Saturday, 16 February 2013

The Woman in Black, The Lady in Red, The Woman in Green and The Pink Lady

During a dinner party, there is a heated argument between several ladies. One lady was dressed in black. Another was dressed all in red, while the two next to her were dressed in green and pink.  Which of the ladies won the argument? Why?

I awoke this morning to mist. Mist everywhere. It seems to be one of those ‘rimy’ mornings. There’s frost aplenty – well, from what I can see in all the mist.  The perfect environment to talk about ‘The Woman in Black’.  Several months ago I blogged about ‘Of Mice and Men’ and impressively it still gets views on a weekly basis.  I wanted to share some of the different things I did and do with the novel.  I assume I am like most people in teaching; I look for resources on Google and then create my own. In fact, I do enjoy the making of teaching resources, but I also look  at others for inspiration. I need a muse.

The problem I find with a lot of teaching websites is that they are geared to the quick resource. Need something for teaching spellings? Try this. Need something for teaching symbols in ‘An Inspector Calls’? Try this. Need something for teaching genre? Try this.  When I look for resources, I want ideas and not ready made lessons. Therefore, this blog is about inspiration and ideas for the teaching  of ‘The Woman in Black’.
Susan Hill uses pathetic fallacy by the bucket load in the novel and I have worked really hard to stop students constantly spotting this in the novel. The weather is bad, so it must tell us what is going on in his head.  Instead of tracking tension through the novel I have tracked the weather. You crazy man, I hear you say. Yes, I have turned into a weather man. Today, we will have some misty patches with a few sunny spells.  Personally, I think the weather in the novel functions on a number of levels and the class have embraced this charting of weather in the book. As a class, we come to the following ideas:

·         The weather helps to create tension. As the weather gets worse, there chances of something bad happen increases.

·         The weather relates to the key mystery. The main mystery is introduced to us in fog. You can’t see things clearly in fog like the mystery. The weather improves when the mystery is unravelled.

·         The weather challenges our expectations of  what is safe and unsafe. Scary and bad things happen on pleasant days. We see the ghost for the first time on a sunny day. We also have the horrific conclusion on a fairly pleasant day. The use of weather unsettles us. The connection between plot and weather isn’t consistent.

·         The weather links to Arthurs’s feelings and also the woman in black’s feelings.

If you have read my blog recently, you’ll know that I have gone a little mad on choices. In particular, the choices we make as writers and the choices other writers make.  Therefore, I started one of my lessons with the following questions about the narrator.

Why use a man?

Why use a young man?

Why use an old man?

Why have the changes in time?

Why use 1st person perspective?

Why use an outsider?

Why use an arrogant man?

Why use a rational / sane man?

Why use a sceptic?

Then, as a class we discussed how the story would change if we had a shy child narrating the story. Or, a Victorian woman who is a mother.  

Furthermore, how would the story change if it was told by a minor character. (@Gwenelope's idea)

I have had a nasty bout of man-flu and I had one of those days where I felt that I really should stay in bed and recuperate. I bravely soldiered on and taught.  Well, I say taught; I read the chapter ‘Across the Causeway’ with them, and instead of a dull as dishwater task of answering some questions, I got them to think of questions. During the reading of the chapter, I would ask them to think of a question and write it down. In a previous lesson, I had highlighted to the students that the exam question will either be about the presentation of something or about the tension or the mood of a section. Therefore, the students produced questions relating to these two possible areas.  The results were great. They all had twelve questions each and we ranked those in terms of complexity and answered them. Also, John Sayers' blog on questioning has been very helpful in developing complex questions.

 Film Posters
One of the problems I have found with teaching the novel is the question of genre. The recent film version of 'The Woman in Black' was a horror film disguised as a ghost story. It has some good bits in it, but it is simply a horror film. (It was even made by Hammer Horror Films and like a stick of rock it has ‘horror’ written all the way through it.)There is no better proof of this than the opening few minutes: three children die in a horrific way. For a lot of my students, they have a vivid memory of the film and that contrasts all the time with their reading of the novel. The horror elements beat the ghost elements in their memory. The ‘AHHHH!’ always beats the ‘Oh!’ when reading the book. I often hear a voice say: “It was much scarier in the film.”  We all know that the imagination is far more powerful for scares, but students often feel that the 'visual scare' is more powerful that the 'imagined scare'.

Even in my research of the novel, I found lots of contrasting views of what the novel’s genre is. Is it a ghost story? Is it a horror story? Is it a gothic horror story? Is it all three genres? I felt that I had to start with genre and the students’ understanding of particular genres. In the past, I have always referred to book covers and this has generated lots of ideas and discussion, but the problem with book covers is that they work in symbols, clues and hints. They don’t explicitly tell you the plot, genre or the experience you are going have. That’s why we have the old cliché: don’t judge a book by its cover. I have often read a book and found it to be something totally different to the one advertised on the cover. There is no correlation between the cover and the ending or resolution of a book. However, with film posters there is a correlation. Film posters are about selling an immediate experience. Come to this film and you will laugh. Come to this film and you will learn something about history. Come to this film and your wife will love it and you will hate it.  Wrapped up in one image is the story, the genre and the emotional experience you will get when you watch the film. That is why I started the discussion on genre by focusing on two film posters. The poster for a ‘Scream’ film and the poster for ‘The Woman in Black’ film.  Simply: What are the differences between these two posters? We came up with the following differences:
lots of characters vs. one main character

monster above the characters vs. monster behind the character

red and black vs. blue, grey and black

no setting featured vs. setting featured
Behind each of these choices lies meaning and the students inferred for themselves what each element meant. Focusing on one character means that you can get under the skin of the character and explore the psychology of events. Focusing on lots of characters could mean that the monster is picking off victims.

I then developed the understanding of genre with my own bullet points of genre features. I know that some of these are questionable and ‘genre’ is sometimes hard to define, but these on bits of paper gave students a starting point to develop their understanding of genre. Later, I add ‘gothic horror’ to the mix and see what they notice. If nothing else, they make a good tick list for the features. Now, I find students referring to the genre throughout their discussions. The writer could have used X but they didn’t, because that would make the story a horror story.

A ghost story

·         Features very few characters and the plot concerns two or three main characters

·         Concerned with the mystery of why the ghost haunts people

·         Explores the psychology of fear

·         Focuses on one particular fear. For example, the fear of loneliness or isolation

·         Plot will be slow to develop the atmosphere and build tension

·         Always a first person narrator

·         Suspense is used rather than tension – you know something is going to happen, but you don’t know what.

·         A story of mystery and solving the story behind the mystery

·         Features uncertainty and doubt

·         Usually takes the form of a character telling another their story

·         Focuses on fears caused by the mind

·         Will contain some element of madness

·         Features a character who doubts their senses or sanity

·         Will take place in darkness

A horror story

·         Features a group of characters who slowly disappear / die

·         Concerned with the identity of ‘the horror’

·         Focuses on blood or gore – body horror

·         Moments of tension are created by the audience’s awareness that something bad is going to happen to a character. Tension is created by the waiting for the obvious to happen.

·         Plot will be quite fast going from one shock to another

·         Can be a first person narrator, but often a third person narrator

·         A story of survival

·         Features unmasking or hiding

·         Focuses on fears about something happening to our body

·         Usually will contain some kind of warning and a character ignoring the warning or common sense

·         Might take place in darkness

Which actor for the role?
This is a thing from an old friend in another school. Find nine or so pictures of possible actors to play a role in the book. I chose nine possible actors for a new stage version of the book. In groups, students had to decide on which actor was the best for the role.  During the process, the groups worked out how the character is presented in the book.  Obviously, some girls talk about how fit one or two are, but after a while there were some clever discussions taking place. The group I did this with felt that the character for Arthur shouldn’t be geeky, naïve, too young and too attractive. Then, we explored further why we had these ideas.

As there is so much description in Hill’s writing, I think that the dialogue is easily ignored or neglected by students.  Therefore, I got students to write down bits of the dialogue and act these out. It helped them to see what was going on in the dialogue and see the language of the dialogue under a microscope.

A sequel

What would the class do with a sequel of the book? As I was planning this question with students, news came to me of a real sequel.

Miss Havisham is ‘the woman in white’.  Yes, there is the novel 'The Woman in White', but there is a clear nod to good old Miss Havisham. Students compared how the woman in black is presented in the book with the first description of Miss Havisham. It makes for lots of shocking discovery. The students felt that Miss Havisham was the woman in black. It wasn’t just inspired by Dickens; they thought it was copied from Dickens.   In fact, some words seem to have been lifted.

Scooby Doo
This started as a ‘thunk’ but turned into something else. I started showing the class a picture of the Scooby Doo gang and asked them how it related to the story. To cut a long story short, the gang became different aspects of Arthur Kipps’ personality. Each character represented a part of his personality and the students could even identify when Arthur went all Fred, or when he went all Daphne.  Freud eat your heart out. Why have the id, ego and superego when you have Fred, Daphne, Shaggy, Scooby Doo  and Wilma.

And in walks Susan Hill
I had a colleague several years who used to do this all the time. She would spend a bit of a lesson in role as a character. Years later, I always felt squeamish at the thought of pretending to be someone else in a lesson. This week I tried it and I was amazed at how successful it was. Students who usually remain quiet were scrambling to ask me, or Susan Hill, a question. We did laugh a few times, as I was given a few questions relating to my gender. As a woman, how do you think the novel would be different if it was written by man? Cue me fanning myself with a piece of paper and muttering the following in a style of Emily Howard in ‘Little Britain’, “As a lady, I think…”.  I didn’t really put a silly voice on or fan myself - honestly.

And finally…
I am surprised that there hasn’t yet been a fancy dress costume for the woman in black. It is a missed opportunity for Halloween. There is a bit of an appeal of dressing up in the aforementioned costume and hanging around churchyards hiding behind a gravestone. As soon as someone turns their back, pop out and stand there. As soon as they turn away, hide again.  Some frivolous japes.

Strangely, on Twitter 'David Walliams News' has started following me. I think I am starting to see why. First, pretending to be Susan Hill in a lesson. Second, suggesting that I dress up as the woman in black would be a fun thing.

Thanks for reading and thanks to @Gwenelope for your usual help,

P.S. I will add more to this list as people mention them.




1 comment:

  1. Good post. Thank You for sharing with us.


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