The Wheel Spins a.k.a. The Lady Vanishes (1936) by Ethel Lina White

This is my second re-read of the year and I hoped it would restore my confidence in White’s work, after a very rocky and frustrating experience at the beginning of January. Thankfully the main character in today’s read does manage to get on the train! The Wheel Spins is the novel’s original title and according to Moira at Clothes in Books, this is a roulette metaphor, which seems a far more intelligent idea than my juvenile one that thought it referred to the train’s wheels! However, this title is known more commonly by the title The Lady Vanishes, which many of you will be aware is the name Hitchcock used for his 1938 adaptation of it. Embarrassingly I have still to see this film, (despite having promised somebody I would watch it – not sure who I promised, but sorry anyways!) I have seen the later 2013 BBC version though. Normally I am hard to please when it comes to TV and film makers adapting books, but I have to admit that I found the ending of the BBC adaptation far more dramatic and exciting than the book’s own ending, which I will discuss in more detail in due course.

You know when White gives you a pampered and privileged orphan as a protagonist that their world is soon to be turned upside down and that a number of “learning” experiences are on their way. This is the sort of main character we are faced with in Iris Carr. She is on holiday with her loud and effervescent friends in Europe and not making a good impression on her fellow English holidaymakers: ‘to these six persons, Iris appeared just one of her crowd, and a typical semi-Society girl – vain, selfish, and useless. Naturally they had no knowledge of redeeming points…’

Due to a quarrel over a man, Iris decides to return home on a later train from her friends. Little does she realise what this decision will cost her and lead her to… Iris makes her later train to Trieste by the skin of her teeth, due to suffering from an episode of sun stroke. Feeling less than brilliant Iris gets talking to an English governess called Miss Froy, who has worked for a prestigious family but who is now going home to her parents. They have tea and Miss Froy talks and talks and then Iris goes to sleep. When she wakes up Miss Froy is nowhere to be found… and none of the passengers in her cabin admit there was ever such a woman. Iris assumes proving Miss Froy’s existence will be easy. Surely someone else on the train must have seen her? Yet for various factors a net of conspiracy soon begins to descend. Iris gains two supporters, of sorts, but she quickly wonders if they are more of a hinderance than a help, assuming that the Professor and Max Hare, think her either a hysterical or very unwell woman. The clock is ticking and there is little time for Iris to find and save Miss Froy, as well as herself. But where can you hide a woman on a train?

Overall Thoughts

It is easy to see why Hitchcock would want to adapt this for film. The plot is very well suited to being transferred to the silver screen. The story has a natural sense of urgency and the contained space of the train adds to Iris’ pressure. Her isolation in her mission remains throughout most of the story and is increased by Iris’ lack of language skills and the poor impression she has made on others previously. I think the mystery for the reader is not whether Iris is telling the truth or not, as we’re pretty confident she is, though she does question herself, naturally. Instead the real mystery is how Miss Froy could have been spirited away, with no witnesses and how so many travellers could be working in a conspiracy against her, (an aspect which reminded me of Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (1934)). The first half of the book is quite tightly plotted, as each small event has an impact on the ones to come, with seemingly inconsequential actions having much bigger consequences than Iris could imagine.

When it comes to the other English hotel guests, who are also on the train, we have two spinster sisters, a couple who are cheating on their spouses, as well as the Reverend Kenneth Barnes and his wife. On the whole these guests have outward respectability, yet White turns this on its head, when she reveals their inner secrets and weaknesses, which cause honest people to lie. The phrase evil happens when good men do nothing could definitely apply here, as many of these questions are unwilling to get involved with Iris’ problem and are happy to pass the buck wherever possible. Though in some cases I think White does complicate this reluctance to get involved, as it turns out two characters had previously given evidence at a trial and had suffered horrible abuse as a consequence. With these characters I think White avoids providing a jingoistic portrayal of English people aboard. She is more than happy to show their negative aspects.

Like in A Caribbean Mystery, which I reviewed yesterday with Rekha, we have a woman inattentively listening to another person, thus missing out on a crucial piece of information. Though perhaps Iris’ headache excuses her a little and all ‘she wanted [was] quiet – but Miss Froy’s voice went on and on, like the unreeling of an endless talking-picture.’ Miss Froy, despite being something of a chatter box, is a surprisingly interesting character. Physically she ‘was a negative type in every respect – middle-aged, with a huddle of small indefinite features, and vague colouring, […] not sufficiently a caricature to suggest a stage spinster.’ From that description she might seem colourless, but it seems in terms of her personality she is anything but. I love her adventurous spirit, as well as this delightful depiction of her: ‘It was as though a dryad were imprisoned within the tree trunk of a withered spinster.’

One aspect of the book which I quibbled with during this second reading were the chapters which focus on Miss Froy’s parents at home. These are built in from the middle of the narrative. Are they just there to reassure us that Miss Froy really does exist? Is it so White can conclude the book on something of twee note? To be honest these chapters didn’t seem especially necessary to the plot, nor did they really add much to the story. Thankfully they tended to be quite short.

So, we arrive at the ending. I feel that White boxes Iris into such a corner, plot-wise, that she has some job getting her out of it in a satisfying manner. In the book the conclusion comes across rather limply and flat. Perhaps because so many of the characters are unaffected by the experience, nor do they censure themselves for the suffering they perpetuated by not being honest. Conversely, I think the BBC version of the story achieved a much more dramatic and effective denouement. Moreover, I think they do slightly tweak the plot so some of the characters do recant their previous statements. There is a sense that events have affected them more deeply.

Nevertheless, despite these two flaws I very much enjoyed my return to White’s work and it still remains one of my favourites by her.

Rating: 4.5/5

See also: Christina Wehner, Clothes in Books, Fiction Fan, Stuck in a Book and Vintage Novels have all reviewed this title as well.

19 comments

  1. Glad you enjoyed it, Kate! Miss Froy is such a good character. I liked the parents at home – sentimental, I agree – but it made it seem al the more important that she got home safely.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the link! I enjoyed the book very much, but the Hitchcock film is even better – he makes some quite massive changes, and to my mind they vastly improve the plot, and add a lot of humour and excitement.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for this. I read the book and know the 1938 movie well. I didn’t realise there was a 2013 version, and I am able to watch it through my public library system. Tonight I’ll be curling up with it on the couch, under a quilt. With chocolate.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. There is also a 1979 remake with Elliott Gould and Cybill Shepherd in the lead roles. It was poorly reviewed when it came out, but I remember enjoying it, as well as the Robert Powell version of The 39 Steps with which it shared a double bill. Fans of the BBC sitcom Dad’s Army will be interested to note that Charters and Caldicott are played by Arthur Lowe and Ian Lavender,

    Liked by 1 person

  5. thanks for the mention! I really enjoyed this book (coming to it after seeing the Hitchcock film, many years ago) and thought there was some great characterization. And clothes! I loved it that Iris couldn’t describe Miss Froy’s face or build at all – but could instantly describe her not very exciting clothes. And, like Chrissie, I liked the parents. I knew I was being manipulated, but I didn’t mind.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes I thought of you when I came to that point in the book when Iris remembers all the clothes. I think it is a plot incident that quite a few authors have used. I’m sure I have reviewed such a one for the blog, but my memory is drawing a blank as to which one it is. Hopefully it will come to me at some point…

      Like

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