The Lady Vanishes by Ethel Lina White



first published as The Wheel Spins, 1936


 
Lady Vanishes 2
[Iris Carr is on a train, trying to track down her missing fellow-passenger, Miss Froy]

"I can't tell you much," she faltered. "You see, there's nothing much about her to catch hold of. She's middle-aged, and ordinary—and rather colourless."

"Tall or short? Fat or thin? Fair or dark?" prompted Hare.

"Medium. But she said she had fair curly hair."

"'Said?'" repeated the professor. "Didn't you notice it for yourself?"

"No. But I think it looked faded. I remember she had blue eyes, though."

"Not very enlightening, I'm afraid," remarked the professor.

"What did she wear?" asked Hare suddenly.

"Tweed. Oatmeal, flecked with brown. Swagger coat, finger-length, with patch pockets and stitched cuffs and scarf. The ends of the scarf were fastened with small blue-bone buttons and she wore a natural tussore shirt-blouse, stitched with blue—a different shade—with a small blue handkerchief in the breast-pocket. I'm afraid I didn't notice details much. Her hat was made of the same material, with a stitched brim and a Récamier crown, with a funny bright-blue feather stuck through the band."

"Stop," commanded Hare. "Now that you've remembered the hat, can't you make another effort and put a face under it?"
 
Lady Vanishes


commentary: This is the perfect extract from an excellent book: what could be more Clothes in Books than Iris’s inability to describe her new friend physically, but total recall of her clothes?

This is the book that inspired the 1938 Hitchcock film, and is usually now published under the film name – The Wheel Spins is a roulette metaphor, and not really any great loss. When I first read it years ago, I was rather disappointed, which I think is because it was so different from the film. This time I was prepared for that, am on an Ethel Lina White reading jag, and was looking for clothing references. And I loved the book, and was spoilt for choice with the clothes.

First of all, the film. Hitchcock & his writers, Gilliatt and Launder, really only kept a basic shell concept – woman travelling on train makes a casual new acquaintance. Suddenly Miss Froy disappears, and everyone denies she ever existed. Young woman must try to find out what is going on. Film and book now diverge: the motivation behind the disappearance is completely different.

Also, in the book, there is a huge moral issue concerning not getting involved; people’s reasons for wanting to get back to England without delay (which seem worth a lie); their conscience and lack of it. In the film this is pretty much reduced to some theoretical patriotism and the importance of a cricket match.

But, on to the clothes. The story begins in a tourist hotel in an unspecified Middle European country – a Ruritanian Balkan state. Iris is a flighty-seeming society woman of independent mean. Her friends, now departed, included a woman who came down to dinner in her ‘bathing-slip’, to the horror of the other guests, and really who can blame them? But then Iris is criticized by other guests for wearing a pretty afternoon frock for dinner:
"We always make a point of wearing evening dress for dinner, when we're on the Continent."
"If we didn't dress, we should feel we were letting England down."
Mrs Barnes – recipient of these remarks – ‘was keeping up England in limp brown lace’.
There is a pair of illicit lovers who breakfast in ‘a Chinese dressing-gown… and an elaborate wrapper over satin pyjamas.’

And there is a family on the train who
all wore new and fashionable suits, which might have been inspired by a shorthand manual. The father wore stripe—the mother, spots—and the daughter, checks. Iris reflected idly that if they were broken up, and reassembled, in the general scramble, they might convey a message to the world in shorthand.
--if only I could have found a picture of that.

There is a mention of ‘Margaret Rose silk’ which, diligent research suggests, was a tartan invented for the Queen’s sister, the Princess born in 1930, and available in silk as well as wool. This is the version offered to this day by tartan weavers DC Dalgliesh:
Lady Vanishes Margaret Rose

Miss Froy, the missing lady, is a lovely character, and the action scenes on the train are interspersed with moments with her parents who are anxiously awaiting her. She is compared to a Victorian aunt who:
In her lifetime… had wanted a talking-doll, a tricycle, an operatic career, a husband, a legacy. She got none of these things, but she never discarded a single wish, nor doubted that each would be granted—in the end.
And you very much hope that her stubbornness will be rewarded.

This isn’t a perfect book – White had a kind of scattershot approach, throwing everything in, and the morality can be awkwardly pushed – but I enjoyed it hugely.

More entries on Ethel Lina White books here, or click on the tab below.

One tweedy spinster is from the film It’s a Wonderful Life, the other from the NYPL.




























Comments

  1. I LOVE the film. It has that fantastic line about how you can tell a nun isn't a real nun.

    A few years ago, I was in Waterloo tube station and there was a blind woman collecting for charity. But something looked wrong. The dialogue went as follows:

    "That's not a real blind woman."
    "How can you tell?"
    "Blind women don't wear stiletto heels."

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    1. Indeed, and don't you always look at nuns' shoes just to be on the safe side?

      I heard a lovely story about a man whose father, a rabbi, would give money to a blind beggar every day as they walked along together to school. Eventually the little boy realized something and said: 'Papa, every day you raise your hat to the blind beggar. But he can't see you!'
      And the father replied: 'It's just in case he is a fake blind beggar - I wouldn't want to be discourteous.' I wish we could all live our lives with such generosity of spirit....

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    2. That IS nice. I've never forgotten that "blind woman" because it was so bizarre - she was stood there with her dark glasses and her white stick, and her charity collecting can, and those shoes. Which, once noticed, was all we could both see and wonder about - I realy find it difficult to believe that a blind person could walk in high spindly heels, even if she was used to them before losing her sight. And extremely unsuitable for standing about charity collecting too.

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    3. It does sound unlikely doesn't it? What a strange story.... it would definitely be a clue in a crime story.

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  2. Oh, I must read the book, now, Moira. The film is a fine one (of course, I admit I'm biased, being a Hitchcock fan). Still, I thought it was nicely done. And I'd always wondered how different it was to the book. It sounds as though they are quite different stories, albeit with the same plot point. Fascinating!

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    1. Yes, I'm sure you would enjoy it Margot. And it is one of the rare cases where the two versions are quite different but both very good.

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  3. I've only seen the movie, must go looking for the book.

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    1. Oh you should, it's well worth a read. And you can find it very cheaply (and possibly for nothing) on the internet.

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  4. I loved it, too. The film is great, of course, but in the book even the love interest doesn't believe the heroine. It really is scary. And I adored the character of Miss Froy and her parents waiting for her at home. She really is a liberated woman, so adventurous

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    1. Yes I loved Miss Froy! She's much younger and more impressive in the book - a great and unusual character, and not nearly so much of a stereotype (a nice stereotype, but still) as in the film.

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  5. The BBC version was truer to the book, and had good atmosphere, but it had that slight feeling of being more in love with production values than the story (quite a common BBC flaw at the moment). I don't think it included Miss Froy's parents, though, even though they are one of the book's best features.

    I love the rabbi story Moira.

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    1. 'more in love with production values than the story' - that is a great description of what goes wrong, Rich - I shall remember that...
      And yes, the rabbi has stuck in my mind for many years, and I hope I will remember him forever.

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    1. Yes, I'm feeling a bit guilty, it's been heavy on the classic crime lately.

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  7. I have only ever seen the film adaptation but glad to hear that this mostly holds up - thanks Moira.

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    1. Different but good is the verdict I think - both book and film can continue to entertain us all.

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  8. Have been trying to get my hands on the book for ages. The film is one of my favourites. Great to see that the book is so enjoyable (if rather different) too.

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    1. If you use Kindle, there is a very cheap 'box set' of 7 Ethel Lina White books, including this one....I bought it intending to read just the famous ones, but am enjoying working my way through them all.

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  9. Moira: The comparable for most men would involve describing a car in detail and unsure of the driver even if a lovely woman is behind the steering wheel. I say most men as I barely notice cars.

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    1. Brilliant comparison Bill! We all have our key interests, don't we...

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  10. Started reading, but gave up as the end approached. Once Max has worked out the plot, the story seems to lose its way, and I miss the thrilling incidents of the Hitchcock film (and Charters and Caldicott). ELW makes her points over and over again (and confesses that her inspiration is the folktale The Foreign Hotel), and I began to feel claustrophobic. But I love the original Miss Froy - a much more interesting character. I could have done without the padding about her dear old parents, however. Asset-rich and cash-poor - they scrimp and save for a square of carpet, in an old manor house surrounded by antiques. Couldn't they sell some of the stuff and rent out the house? ;-)

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    1. Yes I agree with what you say, though I liked it more than you did, I could put up with some of the weird stuff round the edges. How old do you think Miss Froy was meant to be? I amused myself with this. In Hitchcock plainly ancient, but I think in book not old, merely old enough to have given up on ever getting married. But lovely and fun.

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  11. Did Iris really have sunstroke? And did people think it was like being hit on the head? And back then people though aspirins would send you to sleep!

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    1. I know, that was all rather weird wasn't it? Not medically rigorous.

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  12. I have not read any of White's books and this the one I most want to read. I skipped all the comments because I did not want to read anything much about the book. Of course I have seen the movie several times, but I am waiting to watch it again after I read the book. That description of her clothing details is priceless.

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    1. Thanks Tracy - they did both go through so I deleted the extra one. I'm sure you will enjoy the book, and then re-watching the film, but they ARE very different...

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