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The Woman in Black - Extract 1

This GCSE English Literature quiz is the first of two extract questions for Susan Hill's The Woman in Black. It takes place in the fifth chapter, after Mrs Drablow’s funeral. The passage conveys the otherworldly beauty of the tidal island where Eel Marsh House is located and Arthur’s strong response to the landscape. Note the relationship between the unusual place and Arthur’s mixed emotions.

How to answer an extract question in an exam:

It is essential that you read the passage through more than once. On the first reading, you should aim to understand the passage and begin to think about it in terms of the question you will answer. How does the passage relate to the question? The second reading is where you can begin to make annotations, pulling out the details that you will discuss in your writing.

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It is good to develop the habit of reading passages more than once, especially with a specific aim in mind for each reading. After this initial preparation, you can plan how you will use the passage to answer the question.

Think about the reasons why this particular extract might have been chosen. How does it relate to the text as a whole? Can you describe why it is important? Which themes are evident? How do the experiences differ between characters? Can you describe the way the extract relates to following events; for example, is there any evidence of foreshadowing? Can you discern a turning point? Remember to consider how the extract ends: is the final line significant? Think about the way in which the extract’s end relates to the events or themes of the text.

Give yourself time to think about the exact requirements of the question you will be answering. What specifically are you expected to write about? An extract question can concern any aspect of the writing; you might be asked to write about mood and atmosphere, character, dialogue, theme, or your own personal response. Remember to begin by explaining the passage’s immediate context: describe what has happened before the events in the extract, explaining their relevance. Discuss the passage in detail, rather than writing about the text in general terms. How does the passage relate to the text’s themes? Remember to plan out your answer before you begin, grouping related ideas together. Give yourself enough time to cover the entire passage.

Read the extract below carefully before answering the questions.

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My head reeled at the sheer and startling beauty, the wide, bare openness of it. The sense of space, the vastness of the sky above and on either side made my heart race. I would have travelled a thousand miles to see this. I had never imagined such a place.

The only sounds I could hear above the trotting of the pony’s hooves, the rumble of the wheels and the creak of the cart, were sudden, harsh, weird cries from birds near and far. We had travelled perhaps three miles, and passed no farm or cottage, no kind of dwelling house at all, all was emptiness. Then, the hedgerows petered out, and we seemed to be driving towards the very edge of the world. Ahead, the water gleamed like metal and I began to make out a track, rather like the line left by the wake of a boat, that ran across it. As we drew nearer, I saw that the water was lying only shallowly over the rippling sand on either side of us, and that the line was in fact a narrow track leading directly ahead, as if into the estuary itself. As we slipped onto it, I realized that this must be the Nine Lives Causeway — this and nothing more — and saw how, when the tide came in, it would quickly be quite submerged and untraceable.

At first the pony and then the trap met the sandy path, the smart noise we had been making ceased, and we went on almost in silence save for a hissing, silky sort of sound. Here and there were clumps of reeds, bleached bone-pale, and now and again the faintest of winds caused them to rattle dryly. The sun at our backs reflected in the water all around so that everything shone and glistened like the surface of a mirror, and the sky had taken on a faint pinkish tinge at the edges, and this in turn became reflected in the marsh and the water. Then, as it was so bright that it hurt my eyes to go on staring at it, I looked up ahead and saw, as if rising out of the water itself, a tall, gaunt house of grey stone with a slate roof, that now gleamed steelily in the light. It stood like some lighthouse or beacon or martello tower, facing the whole, wide expanse of marsh and estuary, the most astonishingly situated house I had ever seen or could ever conceivably have imagined, isolated, uncompromising but also, I thought, handsome. As we neared it, I saw the land on which it stood was raised up a little, surrounding it on every side for perhaps three or four hundred yards, of plain, salt-bleached grass, and then gravel. This little island extended in a southerly direction across an area of scrub and field towards what looked like the fragmentary ruins of some old church or chapel.

For a moment or two, I simply sat looking about me in amazement, hearing nothing save the faint keening of the winter wind that came across the marsh and the sudden rawk-rawk of a hidden bird. I felt a strange sensation, an excitement mingled with alarm … I could not altogether tell what. Certainly, I felt loneliness, for in spite of the speechless Keckwick and the shaggy brown pony, I felt quite alone, outside that gaunt, empty house. But I was not afraid— of what could I be afraid in this rare and beautiful spot? The wind? The marsh birds crying? Reeds and still water?

I got down from the trap and walked around to the man.

“How long will the causeway remain passable?”

“Till five.”

So I should scarcely be able to do more than look around, get my bearings in the house, and make a start on the search for the papers, before it would be time for him to return to fetch me back again. I did not want to leave here so soon. I was fascinated by it, I wanted Keckwick to be gone, so that I could wander about freely and slowly, take it all in through every one of my senses, and by myself. “Listen,” I said, making a sudden decision, “it will be quite ridiculous for you to be driving to and fro twice a day. The best thing will be for me to bring my bags and some food and drink and stay a couple of nights here. That way I shall finish the business a good deal more efficiently and you will not be troubled. I’ll return with you later this afternoon and then tomorrow, perhaps you could bring me back as early as is possible, according to the tides?”

I waited. I wondered if he was going to deter me, or argue, to try and put me off the enterprise, with those old dark hints. He thought for some time. But he must have recognised the firmness of my resolve at last, for he just nodded.

Susan Hill, The Woman in Black (Vintage, 2007)

  1. What is the immediate context for this passage?
    Keckwick takes Arthur to Eel Marsh House in a pony and trap
  2. What immediately follows this passage?
    Arthur sees the Woman in Black for the second time in the chapel's burial ground
  3. What impression is given by Eel Marsh House?
    The house is described as "gaunt", steely and isolated. To Arthur it appears like a beacon or fortress, implying a sense of safety and watchfulness over a harsh environment
  4. Eel Marsh House is described as "gaunt". This is an example of which of the following?
    "Gaunt" means tall, thin and bony, implying hunger. The word is most often applied to people, rather than to objects, and here serves to remind the reader of the late Mrs Drablow while also hinting that the house itself will play an active role in the tale
  5. "At first the pony and then the trap met the sandy path, the smart noise we had been making ceased, and we went on almost in silence save for a hissing, silky sort of sound. Here and there were clumps of reeds, bleached bone-pale, and now and again the faintest of winds caused them to rattle dryly." Which language choices contribute to a sense of loneliness and foreboding?
    "Hissing" is a disturbing type of sound, reminiscent of a snake, while "bleached bone-pale" and "rattle dryly" remind readers of death and skeletal remains
  6. How does Arthur feel in this isolated spot?
    Arthur explains that the one emotion he does not experience here is fear. He rationalises this supposed lack of fear by considering the evidence of his senses, asking what could possibly make him afraid
  7. Which of the following does NOT contribute to the impression of isolation created by the passage?
    This passage describes the sense of civilisation slowly giving way to the emptiness of sky and sea; the causeway itself is only a temporary connection between utter isolation and the possibility of companionship
  8. Why does Arthur decide to return with enough supplies to stay overnight at the house?
    Keckwick can only come out to the house twice a day when the tide is out; the round trip journey is over six miles. Arthur is also impatient to explore the beautiful, mysterious spot on his own
  9. Although the island is a lonely spot, it is not altogether silent. Which sounds contribute to the atmosphere?
    The birds are described as making strange and sudden cries, the wind makes the dried reeds rattle and the trap travels almost silently over the causeway, except for the hiss it makes on the sandy path
  10. The island has a surprising effect on Arthur. Which of the following does NOT contribute to this effect?
    Arthur was not expecting a place of almost otherworldly beauty

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