I feel like this was one of last year’s reprints which was somewhat overlooked. I include myself in that remark as it was a month after it was released that I realised the title existed. But then it seems The Murder Room have reprinted a few by Gilbert over the years, in paperback too, which have also passed me by.
Today’s read is set in early wartime England and 23-year-old Julia Ross has been out of work for 9 weeks. Her savings have dwindled, she is not fit for war work and she has spent all day doing the rounds, trying to find secretarial work, going to agency after agency, with no luck. Not sure where her next meal is coming, and having pawned most of her precious belongings, she takes up the offer of work to be a secretary-companion for Mrs Laura Ponsonby. She does this in spite of feeling a degree of trepidation in taking up the job. Something about it just feel wrong. And unsurprisingly this feeling is quickly vindicated as within the space of 12 hours she is taken against her will to a remote part of the countryside. Her new employer, moreover, insists that she has had a breakdown and that her real name is Sheila Campbell. Mrs Ponsonby is no novice in subterfuge and mind games, exchanging all of Julia’s belongings and ID card for those belonging to a woman by the name of Sheila. Even worse, she engineers circumstances so those outside of the Ponsonby household sincerely believe that Julia is not in her proper mind and it doesn’t take Julia long to realise that Mrs Ponsonby does not intend her to live indefinitely. But how can she escape? She has no family or friends to follow up her disappearance – you can see why Laura Ponsonby chose her. However, it does happen that just before Julia lost her freedom, she had mentioned to a casual friend at a local Lyons teashop about the position and it just so happens that this friend knows Arthur Crook. But will they be able to untangle Julia from the web Mrs Ponsonby has trapped her in?
The social and cultural aspects of Gilbert’s novels are invariably a delight to read and this book is no different. The tale’s exposition reveals the difficulties of dealing with employment agencies, as well as the tendency for firms to maintain older female staff over younger ones, (due to the assumption that the latter can get involved in war work in some capacity.) The war itself contributes to Julia’s vulnerability, enabling her kidnappers’ plan.
However, it is interesting that Julia’s first impression of Laura Ponsonby is that she is mad or eccentric. Her initial description certainly suggests a bold personality:
‘Laura Ponsonby looked odd; she was a little plump body, some thing like a caricature of Queen Victoria, with the same dumpy body and sparkling eyes, the dominating nose, the imperious air. Yet the resemblance was far from complete. Queen Victoria would never have a worn a bright red dress hung about with chains and amulets; her arms would not have been decorated with broad gold bracelets […] And certainly Her Majesty’s hair would have been a decent grey instead of the curled red wig that tilted a little on Mrs Ponsonby’s forehead.’
Yet Julia soon realises that Laura is far smarter and sharper than her appearance belies. After all she does not outright inform Julia that she will be kidnapped. In fact, the word is never used at all. Julia in the early hours of their acquaintance can sense a vein of malevolence under the surface, a strength of will which will go against her own. But there is nothing ever visible enough to provoke a justifiable retreat and by the time Julia realises her full predicament a retreat is no longer possible. A grim note is achieved by the referencing of the Harriet Staunton case.
The title seems to me, to be a riff on Wilkie Collin’s title The Woman in White (1859). I think there are some parallels to be drawn. Firstly, in both texts there is a woman who has another identity imposed upon her by others, (though for different reasons). Then of course there is the accusation of mental instability as both Laura Fairlie and Julia have to deal with this dilemma. The entrapment of these women then moves the plot in each case on to the characters who must figure out where they are and how to free them. There is also the conundrum of why they are being withheld in the first place. However, at this juncture we find the texts going in different directions.
The Woman in Red, feels much more like an inverted mystery as we know who the criminals are and how they achieved what they did. The only piece of the puzzle we lack is why they did it and what their end game is. Yet Julia’s freedom is gained halfway through the novel – an action we normally associate with a story’s ending. So this plot feels like it has two halves. The post-kidnap section is more focused on how the criminals are to be cornered and successfully prosecuted. The reason as to why Julia was kidnapped is unfortunately delivered in a heavy-handed manner. The answer is brought complete to us by Arthur Crook not long after Julia escapes. The finding out of this information does not occur on the page.
I would go as far as saying that the second half of the book is perhaps the weakest. It doesn’t quite deliver on the expectations raised by the first half of the book which has such strong Victorian literary echoes. The espionage element is not wholly convincing. The war has an interesting effect on the denouement of the novel, but on the whole, whilst this is not a poor novel, I don’t think it is Gilbert at her absolute best.