We need to talk about The Woman in Black

She’s scary, that woman. Look at her, standing there at the back of the church without a prayer book, or in the abandoned graveyard. Or, rather – don’t look at her. You never know what you might unleash. Keep your head down, keep walking, and carry on as if you never saw her in the first place.

If you’ve ever taught Susan Hill’s 1983 novel The Woman in Black, ever seen the stage play or the Daniel Radcliffe film or the 1989 ITV adaptation, you’ll know just how frightening Jennet Humfrye, the Woman in Black, actually is. Jennet, with her wasted face and malevolent gaze, haunts the lonely churchyard and marshes of the isolated town of Crythin Gifford, and casts an eerie spell over Arthur Kipps, the young solicitor who has been sent from London to sort out the papers of the mysterious Mrs Drablow after her death. Her fleeting appearances in the stage play have audience members shrieking in their seats.  In the television adaptation, scripted by Nigel Kneale of Quatermass fame, she swoops down like a grinning harpy over Kipps as he lies in his bed, and screeches in his face.

Me, confronted with another set of adoption stereotypes

The Woman in Black is incredibly popular in schools. It’s a set text for OCR and Eduqas at GCSE, and it’s also used widely in Key Stage 3, partly because it’s a brilliant introduction to the Gothic, but also because it’s a cracking novel in its own right. We do it at the beginning of Year Nine, and students enjoy it: they rise to the challenge of what is a relatively ‘adult’ novel, and are intrigued by the way Hill controls tension and builds atmosphere. Living as we do on the edge of the Fens, they also find Hill’s descriptions of misty, marshy landscapes extremely evocative. We spend time looking at the way she conveys the delicacy of the light, the weak winter sun and the calls of distant birds. Last year, one of my students showed me a photograph he’d taken during his journey to school one foggy morning. ‘Look, Miss’, he said, ‘it’s just like that bit we read where he’s on his way to Eel Marsh House.’ And it was.

But The Woman in Black is also problematic. Like Blood Brothers, which I wrote about last year, it’s a text whose plot turns on an adoption, and therefore, it has the potential to unleash some extremely complex feelings in students who are adopted or in care. It’s also a text whose representation of adoption – in particular, of the birth mother Jennet Humfrye – needs careful handling.

When she first appears, at the funeral of the reclusive widow Alice Drablow, Jennet Humfrye is a mysterious, brooding presence, dressed in black and bearing the traces of ‘some terrible wasting disease’. Arthur’s first impulse is to feel sorry for her. He wonders whether there’s anything he can do to help. As the novel unfolds, we discover that Jennet and Alice were sisters. We learn that Jennet had a relationship with a young man, became pregnant, and was coerced by her family into giving up her son Nathaniel so that he could be adopted by her sister and brought up in a ‘respectable’ household.

As such, Jennet can be read as an example of the Victorian ‘fallen woman’, and as a representative of the many thousands of women who have been coerced into relinquishing their children because of the stigma of illegitimacy. Arthur suspects that part of her fate is due to the fact that she is a ‘daughter of genteel parentage’: if she had been a servant, she ‘might perhaps have fared better’. As it is, she has been ‘coldly rejected’, her feelings ‘totally left out of the count’, in order to preserve her family’s reputation. Hill makes the agony of Jennet’s situation abundantly clear:

I felt sorry for J, as I read her short, emotional letters over again. Her passionate love for her child and her isolation with it, her anger and the way she at first fought bitterly against and, finally, gave despairingly in to the course proposed to her, filled me with sadness and sympathy.

The Woman in Black, p. 176

In class, Jennet’s plight can be used to open up multiple conversations about the treatment of women and children and the injustices that have been perpetrated in the name of ‘morality’ and ‘respectability’. Students are often horrified that Jennet’s relatives were allowed to do what they did, and even more horrified when they find that even nowadays, women are being coerced into giving up their babies so that they can be given a life that is supposedly better than the one they might have had otherwise. These experiences have been highlighted by the ongoing campaign for an official apology to the thousands of British women forced to hand over their newborn babies for adoption. It might be instructive to read The Woman in Black alongside some of their testimonies: accounts of being slapped, refused pain relief, forbidden to say goodbye. Jennet’s story belongs to living memory, not the distant past.

But. Here’s the difficult thing. Jennet, as everyone who has read or watched The Woman in Black will know, is not allowed to remain as the recipient of sympathy. She’s an avenging spirit who terrifies those who see her. Her loss has fuelled not just sadness, but a destructive rage, a ‘pent-up hatred and desire for revenge’ that leads her to ‘take away other women’s children because she had lost her own’. After the death of her son in a tragic accident, she goes ‘mad with grief and mad with anger’, roaming the streets of the small town of Crythin Gifford ‘like a walking skeleton – a living spectre’. In death, she haunts the isolated Eel Marsh House and the landscape around it. The sight of her reduces Mr Jerome to a state of abject terror. We learn that soon after she appears, a child will inevitably die, in ‘some violent or dreadful circumstance’. She’s an abomination, a monstrous Other, a bogeywoman. And that’s the problem.

It’s a problem for two significant reasons. The first is because if you have any adopted children in your class, their feelings about their birth parents will – inevitably – be incredibly complex ones. Some might have vivid and possibly traumatic memories of living with their birth parents. Some might have ongoing contact. Others will have had to rely on their adoptive parents for information about their birth families, and while all adoptive parents are taught, in their preparation, about how important it is for children to know their life stories, it’s clear that not all adoptive parents are assiduous in having these conversations. (‘Why do you talk to him about that stuff?’ one acquaintance asked me, about the Dude. ‘Does he really need to know?’ Yes, he does. Shut up.) There’ll be a tangle of emotions that – depending on circumstances – might include anger and fear and guilt but will also include grief and love. And having the figure of a birth mother presented as an object of terror could be extremely damaging.

And what about if you don’t have any adopted children in your class? The other reason why Jennet Humfrye is such a troubling figure is because she feeds into the general hoard of myths and stereotypes that exist around adoption. If you don’t have any experience of adoption in real life – and let’s face it, many people don’t – you will rely on fiction and the media to build your mental model. There are hundreds of examples of adopted and care-experienced people in fiction, and therefore also hundreds of examples of fictional birth parents, adoptive parents and foster carers. And many of these examples are hugely problematic.

What might be useful, then, if you’re teaching The Woman in Black, is to consider why it is that the figure of a birth mother – the victim of a terrible injustice – has been treated in this way. Whose interests does it serve, to demonise a woman who has already suffered? In what ways could we see Jennet Humfrye as part of the culture that would still prefer to forget that birth parents exist, to write them out of adopted children’s stories and see them as objects of a profound, atavistic fear?

Last year, I talked to Al Coates of The Adoption and Fostering Podcast about the ways in which adoption is represented in fiction and popular culture. One thing Al said was that what adoption needs is its own version of Cathy Come Home, a story that presents the reality: not the unicorns-and-rainbows fairytale of adoption recruitment campaigns, not the superhero wonder children and not the demons. Too many stories rely on adoption as an easy source of tropes and plot twists. The Woman in Black can open up some conversations about adoption, and can help to shed light on some of the injustices that have taken place. But the way it treats Jennet Humfrye should also make us feel profoundly uncomfortable, and if we’re teaching this novel, then we need to be aware of its flaws.  

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