In class this week, we’re beginning to look at English Language paper 1. The text we’re using is an extract from Susan Hill’s ‘Mist in the Mirror’. It’s a fairly ‘routine’ piece of atmospheric writing, the kind we expect from Mrs Woman in Black. However, it’s effective for its overall structure (which we will look at in lessons) and use of language. There are also some effectively long sentences which capture the sense of anxiety, paranoia and nervousness of the narrator as he chases shadows through an old university library. Here is the extract:
It was as I was a few paces from the door that I began to have the sensation of being watched, watched and silently followed. I spun round and shone my torch behind me, for the windows had ended here and the corridor was pitch dark. There was no one. I went quietly back a few yards, stopped and waited, straining my ears through the silence. Perhaps the wood settled every now and again, perhaps a board creaked. Perhaps they did not. I waited again, and then said in a low voice, ‘Who is there?’ There was no reply and, impatient with myself and my imaginings, I turned back and went again to the library door.
I expected it to be locked, like the rest, but it swung open slowly to my touch, so that, involuntarily, I jumped back. The sensation of being watched was stronger and now my nerves were on edge and I cursed myself for a fool, not to have remained in my bed, where I would surely by now have been peacefully asleep. But my curiosity grew, for I was eager to examine the library, where I planned to be working for the next few days, and beginning to be fascinated by the grave, venerable beauty of this ancient place.
I stepped inside, and stood, letting my eyes grow accustomed to the change of light. I found myself in a room that stretched far ahead of me into the gloom. But there was enough of the soft, snow-reflected light coming in through the tall windows for me to have a view of a gallery, that ran the whole way around, rising towards the vaulted and elaborately carved ceiling. I felt no fear, but rather a sense of awe, as if I had entered some church or chapel.
Oak bookcases were lined on either side of the central aisle, with desks set in the spaces between, and as I looked up I could see more book stacks that rose behind the gallery, up to which iron spiral staircases led at intervals.
I went to a window, and saw that the library ran along the north end of the buildings framing the yard, at right angles to the chapel.
I turned away and began to walk softly between the bookcases, looking in awe to left and right, at the evidence of so much knowledge, so much learning, far beyond the level of school-age boys. I stopped to examine books on literature and the classics, the history of science, philosophy and theology, and then came upon rows of leather-bound archives of the school, magazines, journals, directories, lists. I wandered on, with a growing and curious sense of being a king in some abandoned kingdom, with access to all the wisdom of the ages – such strange, grandiose thoughts flit into the mind under the influence of impressive surroundings, solitude, and the small hours.
It was as I approached the last few bays that I heard what at first I took to be the soft closing of the door at the far end of the room, but which went on, even and regular, like the breathing of someone asleep, a sighing that seemed to come out of the air above my head, as though the whole, great room were somehow a living thing, exhaling around me. I glanced up at the gallery. Someone was there, I was certain of it. The wood creaked. A footfall. I was as far from my way of escape as I could have been, trapped alone in this empty place with – whom? What?
‘With nothing,’ I said, aloud and boldly, scornfully – but then started at the sound of my own voice. ‘Nothing.’ And went to the spiral staircase nearest to me, and began to climb, my steps echoing harshly in the stillness of the room.
The gallery was dark, high and narrow, with only a foot or two of passage between the bookstacks, and the wooden rail. I switched off my torch. The air up here was colder, but at the same time oddly dead, and close, as though the dust of years, the dust of books and learning and thought, was packed tightly, excluding any freshness.
The soft breathing came again, from a different place, in the darkness just ahead of me and I began to edge forwards, and then to stop, move and stop, but it was always just out of reach. I looked down into the great barrel of the room below. Every shadow seemed like a crouched, huddled figure, every corner concealed some dreadful shape. There was no one there. There was nothing. There was everything. ‘Who is there?’ I said. ‘What do you want of me?’ Or would have said had not my throat constricted and my tongue cleaved to the roof of my mouth, so that no sound was possible. I wanted to run but could not and knew that this was what was intended, that I should be terrified by nothing, by my own fears, by soft breathing, by the creak of a board, by the very atmosphere which threatened me.
But, after a time of silence and stillness, I summoned up enough strength and steadiness of nerve to walk slowly, step by step, around the gallery, glancing down now and then but seeing nothing, until I came to the last staircase, and by that descended to the ground again. As I returned to the corridor, closing the door of the library behind me, I caught sight of a light moving about irregularly on the opposite side, and, as I rounded the corner, I glimpsed a dark-coated figure walking slowly, and holding up a lantern – the porter, I supposed, on his rounds, and felt a wave of relief so great that it all but felled me and took my breath, and I was forced to lean against the wall for a few seconds, so giddy did I become.
And here are some exam type questions we’ve devised to go with the text:
- List FOUR things the narrator does in the opening paragraph
- Look at the section beginning “It was as I approached…” and ending with “stillness of the room”. How does the writer use language here to create a fearful atmosphere?
- How is the text structured to interest you as a reader?
- Now focus on the paragraph beginning “The gallery was dark…” to the end of the extract. A student said “This part of the story really gets across the narrator’s sense of panic and anxiety”.
To what extent do you agree?
Question 1: remember not to overthink this. You are simply retrieving information from the given section of the text.
Here is some advice from the exam board on this question:
- Responses must be drawn from the given lines
- They must relate to the question
- Students may quote or paraphrase
- Paragraphed response including more than one point should be credited for each point made (but they must show evidence of specific info related to question)
- Responses that copy the lines verbatim should not be credited
Question 2: this is the language question. Remember that language also includes sentence forms. Here is some more advice from the exam board:
You will be credited for how sentence forms are used if you explain their effect on the reader: length of sentence, word order, use of multiple clauses for example. (For Q3 structure, it is more the position of the sentence in the text or how the sentence contributes to the structure of the text as a whole.)
Question 3 structure (see here for the Harry Potter lesson on structure)
The Harry Potter lesson was really useful on structure and made the analysis of The Mist in the Mirror easier. Here are the screen shots of the board and a pupil’s notes from our work on MIST:
Don’t forget to use the sequence: S/Q/A
S = structural feature
Q – quotation or reference
A = analysis of effect on reader
Otherwise you end up re-telling the story!