…Francis Brett Young feels it would be a sacrilege to invent a new White Lady Cocktail, since “it is already the best cocktail ever made.”
– From So Red the Nose
I don’t know about the best cocktail ever made, but the White Lady drink has certainly persisted longer than its book, probably because it had been created by a different mixologist some 15 years before, allegedly (very allegedly) in honor of a different retro literary figure, who was, indeed, a white lady.
The name also makes me think of ghosts, which was vindicated by the link above saying the egg whites give it “something of the look of decomposing flesh.” Damn. Now I wish I had waited for Halloween for this one, but my Halloween reading list is already getting kind of unwieldy (Stay tuned!).
My last foray into drinking raw eggs has taught me they don’t really have much flavor of their own. Rather, egg serves as a blank canvas on which to highlight whatever flavor it is combined with. And here, that flavor is lemon. This is one lemony drink. If you like lemon, you’ll the White Lady.
(For the record, my husband says he can’t taste any lemon at all. Whatever. The point still stands: a citrus liqueur supported by more citrus flavoring. The White Lady is a very sour sour.)
Or, Downton Abbey‘s Gritty Pre-Boot
“Now kiss me and tell me you love me and that I was right.”
– From White Ladies (This could very well be my favorite line of dialogue ever.)
Huh. So this is the second post in a row featuring dilapidated old British manors. I’ll just let you think I planned it that way.
But we’ll come back to the comparison between The Sleeping Child and White Ladies in a minute. First, you need some background. Francis Brett Young’s novel was part of his ambitious Mercian Series, which took up the bulk of his extremely prolific career. Taking place in a fictionalized version of the West Midlands from the 1890’s through the the 1940’s, the Mercian series tells a group of diverse, stand-alone stories with overlapping characters but without a linear continuity, comic-book-universe style. And I just love that idea so. freaking. much. Point in your favor already, Mr. Brett Young
I haven’t read any of the other Mercian novels (yet), but I can tell you I was definitely struck by White Ladies’ unusual style. The first half of the novel almost feels like it written in the 1870’s — or even earlier — rather than set in them. It has that Victorianish, exposition-heavy, slow build-up my students are hating right now in Frankenstein. In fact, Brett Young takes backstory to a whole new level by beginning his novel with the story of the protagonist’s great-great-grandparents. Bella, our heroine, isn’t born until page 93 and the titular White Ladies (spoiler: It’s a house, not some chicks in need of a tanning bed.) isn’t even mentioned until almost halfway through this 693-page novel.
Does that make the first half of the book sort of boring and pointless? A bit, yeah. There were definitely parts that dragged, and Young’s style is much more telly than showy, but overall I found it a pleasant reading experience and looked forward to going back to it each day. I was actually invested in Bella’s grandparents’ and parents’ stories, even as I had no effing clue where any of it was going. But I didn’t get really excited about the story until the second half.
Bella starts out as a young, directionless, Industrial Revolution heiress, who comes across an abandoned manor house while out riding one of those new-fangled bicycles. For the next 26 years, she becomes obsessed with obtaining it, maintaining it, and… well, I really don’t want to spoil the rest, but this house is the cause of some major life drama. And it is, of course, all tied into the history of the house’s original Peers, who — like our friends last week — have fallen into poverty.
But despite such superficial similarities, The Sleeping Child and White Ladies are two books of completely different types. Mainly because White Ladies is daaaaark.Where The Sleeping Child is set in charming, quirky England, White Ladies is set in dark, creepy England. Curses, ghosts, witches, and dark prophecies all exist on the edges of the story, even if they never make an explicit appearance. Bella herself starts out as a very sympathetic character, but her obsession makes her do and think things that slowly turn from questionable to horrifying.
White Ladies isn’t all doom and gloom though. The book has some genuinely funny moments as well, especially in the first half, including some gentle satire of Puritans, feminists (They’re out to corrupt the sweet youth!), and…well, that’s it.
Actually, I want to unpack the last one a bit because the So Red the Nose books have been surprisingly not terrible when it comes to women (Race is another story, of course.). The recipe book includes a decent representation of female authors, including some feminist ones, and none of what I’ve read so far was especially offensive.
That ends with White Ladies. It’s chick-lit written by a man, and it shows.
First, there’s the completely unnecessary inclusion of the representative feminist Miss Cash, Bella’s headmistress and temporary guardian, who Bella describes as: “pathetically nursing an illusion of emancipated youth and freedom and daring in what was really the arid life of a confirmed old maid.” Gross. And this is all in the pre-White Ladies part of the book. While Bella’s attempts to escape her quasi-psychotic mentor are fine examples of character building and foreshadowing for her own obsession, Brett Young could have easily cut Miss Cash out, with close to nothing lost in the overall narrative.
Then there’s the conceit of the novel itself, which is that of a woman who finds her family’s business too “complicated,” so she instead, for all intents and purposes, becomes an obsessive housekeeper. It’s just not the most progressive thing I’ve ever read, from any era.
However, while these flaws are worth mentioning, they’re not unforgivable. Bella is still a strong, intelligent, and dynamic character, and all the male characters she meets hold a grudging respect for her force of personality. (The only other women characters have no characteristics besides being weird and old.) In a world without problematic feminine stereotypes, Bella– and Miss Cash too, for that matter– would be interesting and complex characters. So just pretend we live in that world, and you’ll be fine!
Really though, we don’t see enough female anti-heroes. Bella is completely destructive, but like your Walter Whites and your Macbeths and your Francis Underwoods, she destroys in an interesting way. She is also destructive in a uniquely feminine way– which I think is appropriate for the time period in which the book set– while still having all the ruthlessness and drive and complete lack of self-awareness (e.g., the quote at the top of the page) we love to hate.
Forgotten classic or better left in the past?
I hate to say it, because I enjoyed the actual process of reading The Sleeping Child more than that of White Ladies, but if you are looking for just one out-of-print 1935 novel about the declining British aristocracy, it should be White Ladies. What The Sleeping Child does, you can probably get from any of the thinly-disguised Downton fanfiction available at Barnes and Noble (Seriously? They even kept the name Cora? Shameless.), but White Ladies does something unique. It explores the ugly, dark side of those efforts to preserve the aristocracies of the past, from which those of us with a soft spot for pretty dresses and English gardens often shield our eyes. And it also has some things to say about the literally ugly — and smelly and grimy — “industrial aristocracy” that rose up to replace it.
In fact, even though I wouldn’t call it my new favorite or anything, I’ve never read a book quite like White Ladies, from any era. And not just in the sense that I’ve never seen a love of Elizabethan architecture used as a fatal flaw.
White Ladies isn’t perfect, but it is interesting. In fact, its imperfections make it more interesting. The Sleeping Child, I’ve already half forgotten, but the disconnect between how I wanted White Ladies to turn out, how I thought it was going turn out, is something I’ll be mulling over for a long time.
Next time: This celebrity cut off his ear and sent it to his hooker. You’ll never guess what happens next!