first published as The Wheel Spins, 1936
[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?"
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."Mrs Barnes – recipient of these remarks – ‘was keeping up England in limp brown lace’.
"If we didn't dress, we should feel we were letting England down."
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:
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.