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Posts Tagged ‘Ethel Lina White’

My second read for the 1936 club was The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White. If you haven’t heard of the novel – I bet you have heard of the film(s) it has been adapted for film and TV three times, firstly and most famously by Alfred Hitchcock. The film versions go by the name The Lady Vanishes – and I am fairly sure I have seen both the old Hitchcock version and the 1979 version that starred Cybil Shepard and Angela Lansbury. However, it must be some years since I saw either of them, and I haven’t seen the more recent TV adaptation, so my memory of the plot was sketchy. A young woman searches a train for a middle aged woman called Miss Froy, who everyone she speaks to insists was never there. More than that I couldn’t remember.

Ethel Lina White was a fairly prolific writer of mystery novels and stories, and The Wheel Spins was her ninth novel. I read an earlier novel, Fear Stalks the Village by her a few years ago, and a very memorable short story in Murder at the Manor an anthology of stories from the British Library edited by Martin Edwards. With The Wheel Spins it is easy to see what attracted Alfred Hitchcock to the story – to be so sure of something, and yet have everyone around you telling you that you’re wrong – it’s the stuff of nightmares. Throw in a sinister doctor and his peculiar patient, a crowded train, and the isolation of a language barrier, and suddenly we can all imagine being so disorientated that we begin to doubt our own mind.

“The horror persisted. Blackness was behind her and before—deadening her faculties and confusing her senses. She felt that she was trapped in a nightmare which would go on for ever, unless she could struggle free.”

Iris Carr is a young, attractive society woman, staying in a remote corner of Europe with a group of noisy, attention grabbing friends. The group have not made themselves popular in the hotel and following an awkward disagreement Iris decides to stay on at the hotel for a day or two after her friends depart by train. Glad for some time on her own, things don’t get off to the best of starts when Iris goes walking by herself and gets lost. Her confidence shaken she decides to carry on her journey to Trieste the next day after all.

An odd incident at the station where Iris is hit on the head and briefly loses consciousness leaves her feeling a little unwell, but she catches her train and finds herself stumbling into a carriage which is already rather full. The only other English speaker in Iris’s compartment is a middle aged tweedy type of woman who introduces herself as Miss Froy. Miss Froy has been working as a governess for the children of a local aristocrat – whose widow the baroness is another of the inhabitants of the carriage. Despite not being Iris’s kind of person at all, she agrees to have tea with Miss Froy in the dining car, where Miss Froy proceeds to tell her about the home she is travelling back to. Miss Froy has two very fond elderly parents anxiously waiting for her safe return, and a family dog who will take himself off to the train station to meet her when he senses her approach. Miss Froy’s, simple joy at returning home impresses itself on Iris’s mind – she finds she can picture the fond elderly parents and the eagerly waiting dog – making her all the more anxious that the family should be reunited.

Back in their train compartment, Miss Froy continues to be quite chatty, but overall, very kind. She gives Iris some aspirin and tells Iris to rest. Iris soon falls asleep and when she wakes Miss Froy is no longer sitting in the seat opposite her. Having waited some time for Miss Froy to return to her seat – Iris eventually plucks up courage to speak to the other people in her compartment.

“Where is Miss Froy?” asked Iris. “Miss Froy?” repeated the baroness. “I do not know any one who has that name.” Iris pointed to the seat which was occupied by the little girl. “She sat there,” she said. The baroness shook her head. “You make a mistake,” she declared. “No English lady has sat there ever.” Iris’ head began to reel. “But she did,” she insisted. “I talked to her. And we went and had tea together. You must remember.” “There is nothing to remember.” The baroness spoke with slow emphasis. “I do not understand what you mean at all. I tell you this…There has been no English lady, here, in this carriage, never, at any time, except you. You are the only English lady here.” 

They all claim that the lady Iris describes was never there. Only, Iris knows that she was.

There begins a desperate search for Miss Froy, the woman who was so kind to Iris and whose home coming is so eagerly anticipated. Also, on the train are some of the people from her hotel – but they are every bit as unhelpful – no one claims to have seen Miss Froy – Iris can’t understand how that can be the case – but then, why would all these people lie? She begins to question her own memory – could she have made Miss Froy up? She doesn’t really think so.

Iris enlists the help of a young engineer; Max Hare and the professor who he is travelling with. She starts to make quite a nuisance of herself – getting more and more irate and her behaviour begins to elicit some very unwelcome attention and could be about to put her in great danger.

This was an excellent quick read – a very quick read actually, as I couldn’t put it down until I had finished it.  

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