I was re-watching one of my favourite films, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, a few weeks ago and it occurred to me that I should probably try reading the book on which it was based – The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White, published in 1936. Luckily, I was able to find a Project Gutenberg version available to download, so I could start it immediately while I was in the mood. Now that I’ve read it, I think it’s one of the few cases where, for me, the film is better than the book! I did enjoy reading it, but I was surprised by how different it was and by how many of the elements I love from The Lady Vanishes are not part of the novel.
The Wheel Spins begins with Iris Carr, a young Englishwoman, staying at a small hotel in an unspecified country somewhere in Europe. Her friends have already left but Iris has decided to stay on alone at the hotel for a few more days. On the day she is due to catch the train home, she briefly loses consciousness at the station and assumes she must be suffering from sunstroke. Managing to board the crowded train just in time, Iris finds herself sharing a carriage with several other people, including Miss Froy, an English governess who is also on her way home. Iris accompanies Miss Froy to tea in the dining carriage where she listens to her new friend talk about her recent teaching jobs. After returning to their seats, Iris falls asleep – and awakens to find Miss Froy gone. When the rest of the passengers all deny that Miss Froy ever existed, Iris begins to panic: has the sunstroke affected her more than she’d realised or is something more sinister taking place?
After a slow start in which the author takes her time introducing us to Iris and the other guests at the hotel, all of whom seem to end up on the same train home, things soon pick up with the disappearance of Miss Froy and the efforts Iris makes to try to find out what has happened to her. There are only really two possible scenarios: either Iris has imagined things or everybody on the train is lying – and if they are lying, why? This is where the significance of those early chapters becomes clear as Iris is not the most pleasant of people and makes herself so unpopular with her fellow travellers that it’s easy to see why they don’t feel like helping her. Some of them also have other motives for not wanting to get involved and although I thought this was handled better in the film, the book does still give us a sense of how unsettling all of this is for Iris and how she begins to doubt her own sanity.
As I’ve said, there are so many things I love in the film which don’t appear in the novel: the significance of music to the plot; Charters and Caldicott, the two cricket-obsessed Englishmen determined to get home in time to see the Test Match; the relationship between Iris and the musicologist Gilbert; and the performances of Margaret Lockwood (a much more likable Iris than the one in the book), Michael Redgrave and May Whitty in the leading roles. On the other hand, there are also some interesting aspects of the novel that Hitchcock didn’t include – for example, some occasional glimpses of Miss Froy’s elderly parents at home in England looking forward to their daughter’s return.
Although I think I might have felt more enthusiastic about the book if I had read it first, rather than the other way around, I still enjoyed it and am curious about Ethel Lina White’s other books now.