Warning: very spoilery! If you haven’t read my review, it’s here.
First of all, what’s in a name? Kneale changed the name of his hero from Kipps to Kidd, apparently because writer Susan Hill took Kipps’ name from an HG Wells story.
The name of the woman in black has also changed. In the book she is Jennet Humfrye; in the film her surname is now Goss, though I keep seeing people claiming her first name is still Jennet. I’m not so sure; her name is pronounced Janet in the 1989 film, and when Arthur finds the gravestone she shares with Nathaniel, though it is broken there are clearly the letters Ja. So in this article, Janet she will remain (unless I receive a terrifying visitation from her in which case I shall reverse ferret in an instant, and like the people of Crythin Gifford I shall pretend this never happened).
Janet is Alice’s sister. She had a child out of wedlock (a “bantling” Toovey calls the baby), a situation unacceptable in a “good” family. Alice and her husband adopt the boy, Nathaniel, until Janet snatches him back and tries to escape with him. They both drown in the marsh when the pony and trap gets lost and comes off the causeway.
Janet is now more than simply a ghost though, and unlike the haunting cries of their deaths, replaying like a recording, she can travel (though I’m not sure she has agency as we would see it – Alice says she doesn’t think Janet can reply to her when Alice calls her by name). As I said at the end of my review her pain has twisted into hatred and distilled into some kind of malevolent, overwhelming power.
What’s interesting is that she seems so solid. She has the grey palor of death, but is not a wraith. It makes her more frightening; she’s not approaching Arthur to walk through him like an icy mist but to do some damage.
I also said that her motivation is really in our hands as we know only the facts of her life and death – it’s our interpretation if we see her as a victim, someone wicked, or something between the two.
Arthur seems to be looking for evidence that she was evil in life too; I’m not convinced, though we did come up with the same question. When little Nathaniel is drowning and calling “mummy!”, is he calling for Alice or Janet?
I have a *little* more sympathy. She has lost her son twice, because of society’s disapproval of single mothers and when they both drowned in the marsh. They may have died together but they are not together in death.
Alice sees Janet as utterly changed, so if she was flawed in life she wasn’t as bad as she is in death. “She has become wicked, and worse,” Alice says on one of the recordings, and “she has found ways to make me hear their calamity in the marshes”. Perhaps not a recording engrained in the atmosphere by some strange law of science then, but an action by the woman in black to inflict more pain on her sister.
After her death, her appearance presages the death of a child, from illness or accident. Toovey and others have lost their children to her, and it explains Pepperill’s desperate shooing away of the crown of giggling children which has gathered at the churchyard wall, just after Arthur has told him he can see the woman among the graves.
But what of Arthur, the young, idealistic family man? I mentioned in my review that the tidal island setting plays into the idea of links between two worlds, the barriers between them porous; not just the dead and the living but town and city, the past and modernity.
That Alice’s gadget-loving late husband installed electric light into their isolated Victorian pile, and she has a phonograph, shows how the barriers are not fixed – aspects of different worlds bleed into each other. Arthur does the same thing.
Early scenes show Arthur to be kind and very loving towards his family, a thoroughly modern, 1920s dad compared to the idea (not always true of course) of the standoffish, Victorian father. He’s friendly towards the boisterous clerks in the solicitors’ practice, something his boss Mr Sweetman warns him against if he wants to get ahead. When he arrives in the market town of Crythin Gifford he is modernity and youth coming up against tradition and old ways in a battered town where life goes on as usual, but everyone is wearing blinkers to try to ignore the malevolent menace that regularly claims their children.
The journey he goes through is, ironically considering his supernatural experiences, a fast-working dose of real life, of the kind that most of us experience over decades. It batters us and makes us more wary, realistic about other people’s behaviour, and stoic, though we usually try to hold onto that early optimism too. Arthur ages, losing his easy innocence. Returning to London back into the warmth of his family he thinks he’s just about escaped, though it has changed him.
Sadly, the kindly Arthur doesn’t survive his experience. And nor do his lovely children. Nor his beautiful wife. Though Bessie the terrible housemaid does. Truly there is no justice, or decent polishing, in the world. (Well there is some. Toovey’s Jack Russell Spider, who is spooked and runs away while staying with Arthur at Eel Marsh House, survives – Arthur thought he had drowned in the marshes but he had run home to his master’s house.)
Maybe Arthur is selected by Janet because he saves the girl in the village, who was to be Janet’s next victim; the cart incident takes place just after he sees Janet at Alice’s funeral, and her appearances always presage the loss of a child. Maybe him seeing the ghost during the funeral means it was always his own children who would die.
After Spider runs off, Toovey turns up at Eel Marsh House to check on Arthur, who takes him upstairs to show him the immaculate children’s nursery where he heard the child’s laughter and found the tin soldier. This time when they go in, the room has been trashed. Arthur collapses, and Toovey takes him back to his lodgings in the village; he goes to sleep but wakes in the middle of the night with the toy soldier in his hand. He hears the boy’s voice, then Janet appears, curls wild, in a black cloak, with terrible teeth, screaming laughingly into his face.
It’s a total shocker, after seeing Janet only dressed in the same outfit, undead but immaculate. It’s also a long scene for a jump scare, right before the commercial break. (These longer scenes are a huge aid to investing in the story, and help it expand beyond simply Arthur, Toovey and Janet.)
Having been struck by a fever, Arthur is nursed back to health at Toovey’s house. He’s told the house on the island has burnt down but that it’s not his fault. Everyone just wants to draw a line under the whole affair, and with no heirs and now no assets left Alice’s death can now be forgotten.
He returns to London, only to find that the woman in black has followed him there and asked for him at his office.
In desperation and anger he sets fire to the papers from the estate, which overflow the fire grate and burn his office. Mr Sweetman sacks him, but a furious Arthur tells him that he knows that Sweetman already knew about the ghost and sent Arthur so he himself wouldn’t have to go. (By sending Arthur into the lion’s den with no protection he’s the opposite of Toovey, an initially hands-off but always helpful father-like figure who consistently looks out for Arthur.)
Arthur and his family leave the city to get away from it all; they are peacefully boating on a lake when he sees the lady in black hovering nearby on the water.
Seconds later a tree falls on the boat, and the whole family is drowned. It’s a superbly bleak ending to a film that never flinches.
The Woman in Black (1989) is available on blu-ray exclusively from Networkonair.com now
Interesting fact of the day – for parents who love horror/sci-fi anyway – Nigel Kneale was married to Judith Kerr, who wrote The Tiger Who Came To Tea.