178), as Arthur informs the reader, it is reminiscent of Dori Laub’s observation that traumatic memory is circular and repeated constantly (68-69). This form of belated repetition keeps Jennet’s memory of the accident and her past alive and can be re-experienced by Arthur several years (if not decades) later.
The circular repetition also reinforces the notion that “traumatic memories are often frozen in time and remain overwhelming experiences not subject to previous contexts or to subsequent experience or reevaluation” (Vickroy 12). Likewise, Arthur always experiences the same past event that is tied to the appearance of fog and excludes events directly before and after the accident. For Jennet, who was not prepared for the early death of her son, the accident was one of the “overwhelming experiences” that she cannot process, but which remain with her for the rest of her life. This is, for example, expressed in her still wearing the old-fashioned mourning dress that she presumably has worn since her child died and was buried (Hill 79).8 At this moment, she arguably tried to ‘freeze the time’ because she was unable to overcome her grief and mourning. In this respect, she is reminiscent of another character who is frequently associated with the inability to overcome an event, namely Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1860/61). Jilted by her fiancé on her wedding day, Miss Havisham tries to freeze this moment and remains in her wedding dress, which begins to fade. In still wearing her mourning attire, Jennet, similarly to Miss Havisham, appears in clothes that predate the present moment and which suggest that time is ‘frozen.’ But Miss Havisham is even keener on capturing a specific point in time by stopping her watches at the precise moment when her fiancé left her, whereas Jennet uses her intrusive re-experiences to mark the time of the accident. Nevertheless, they are both unable to process an event by exhibiting this through their outer appearance, and, in Miss Havisham’s case, through her personal belongings (e.g. in the watches), or through reliving a specific frame of time of the past (e.g. the accident of the pony trap).
Jennet’s state of being completely overwhelmed by the experience is also mirrored spatially, namely in Nathaniel Drablow’s nursery, which becomes the space to be associated with the woman in black. It is not only Nathaniel’s former room, but also the space in which she locks herself.9 In this context, Ernest Hofer assumes that “[t]he ghosts of mother and child return regularly to the house, indeed they possess the nursery where the crib is being rocked – empty of child” (144). Even if Nathaniel does not return to the nursery in his spectral form in the novella, Hofer’s comment nevertheless stresses the strong influence of the ghost on the [page 16] space, as reflected in the verb “possess.” Interestingly, Nathaniel’s nursery cannot be entered from the corridor and is connected with eerie sounds that emanate from the room: “This was the door without a keyhole, which I had been unable to open on my first visit to Eel Marsh House. I had no idea what was beyond it. Except the sound. It was coming from within that room, not very loud but just to hand, on the other side of that single wooden partition. It was a sound of something bumping gently on the floor” (Hill 133). This passage is particularly intriguing with regard to Jennet’s spectral form, as the space of the nursery is completely enclosed: there is no keyhole to the nursery, and the nursery window is the only window with bars across it (Hill 163). No one can come into the room, but, in turn, no one can come out – except by the door. In this respect, the sounds that come from the room are crucial in the interpretation of the room: “Bump bump. Pause. Bump bump. Pause. Bump bump. Bump bump. Bump bump” (Hill 133). Originating from the rocking of a rocking chair, these sounds are reminiscent of a heartbeat. When taking into account that Jennet died of heart failure, which provides the basis for the interpretation that she died from a broken heart, these sounds show that Jennet might be dead, but that the woman in black is not. Especially the pace of the rocking/beat, which is irregular and gradually gets faster, can be read in the light of her trauma and the revisitations: the irregularity signifies that Jennet’s ghost is getting upset or nervous, as the rocking in the interpretation of the heartbeat gets faster. This may be due to the constant revisitations of her traumatic experience, which arouse her anew every time she enters the nursery and which is reflected in these sounds.10 The comparison with a heartbeat appears even more likely when taking into consideration that Arthur believes the nursery is “the very heart of the haunting,” which, in turn, endows the space of the nursery with central importance in the story (Hill 170). Consequently, the nursery can be argued to be the only room in the house that is firmly in the grip of the woman in black and controlled by her, as she is unable to let her son go and charges the space with emotions of love, loss, grief, and anger. It is the space that is inseparably connected with her post-traumatic stress disorder and a decisive factor in triggering her unprocessed memory.
As these examples have hopefully shown, trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder are concepts that offer a new perspective on and interpretation of Jennet Humfrye and her ghost. Since traumatic memories are in and of themselves connected to both past and present, due to the resurfacing of past memories in the present moment, the figure of the woman in black combines both past and present on various levels. She continues the story that was begun in the Victorian era and is the reason for the recurring event on the marshland that originates from a different time, so that she can be seen as a relic of the past that still affects [page 17] and disrupts the present. Still grief-stricken and profoundly traumatized in the twentieth century, Jennet as the woman in black “exacts her retribution ruthlessly, without regret, [...] a relentless pursuit of redress for her loss, her only raison d’être [emphasis in the original]” (Cook 160-61). The interplay between diverse factors, the pressure that was exerted on her by her family and society, the marginalization, the denial of her being a mother and, ultimately, the accident, which leaves her mentally affected, intensify her response to society and fuel her thoughts of revenge. This is, for instance, underlined when Arthur looks straight into the face of Jennet’s spectral manifestation and realizes that it expresses “a desperate, yearning malevolence; it was as though she were searching for something she wanted, needed – must have, more than life itself, and which had been taken from her [emphasis in the original]” (Hill 75). This observation and interpretation of her gaze accentuates that her subjective perspective on and emotional response to the entire event made it impossible for her to regard it as an accident. Instead, she continues to “disrupt the society that confined her in life,” as can be seen when she moves and appears where she pleases, drives innocent children into suicide, and holds sway over the minds of the inhabitants of Crythin Gifford by haunting the village (Roberts 126).11
1. The novella gives hardly any indication with regard to Jennet’s social status or class. Robin Roberts, however, suggests that she belongs to the middle class (or upper middle class), since her sister married into a rich family: “As the wife of a wealthy propertied man, Alice Drablow had access to class privilege denied to her unmarried sister [emphasis added],” which indicates that Alice’s wealth (i.e. the estate) did not belong to her parents but to her husband (128). In contrast to her sister, Jennet “loses her child and moves into a working class position as a servant in her sister’s home” and becomes subject to downward social mobility (128). Against this backdrop, it can be assumed that Jennet was part of the middle class before she gave birth to her illegitimate son.
2. The fact that she was despised by her own family is mirrored in the boy’s upbringing as “a Drablow […] [who] was never intended to know his mother” (Hill 183). Hence, her own sister refuses to acknowledge her as a mother and consciously assumes her role as a mother to Nathaniel by ignoring her passionate letters and emotions as the boy’s biological mother.
3. These disruptive powers are, for instance, expressed in movements that are not subject to geographical restraints. When Arthur sees the woman for the first time in the church, she suddenly appears and vanishes before he can catch a further glimpse of her. Since her appearances almost always follow this pattern, she is in the position to appear at will, which endows her with an ability (and power) that human beings lack. [page 18]
4. The absence of her voice establishes a striking connection with Charlotte Brontë’s Bertha Rochester (née Mason). In Jane Eyre (1847), Bertha (similar to Jennet) is characterized explicitly by the male voice of her husband Edward Rochester and implicitly by Jane’s observations. Hence, she likewise lacks a voice and narrative agency and is limited to her presence in the attic, but is nonetheless disruptive in so far as she commits arson and attacks both her brother and her husband physically.
In The Woman in Black, both the lack of Jennet’s voice and her disruptive powers are drawn upon in diverse situations, such as the second encounter with the woman at Eel Marsh House. When Arthur sees the woman’s wasted face more clearly, he becomes aware of the impact her gaze and appearance have on him: “For the combination of the peculiar, isolated place and the sudden appearance of the woman and the dreadfulness of her expression began to fill me with fear. Indeed, I had never in my life been so possessed by it, never known my knees to tremble and my flesh to creep, […] never known myself gripped and held fast by such dread and horror and apprehension of evil” (Hill 75-76). Even without speaking a single word and only by communicating through her gaze and body language, the woman in black has a lasting impact on Arthur. His problems to narrate the story including the encounters with the ghostly woman exemplify this and reinforce that she disrupts his life even years after the encounters between them.
5. Furthermore, this exclusion is also addressed in the spatial array of the small village. Upon exploring the edge of Crythin Gifford, Arthur remarks: “I saw then what Mr Daily had meant about the town tucking itself in with its back to the wind” (Hill 48). Despite the fact that he holds the wind responsible for the alignment of the houses, it can also be read in terms of seclusion and conscious exclusion of Eel Marsh House, towards which the houses only show their backs.
6. It is striking that the movie adaptation picks up on the idea and shows a letter by Jennet in which she asks, “If you have your doctors deem me mentally unfit to raise my child, what can I do?” (Watkins 48:46-48:51). This statement highlights that Jennet was aware of her powerless situation and that she was at the mercy of her married sister.
7. The audio-visual adaptation, which gives substantially more dates than the novella, shows that Nathaniel became a Drablow only twelve days after he was born, because the adoption certificate is dated August 14th 1882 (Watkins 49:19). This short time span underlines how enormous the pressure that was exerted on the boy’s mother must have been.
8. This dress is specifically uncanny at the funeral of Alice Drablow, as it makes it impossible for Arthur, who is an outsider to the village and its haunting history, to realize that the woman is not wearing this dress for the deceased Mrs Drablow but for her own son. This is indicated by the hint that her mourning attire “had rather gone out of fashion,” which implies that she can be read as a remnant of the Victorian era when considering that this part of the story is meant to take place in the early twentieth century (Hill 53).
9. Val Scullion draws a further parallel to Miss Havisham and her spatial surroundings and explains that Nathaniel’s nursery likewise has remained untouched and unchanged since he died (295). This space can, thus, also be read [page 19] as a space in which ‘time is frozen’ and gives some indication as to the reason why the woman constantly returns to this room.
10. Aside from the fact that Jennet was watching through one of the upper windows when the tragedy occurred, the reader does not know her precise position. Since the nursery window is located on the upper floor, it might even be possible that Jennet was watching her son die from this window and was emotionally aroused while being in his room.
11. Roberts exemplifies this with regard to the audio-visual adaptation and argues that the woman in black has a huge impact on society, as “Samuel Daily […] has lost a son and has to cope with a wife who has been driven insane by losing her child” (137). Samuel Daily’s wife can be seen as a mirror image to Jennet, because Jennet, in taking vengeance on society, wants his wife to suffer as much as she did when she lost her child. Arguably, this impact is even more apparent in the suffering she imposes on Arthur by causing a dreadful ‘accident’ in which Arthur’s wife Stella and their new-born child die, because the woman in black spooked the pony of their chaise. Arthur hardly recovers from this event and suffers from a post-traumatic stress disorder, which complicates the telling of the story and the processing of the painful memory.
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