It is nine thirty at night on Christmas Eve, and Arthur Kipps and his family have just finished a happy, festive meal at their country home, Monk’s Piece. The rest of the family is gathered around the fire in the drawing room, but, before joining them, Arthur decides to step out for a moment and take in some fresh air. As Arthur takes in the night, he is relieved to find that the chilling rain and fog that have made the house feel gloomy even in the days leading up to Christmas have dissipated—the night is cold and clear. Arthur states that his spirit has been “excessively affected by the ways of the weather” for many years.
The novel opens on Christmas Eve, a festive and joyous occasion. Nevertheless, The Woman in Black is a horror novel, and as such there is an atmosphere of creeping dread from the outset. Throughout the novel, fog will function as a symbol of impending peril, disaster, or doom—and Arthur is perhaps more sensitive and easily affected than he lets on.
Though Monk Piece is only two miles from a good-sized village and seven from a larger market town, there is “an air of remoteness and isolation” to the place. Taking in his beautiful estate, Arthur recalls the first time he ever saw it. One afternoon, many years ago, Arthur was driving through town in a pony trap—a small, two-wheeled, horse-drawn carriage—with his partner at his law firm, Mr. Bentley. Having reached old age, Mr. Bentley lived primarily in the country and came to London for business only once or twice a week, and had suggested that Arthur—then thirty-five and a widower for twelve years, self-admittedly growing old before his time—acquire a country home as well.
Throughout the novel, pony traps symbolize of transition between realms or worlds. As Arthur reflects on how he came to live in the country, his pony trap ride with his business partner Mr. Bentley bridges his life in London to his dreams of life in the country—however, as the novel progresses, pony traps will take people to much farther, darker places than that.
While driving along, Arthur spotted Monk’s Piece and was immediately certain that the home would one day be his. He stopped the carriage and spent a moment looking at the handsome stone house, trying to deflect the “extreme emotions” he was feeling at the sight of the place and yet yearning to look at it longer. Arthur settled into the feeling that one day, the property will be his, and felt suddenly lighthearted. Before returning to London, Arthur asked Mr. Bentley to let him know if the house ever went up for sale.
Arthur’s experience with extremities of emotion, too, will come into play as the novel progresses. Here, he heeds his heart and his head, and decides to pursue the opportunity to take up a residence in the country. This allegiance to his internal compass is something which, readers will come to see, Arthur has had to consciously develop over a long period of time.
Some years later, the house became available, and Arthur made an offer on it, which was accepted quickly. A couple of weeks later, Arthur brought the woman he was courting, Esmé Ainley, out to see the house, and there proposed to her. Very shortly afterward, Arthur and Esmé moved to Monk’s Piece; on moving day, Arthur felt he had “at last come out from under the long shadow cast by the events of the past.” Arriving in town and greeting his new neighbor, Mr. Bentley, Arthur saw that Bentley, too, seemed to have had a burden lifted from his own shoulders—Bentley, Arthur knew, had always blamed himself for everything that had happened to Arthur up in Crythin Gifford at Eel Marsh House.
The country house has long been a symbol of renewal and rebirth for Arthur, who, in this passage, reveals that he suffered a great trauma sometime in his past—a misery so large and enveloping that Mr. Bentley, too, felt responsible for it.
None of the darkness in Crythin Gifford, though, is near Arthur’s mind as he takes in the night air now, on the clear, crisp Christmas Eve. For fourteen years, Monk’s Piece has been the “happiest of homes” for Arthur, Esmé, and her four children from her first marriage. Though Arthur used the house only as a weekend home for many years, he retired permanently to the country at the earliest opportunity, and now lives here full-time. Arthur thinks about his family, sitting snug and warm inside the house—Esmé’s oldest daughter Isobel’s three young sons are asleep in the attic, and tomorrow will enjoy a bright and cheerful Christmas Day.
It seems as if nothing could go wrong as Arthur prepares to enjoy a fun and meaningful Christmas celebration with his family. This is a Gothic novel, though—horror and fear are lurking around every corner, and Arthur’s carefully constructed world of happiness, bliss, and family togetherness will soon come crumbling down.
Arthur heads back inside, looking forward to sitting quietly with his family and smoking a pipe. He enters the drawing room, where Esmé is sitting with her four children—Isobel, Oliver, Will, and Edmund—and Isobel’s husband. Isobel is twenty-four, with a matronly air. Oliver is nineteen and Will is eighteen, and both are still slightly childish despite already being off at college. Edmund, the youngest at fifteen, is sullen and reserved, with dark black hair and a private nature. Arthur loves Edmund best of all.
The circumstances that led to Arthur’s marriage to a woman with a family of her own are unclear, though such an arrangement was clearly not the norm at the time. Despite this, Arthur clearly loves and cherishes Esmé’s children as his own; he knows them well, and loves being together with them. It’s surprising that Arthur’s favorite child is the one who is sullen and reserved—perhaps this points to Arthur’s own nature.
Arthur sits down in his armchair in the cozy drawing room adorned with Christmas decorations, and begins lighting a pipe, but soon realizes that there is a pause in the room, as if he has walked in on the middle of the conversation. When he asks what’s going on, Oliver stands up and begins turning out the lights; he reveals that they are about to start telling ghost stories.
Ghost stories are an odd tradition for Christmas for some, but a classic staple of the holiday for many. It seems, from Arthur’s uncertainty about what is going on, that this is not a tradition in their family—and the new activity will soon be shown to have rather an ill effect on poor Arthur.
As Oliver, Edmund, and Will compete with one another to tell the “most spine-chilling tale,” they pile on ridiculous details and horror-story clichés, until the stories they are telling become as wild and silly as they are lurid. Arthur is amused, at first, but as the game goes on, he begins feeling anxious and uneasy. He knows it is nothing but a game, and does not want to dampen their fun, but he is having trouble disguising how uncomfortable he is.
Arthur’s growing discomfort with the ghost-story game is clearly tied to whatever happened in his past, at Crythin Gifford. He is so deeply traumatized, though, that he cannot even pretend to cast his pain aside and enjoy the family fun—despite the boys’ over-exaggerated and clearly parodic tale, something about the activity deeply troubles him.
Edmund and Esmé urge Arthur to take part in the game, but Arthur refuses. It is all too much for him—none of them have any idea what real horror is. Unable to bear it any longer, Arthur proclaims that he has no story to tell, and leaves the room—and the house—abruptly. After taking a long walk in the orchard and steadying his pulse and breathing, Arthur worries that he has upset his family. He does, in fact, have a story to tell—a horrific true story of haunting, evil, and tragedy, but it is not appropriate for a Christmas Eve fireside game. Arthur has long been unable to shake the memory of his terrible past and is distraught that he cannot be free of it even at Christmastime.
Arthur finally reveals that he is so deeply traumatized by his past that the mere mention of a ghost story sets him on edge and even forces him to return to his previous fright. His children have been playing games and riling one another up—but apparently Arthur’s true story is so horrific that it cannot be shared even in a contest of scares.
Arthur realizes that he must tell his tale after all—not around the fireside, as a “diversion for idle listeners,” but written down on paper in great detail. Perhaps doing so, he thinks, will exorcise the demons he has been struggling with for many years. Arthur looks up at the moon and the bright stars one last time, and prays for peace of mind and the steadfastness needed to endure the “agonizing” task ahead of him.
Arthur, ashamed and upset by his own behavior, decides that the only way to exorcise his demons is to confront them. As the frame story gives way to the story of Arthur’s past, the man clearly dreads revisiting his youth, and the traumas that he experienced as a young man.