Sunday, 3 July 2016

Dress Down Sunday: While She Sleeps by Ethel Lina White


published 1940


LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES




while she sleeps

 
Miss Loveapple awoke with a smile. She had slept well; her digestion was good— her conscience clear; and she had not an enemy in the world. There was nothing to warn her that, within the next hour, she would be selected as a victim to be murdered. As she threw aside the sheets and sat up in bed, she looked beautiful. Just as every dog has his day, every woman has her hour. Since Miss Loveapple's dress allowance was shaved to the limit, she triumphed when she was in undress.

Her low sleeveless nightdress revealed the whiteness of her skin which had not been exposed to the sun. Her fair hair fell over her shoulders in thick plaits. As she stretched out her arms in a yawn, she seemed to be welcoming the gift of life. It was a blue windy day in late summer. The sun shone brightly upon her toilet table, striking through the cut-glass trinket set in rainbow gleams. She could hear the welcome rattle of china which told her that the maid was mounting the stairs with her early tea and the Times.
 
 
commentary: I’ve been absolutely loving my trundle through the works of Ethel Lina White, and this wasn’t the book to change that – I enjoyed it immensely, despite its having some features that I think might drive other readers up the wall.

The passage above is the opening of the book: Miss Loveapple is in danger of being murdered. The book then follows her own activities – which are lightweight and low-key, though important to her – and in parallel slowly reveals a dastardly plot which has put her in deadly danger. This is, frankly, all ludicrous, but it is also terrific fun. There is a trope that Miss L never has a clue what is going on, and she alternately avoids and invites danger without knowing what she is doing, but has a constant refrain in her own head about how lucky or unlucky she is – and of course this doesn’t match up with the reality. I found this very very entertaining.

The plot IS all over the place – as is her wont, White throws in everything: a village fete, a visiting Lady, a trip to Switzerland, a subplot concerning jewel theft, a possibility of rat poison, a borrowed attache case, a dark tour of Paris and an opium den. White always likes train journeys, and there is an excellent one here - across Europe - and she also likes older ladies of great integrity who save the day.

AND, best of all, she always describes the clothes – and often gives them a role to play in the plot.

Miss L (we never find out her true first name) has an unlikely clothes foible:
Whether she worked in the house or garden, Miss Loveapple's official wear was shorts. These were ready-made and possessed the discretion of the Boy Scout pattern, rather than the frankness of a bathing belle model. All the same, she paid tribute to local susceptibilities by buttoning a grey flannel skirt over them before she went into the village.
-- but then is horrified by another woman’s choices:
The morning she came down to breakfast wearing navy blue trousers, Miss Loveapple could not control her indignation. 'I never saw a more disgusting spectacle,' she declared to Olivia Furse. I'd rather go naked than wear trousers.' To vindicate her outraged modesty, she went up to her room and cut two inches off her Boy Scout shorts.
The combination of the shorts, and an ill-fated black satin suit, change the way people look at her on holiday, and have their effect on the plot.

Meanwhile there are two women telling fortunes: one wears ‘an artistic gown of nasturtium-hued velvet and a long string of amber beads.’ The other ‘wore a huddle of black draperies and her head and face were covered by a wine-red veil, under which gleamed a metallic-gold mask, slitted for eyes and lips.’

 
While she sleeps 2
 
And more: a woman in ‘black georgette, trimmed with monkey-fur, and high-heeled toeless sandals’ (you can tell she’s a bad lot). An evening outfit of ‘a white Ottoman silk coatee worn over the black satin skirt of her suit’. A house-pyjama-suit and ‘a full-skirted house-coat, pale yellow in colour and patterned with brilliant flowers.’

I honestly don’t think this book would be to everyone’s taste, but I loved it. Miss Loveapple reminded me of Jane Austen’s Emma (one lives in Highfield, one Hartfield), and while you wouldn’t compare the two authors’ literary skills, their heroines are equally enjoyable.

The nightdress is from the Ladies Home Journal of the era.

The fortune teller is by Colin Campbell Cooper from the 1920s.


















14 comments:

  1. Perhaps it wouldn't be to everyone's taste, Moira, but I can see why it appealed to you. Not just the clothes, but the lifestyle and the relationships, too. And there's something about someone who has no idea that danger is so near. I suppose you could say, 'How could you have no idea?' but still, I can see where it'd be fun.

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    1. It was very cleverly worked out, she spent some time on it I would say, it sounds almost as if she set herself a test to see if she could do it. And I think she succeeded...

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  2. There are several of White's mysteries available as free ebooks at Project Gutenberg Australia. I finished "Wax" this morning (and will read "The Wheel Spins" tonight, if I can stay awake -- although those of my neighbors who are prematurely celebrating the 4th of July may make that easy).

    I read "Some Must Watch" years ago but didn't pick up on the rest of White's books until recently.

    http://gutenberg.net.au/plusfifty-n-z.html#letterW

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    1. Thanks - very useful. There's another one someone mentioned recently that I want to read too, set in a school I think.
      Although some of the trappings are the same, I find her a refreshing change from other writers of the era, not so obsessed with 'who is a good girl' and shame and honour.
      (and when I looked at the W's list, I was astonished by how many books Edgar Wallace wrote.)

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  3. I love Ethel Lina White - glad to find someone else who does!

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    1. Oh yes! She's marvellous isn't she? Any particular recommendations?

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  4. I'm a great fan, but I did get a bit irritated by this one. I am currently reading The Man Who Loved Lions and it really isn't very good. However I can recommend Steps in the Dark. BTW, what a staple of GA crime fiction garden parties and fortune-tellers were. They pop up everywhere!

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    1. I can totally understand - I think I just admired the work that went into keeping her unknowing. Yes I thought S in Dark was tense and creepy. Just downloaded one called The Third Eye, have you come across it?
      My spirits rise in any GA book where a garden party, tennis party, fortune telling, séances, picnic outing, bring and buy at the church.... I almost feel there's a list in this, of the features that appeal most.

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    2. I have also quite independently downloaded The Third Eye!
      We might do a list like that one day.
      I am currently reading Fashion is Spinach as recommended by you. Fascinating. And I've read The Rainbird Pattern - also very good!

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    3. I wonder who'll get to it first...?

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  5. Hmmm....searching for something withering to post, but my minds a blank - a pass from me!

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    1. No, really really not one for you I think...

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  6. I think I have two others, but I don't have this one. I can see where it would be irritating, but whether I try it or not will depend on how I like what I have read before it.

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    1. Yes, try her out first. I do really like her, and have just found another one of hers that wasn't in my boxset...

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