Friday, 11 September 2015
Wax by Ethel Lina White
[The caretaker of the wax museum makes a late-night visit]
With her tweed coat buttoned over her nightdress, and her hat, adorned with an eye veil, perched on top of her curlers, Mrs. Ames went out into the night. She was not nervous of the darkness, while the Gallery was only the length of a short street away….Directly she turned the key in the great lock and pushed open the massive mahogany doors, she felt that she was really at home.
She entered the Gallery, and then stood on the threshold—aware of a change. This was not the familiar place she knew so well.
It seemed to be full of people. Seen in the light from the street lamp, which streamed in through the high window, their faces were those of men and women of character and intelligence. They stood in groups as though in conversation, or sat apart in solitary reverie.
But they neither spoke nor moved.
When she had seen them last, a few hours ago, under the dim electric globes, they had been a collection of ordinary waxworks, representing conventional historical personages and Victorian celebrities. Only a few were in really good condition, while some were ancient, with blurred features and threadbare clothes.
But now, they were all restored to health and electric with life.
observations: Fear Stalks the Village was my previous foray into White country: this one has a very different setting. A young woman comes to a mid-sized English town, Riverpool, to work as a reporter, and becomes very interested in the waxworks museum there. White does a brilliant job of describing and creating the museum, and its caretaker, the easily corruptible Mrs Ames. The place is very rundown, decaying, uncared for: lovers use it for meetings, townspeople try to do up the figures or give them new clothes, and there is a rumour that you can’t spend the night there or something terrible will happen to you. The figures might be ‘friendly’ or they might be malevolent, and you have to be careful with them. Some people would like the Gallery closed.
I think we can all agree that this is a great basis for a book.
There are all kinds of other undercurrents in the town, and Sonia, our heroine, tries to pursue a few of them, because she wants to be an ace reporter. The story is, somewhat all over the place, but that meant I was genuinely surprised when – a long way in, more than two-thirds – the true driving force of the plot was revealed. So I’m not going to say what it is, though some of the incidents following were truly weird. And there were many excellent spooky, creepy scenes in the waxworks.
There are also some great clothes scenes in the book, and clues hidden in items of apparel. Sonia lives in a boarding-house with other women, who do a variety of jobs in the town, and the details of their lives are fascinating and authentic-sounding – with particular interest in those who model or sell clothes in the local department store.
I find White a much more lively read than some of her contemporaries – her young women particularly have a lust for life, and there isn’t nearly so much of females being divided into ‘nice’ and ‘unrespectable’ as in many books of the 30s. White makes you realize how other authors want their heroines to be easily-shocked and moral and pure, to be viewed as classy.
In fact White’s women have a healthy vulgarity. I like the boarding-house lodger whose response to the death of a fellow guest is that now she can eat the landlady’s stews - the dead person used to leave meat on her plate, and Caroline suspected the landlady of re-cycling it. Sonia herself is annoyed that her widowed father has remarried, but makes it clear that rather than being devastated and rejected, she has given the new wife hell.
Many scenes cried out for an illustration - I like Sonia in her ‘standardised fashion of swagger-coat and small hat, tilted over one eye’ – but in the end I couldn’t resist the waxworks. These pictures are of a waxworks entertainment in Montreal – the randomness of the displays seemed to reflect the spirit, if not the actuality, of the establishment in Riverpool. (The town’s name is close to my home town of Liverpool, but I think this is meant to be a much smaller place.)
The pictures come with the permission and cooperation of Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec and Wikimedia Canada under the Poirier Project.