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The Woman in Black - Context

This GCSE English Literature quiz takes a look at context in The Woman in Black by Susan Hill. "Context", when referring to a literary work, usually applies to the environment in which the text was written. “Context” therefore includes an author’s geographical time and location, along with any social and political events which occurred during the author’s lifetime. Some of these identifying features might sound familiar because they are also elements of a text’s “setting”. You remember, of course, that setting refers to the fictional aspects of the world contained in the text. “Context” describes the same aspects of the author’s own world. For some works of historical fiction, the term more appropriately refers to a text’s “historical context”, especially when the author explicitly addresses social and political issues of the past, rather than those of the time the work was written. This is the case with The Woman in Black.

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This novel draws upon nineteenth-century genres, traditions and social issues, and its historical context is more relevant in many ways than the author’s own context.

How to write about context

Making the effort to learn about the context of a work of fiction is a good use of your time. You can develop an understanding of the environment in which the text was produced, or even the history of the genre in which the text was written (genre is especially relevant to the study of The Woman in Black). Think about how the author responds to context and how this response shapes the text. Remember not to assume that context dictates the meaning of a text, however. The influence of context is subtle and sometimes even authors struggle to explain how they have been influenced and how this affects the work! Historical events, or issues, are not represented in a clear and unbiased manner in the pages of a fictional text.

Research the context of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, remembering everything you have learned in your English lessons, and try these questions to see how much you know about the novel's various contexts.

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  1. When was The Woman in Black first published?
    The novel was first published in the 1980s, although it is set at an earlier date
  2. In what genre is the novel written?
    The novel is sometimes described as "gothic" because it resembles gothic novels of the 18th and 19th centuries. Susan Hill, however, places the novel firmly in the nineteenth-century ghost story tradition
  3. The novel is set sometime in the first half of the twentieth century, although many of the events with which it is concerned took place in the late-nineteenth century. How does the late-Victorian setting for these events affect the plot?
    The plot hinges on the terrible grief and desire for revenge felt by Jennet Humfrye, who blames her sister for the loss of her son Nathaniel. The expectation that Jennet would give up her son derives from late-Victorian societal norms
  4. Who is Nathaniel's father?
    The unknown "P" is sent abroad, according to one of Jennet Humfrye's letters. "P" is likely to be short for Pierston, the surname Nathaniel loses when he is adopted by the Drablows
  5. The title of the chapter, 'Whistle and I'll Come to You', is a reference to a ghost story by which of the following authors?
    The title is a reference to M. R. James's short ghost story, "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad"
  6. What does Arthur believe distinguishes Jennet Humfrye's experience from that of a Victorian servant girl?
    Arthur considers Jennet Humfrye to have been more fortunate, as a respectable woman from a land-owning family, than the unmarried servant girls who sometimes murdered or abandoned their children in shame and despair
  7. In an interview with The Guardian, Susan Hill discusses the necessary ingredients of a "true" ghost story, explaining that the ghost ought to have a purpose. What is the Woman in Black's purpose?
    The Woman in Black is a typical ghost, a restless spirit still attached to the living world by an unrealised desire
  8. Where is Jennet Humfrye sent by her family?
    The Humfrye family send their pregnant, unmarried daughter away to give birth in Scotland. The Victorian practice of "hiding" out-of-wedlock pregnancies was intended to preserve the reputation of the family and the young woman herself
  9. What one of the following is NOT a characteristic of the novel?
    Although Arthur loves his fiancée Stella, and Jennet might have loved "P", romance is not central to the novel
  10. Which of the following is correct?
    The play based on the novel was first staged in 1987, at Christmas. In 2012 the film of the novel was released, starring Daniel Radcliffe as Arthur Kipps

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