Sunday, 10 January 2016

Dress Down Sunday: In your Nightie on the Spiral Staircase



the book: Spiral Staircase by Ethel Lina White

also published as  Some Must Watch

published 1933



Spiral Staircase Lillian Gish 1922
 


Helen felt rather important as she went up to the red room, although she was slightly doubtful of the success of her mission. As she paused outside the door, she could hear the sounds of strangled sobbing. No notice was taken of her knock, so she entered, uninvited--to find Simone stretched, face downwards, on the bed.

"Oh, your lovely dress," she cried. "You'll ruin it."

Simone raised her head, showing a tear-streaked face.
"I hate it," she snarled.

"Then take it off. Anyway, you'll feel freer in a wrapper."

It was second nature to Simone to be waited on, so she made no protest as Helen peeled the sheath-like gown over her head.

The younger girl took rather a long time in her selection of a substitute, from the wardrobe. The sight of so many beautiful garments aroused her wistful envy.

"What loverly things you have," she said, as she returned to the bed, carrying a wisp of georgette and lace, which was less substantial than the discarded gown.

"What's the good of them?" asked Simone bitterly. "There's no man to see them."

"There's your husband," Helen reminded her.
"I said 'man.'"

"Shall I get you some aspirin for your head?" asked Helen, who was determined to keep Simone's ailments on a strictly physical basis.

"No," replied Simone. "I feel foul. But it's not that. I'm so terribly unhappy."

"But you've everything," cried Helen.

"Everything. And nothing I want. My whole life has been one of sacrifice. Whenever I want something, it's taken from me."

She coiled herself into a sitting posture, as a prelude to confidence. While her make-up was ruined, the tempest had swept harmlessly over her plastic coiffure, for her hair gleamed like unflawed black enamel.


Spiral Staircase
 

commentary: If you come to this book from the 1946 film Spiral Staircase, whether you’ve seen it or just heard of it, there are a few surprises. For a start, the book is set in the UK, not the USA. The story is often included in the Had I But Known (HIBK) school of writing, but the heroine Helen is no fainting fluttery female: she is an excellent young woman, frank and fearless, and charmingly odd.

She’s working as ladylike help with 3 generations of a strange family: old lady, stepson, grandson and wife, bachelor student. There is also, of course, other staff – housekeeper, handyman and a strangely masculine-looking nurse. A houseful of weirdos, pretty much.

Helen likes the local doctor but:
She resolved to go on buying Savings Certificates for her old age. For she believed in God – but not in Jane Eyre.
They all live in a lonely isolated house, and there is talk of a murderer on the loose, one who likes young women. (The book sounds rather clichéd, but to be fair to White, she almost created a genre with this book, and many of its features were to be repeated in books and films forever.) During the course of one long night, everyone fights, the weather gets worse and worse, people bang on the door, people get locked in or locked out, they get drunk, they are drugged. Who will still be standing at dawn…?

It’s not the best plot ever (the cast is too small for much mystery) but the entertainment value is still high. The new nurse asks if the doctor is young and married, and on hearing the answers (yes and no) ‘opened her bag and drew out a mirror and lipstick.’ The housekeeper tells the nurse that our heroine is saucy and ‘a terror with the gentlemen’ and Helen is refreshingly delighted with this description. And she blatantly tries to compete with the femme fatale of the employing family by wearing a sexy dress.

The nurse herself is described like this:
In her white overall – her dark-red face framed in its handkerchief headgear – she looked like a gigantic block of futuristic sculpture.
The plot and setting were changed for the film, and the iconic shots of the woman holding a candle on the spiral staircase, while wearing a long white nightie, don’t really seem to have much basis in the book. The staircase exists but isn’t that important.


spiral staircase 2

Spiral staircase 1









It’s not clear if ‘loverly’ above is a typo or not, so I have left it as is.

Sergio, over at Tipping my Fedora, reviewed the book for Halloween last year, and also – it’s his forte – took an illuminating and revelatory look at the film (which I think it’s fair to say he recommends a lot more than the book).

The top photo is the luminous Lilian Gish admiring herself in a mirror.

Women/stairs/candles/nighties have been discussed on previous blog entries: this Andrea Camilleri book came into the view of Colm Redmond, the chief Guest Blogger, and he showed further expertise by also choosing the pictures for this Mary Stewart book, where the author was clearly poking fun at the conventions.

Plenty more Ethel Lina White books have been on the blog in the past year – click on the label below.






























18 comments:

  1. Ah, yes, the 'Had I But Known!' motif. Sometimes it really can work. And, since books like this one are written from the point of view of a non-family member, but one who knows the family intimately, we also get an interesting look at some of the other characters. I think that perspective can work very well.

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    1. yes, and she set up very clever situations - I think White doesn't get the credit she deserves. I found her books very fresh and entertaining.

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  2. I did enjoy this book, Moira. As you say, a great heroine and all the aspects that became clichés had real power.

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    1. She's really good at creating atmosphere and tension, isn't she?

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  3. "Loverly" is a word I've seen used by British authors in older children's books. Noel Streatfeild characters, possibly.

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    1. Oh that's interesting, thanks Ann - I'll be on the lookout for it.

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    2. Also of course, in "Oh, Wouldn't It Be Luverly" from My Fair Lady.

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    3. Oh yes, maybe it's the Cockney version...

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  4. I love the line, “For she believed in God, but not in Jane Eyre."

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    1. Yes! She is smart, and unexpected, and definitely feminist.

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  5. I had to look up the film to be sure we were talking about the same one. I really like the film, although the ending is pure twassocks (basically, if you're in mortal enough peril, your disability will magically cure itself?) so am a bit surprised the book is SO different!

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    1. Yes it's definitely an oddity, and they are both good in their ways - but the film-makers really only used the book as a very vague framework, I think.

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  6. Don't think I have an Ethel in the tubs......thankfully

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    1. She's better than you'd think, but even if I thought she was a perfect fit for you I'd be reluctant to encourage you to add to the piles!

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  7. There are some lovely (loverly) genuinely creepy moments, like when she is (foolishly but bravely) out walking alone. That line about being determined to keep "ailments on a strictly physical basis" is such a great misreading on the heroine's part of just about everyone!

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    1. Yes indeed to all. I found it a really surprising book, it wasn't what I was expecting, and the heroine was great, in her own way.

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  8. Sounds like I will like this one when I finally get to it. And I have not seen the movie.

    When you mention loverly I immediately thought of the song that Daniel noted. We have watched My Fair Lady many many times and are familiar with all the songs.

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    1. You'll have to read it sooner or later - and then watch the film. We had a soundtrack LP of My Fair Lady when I was a child, so we all knew every word of the songs too.

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