Intertextuality is a strange idea.
It’s reasonable and intuitive that texts refer both backwards and forwards within themselves: how many stories and tales begin and end at the same place and setting? Detective fiction is built on the importance of small early details turning into clues to be resolved later. Anton Chekov went so far as to call it a rule:
If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.
As a reader, we’d say that the presence of the gun prefigures its later use. These references are what semioticians might call horizontal.
But the books we read are littered with what the same semioticians might describe as vertical references: references to other preceding texts. Every reference to any pastoral idyll echoes a range of poetry dating back to the Garden of Eden. Learned scholars might say something like
Intertextuality refers to far more than the ‘influences’ of writers on each other. For structuralists, language has powers which not only exceed individual control but also determine subjectivity.
This intertextuality stuff, to those of us who are just readers is, to my mind, anything that reminds us of any other text or style of writing. At its most superficial, it’s almost like a jigsaw puzzle or an in-joke; at its most abstruse, it can inhibit understanding. T. S. Eliot can fall within both these at the same time!
The most obvious example of intertextuality would be a quotation deliberately inserted by the writer. Susan Hill does this at the end of her opening chapter: Kipps recalls but cannot identify the lines
Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
This bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.
The quotation is from Hamlet and brings to mind the tortuous family relations within Denmark and the rottenness that ensues. It therefore deepens and prefigures the equally tortuous relations within the Drablow family, especially those between mother and child.
The fact of the quotation, however, itself recalls the quotation from Coleridge’s Rime Of The Ancient Marinerthat Dr Frankenstein is put in mind of after his creature rises:
Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.
As Kipps’ quote introduces key themes, so does Frankenstein’s. And the use of quotations by both characters highlights parallels between them: they are both rational beings catapulted into a world that is not susceptible to legal or scientific scrutiny.
This is not the only parallel with Frankenstein: the opening chapter consists of a ghost story competition, reminiscent of the creation story of Mary Shelley’s invention of Frankenstein; the tales of
“uninhibited castles and of ivy-clad monastery ruins by moonlight, of locked inner rooms and secret dungeons, dank charnel houses and overgrown graveyards”
recounts almost every Gothic trope and cliche including the charnel houses in which Viktor Frankenstein found his “materials”. Even the very framing narrative of older Kipps recalls both the framing narratives of Captain Walton in Frankenstein and of Lockwood in Wuthering Heights.
The entirety of the chapter A Journey North appears to me to be an homage to Dracula: Kipps and Harker are both solicitors clerks heading out of London and into increasingly uncivilised and dangerous terrains, albeit one heading north and the other east; both travel by train (and the train and it’s timetables become so important to Dracula); the carriages, which were originally “as cosy and enclosed as some lamplight study” that becomes nothing more than a “cold tomb of a railway carriage”, recalling the coffins in which Dracula travels.
The In The Nursery chapter introduces the reader to the rhythmic “Bump bump. Bump bump. Bump bump” which is later revealed to be the rocking chair. But the rhythm clearly echoes that of the Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe. Even the title of the chapter Whistle And I’ll Come To You apes the title if M R James’ Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad. The graveyard and monastery around Eel Marsh House cause a wry dismissal of Romantic poetry whilst the house itself reminds Kipps and the reader of “the house of poor Miss Havisham” from Dickens’ Great Expectations.
Brontë, Shelley, Stoker, Dickens, Shakespeare, James, Poe. As well as John Clare and Walter Scott and Victorian novels and Romantic poetry in general. Epistolary narratives embedded in a first person narrative embedded within a framing narrative.
The book – the text – is as haunted by these writers as Kipps is himself! And is that not the point – or at least a point? That there is no such thing as a present without a history behind it? No such thing as a now devoid of then? Nothing original in the world, only old patterns re-worked? This is what those aforementioned semioticians might cite to challenge the entire concept of authorship: is this in any sense Hill’s story more than Shelley’s or Dickens’?
Kipps himself falls into the authorial fallacy: his belief that discovering Jennet Drablow’s story will somehow appease her ghost, “solve” her story as if it were some rational puzzle to demystify and control is shown in the horrific final chapter to be tragically wrong. And it’s a mistake he repeats as he attempts to tame her again in re-telling the tale to us! The stage version of the book delves further into this fallacy: the attempt to rationalise Jennet Drablow out of existence actually summons her into the theatre itself, unleashing her on the director and the audience.
2 thoughts on “Intertextuality in the The Woman in Black”
[…] I think The Woman in Black by Susan Hill needs a mention too. A great book with a cracking plot and so consciously crafted by Hill’s own apparent delight in the gothic. It has been an ideal book to teach simply because of that conscious crafting of language. And also genuinely chilling and creepy. Some notes on it can be found here and here. […]
[…] not surprising that the author of Jacob’s Room is Full of Books and the very intertextual The Woman in Black would have her characters as steeped in literature as she is […]