The Woman in Black
by Susan Hill
Where It All Goes Down
In a Land Far, Far Away… But Probably At the Beginning of the 20th Century in England
The whole story of The Woman in Black is set in some indeterminate historical setting. Though it seems like historical fiction because of the pony and trap and the steam train, we never get a clear sense of the date.
This could be a deliberate choice because of the pull between the past and the present that is pervasive throughout the book. Arthur is just a modern young man when he comes to Crythin Gifford, doing fancy modern things like using telephones and expecting cars to come pick him up. How silly of him!
On the flip side, the woman in black represents the past—she's all about the pony and trap times and rotting away in a big old house in outdated funeral attire. The fact that we can't quite pinpoint the setting also makes the whole story a little more unsettling, and maybe makes us think about how the story's themes might play out in our own time.
Sam Daily gives a charming description of Crythin Gifford to Arthur as they sit on the train together:
"… There's the drowned churches and the swallowed-up village," he chuckled. "Those are particularly fine examples of 'nothing to see.' And we've a good wild run of an abbey with a handsome graveyard—you can get to it at low tide." (3.37)
And that's about it. Crythin Gifford is a dreary, bleak town filled with secrets, somewhere on the coast of England. The surrounding wilderness all but swallows up the town—and literally swallows some things, like the pony and trap. Humans and human buildings are overshadowed by the sheer force of nature, and by the sheer force of the past.
Frankly, we're just surprised anyone is still living there.
Eel Marsh House
Come on. Eel Marsh House, the large, forbidding house where Alice Drablow lived out the last of her days, is obviously haunted. It's big, unoccupied, filled with mysterious papers, and cut off from the mainland. That's kind of a recipe for heart-pounding unfortunate encounters.
Arthur describes it thus when he first happens upon it:
Then, as it was so bright that it hurt my eyes to go on staring at it, I looked up ahead and saw, as if rising out of the water itself, a tall, gaunt house of gray stone with a slate roof, that now gleamed steelily in the light. (5.6)
Check out how the house is described: it does actions, like "rising" and "gleaming"; and it even looks "gaunt," exactly like a person. These descriptive words give the house a presence and a personality. Like nature, and like the past itself, the house appears to have a malevolent kind of presence. You know, like a vengeful ghost.
The novel opens in Monk Piece, although we hardly get to spend any time there at all. It's the place where Arthur Kipps—now all grown up—currently resides with his new family, and it's about as opposite Eel Marsh House and Crythin Gifford as you can imagine. In fact, it's a "tiny hamlet... tucked snugly into a bend of the river below, white walls basking in the afternoon sunshine" (1.8).
Arthur lives a pleasant, safe family life in this pleasant, safe village and in the warm, busy cottage. He's clearly come a long way since his journey to Eel Marsh House both metaphorically and literally… and he'd like to keep it that way.