Letty Lynton: Marie Belloc-Lowndes (1931)

The original book jacket for Belloc-Lowndes’ LETTY LYNTON

On holiday so I am reading novels and watching fun things and yes, I was curious about the novel which (allegedly) inspired the film since they seemed a bit different — also there was that whole plagiarism case with the play that inspired the film Dishonoured Lady (1947) (again, I can only guess allegedly!). Having read Letty Lynton I can safely say that there’s little evidence the filmmakers did the same. There are some points of contact:

*The main character is Letty Lynton

*There is a poisoning by arsenic.

*There is a less than sympathetic mother.

*There is a scandalous affair with a foreign gentleman.

But wow, almost nothing else is the same. In the novel Letty is the sheltered nineteen-year-old heiress of a newly minted peer who’s come up from the chemical trade and is desperate to appear like old money. His right hand man has fallen for Letty who is — as we are reminded throughout — extraordinarily beautiful. Her looks have a point beyond making men stupid in her presence, but that’s a plot point, too. Belloc-Lowndes is fascinated how beauty blinds men to women’s faults, and to some extent vice-versa. Letty has an innate sensuality that a more interested mother might have spotted and managed but instead she lusts after a Swede she meets by fiat and he is not only good-looking and well aware of it, but a well-practised manipulator and bully of women.

In Letty he’s met his match, but unlike all his other casual relationships — and his far-from-casual relations with his blind landlady’s daughter Kate — he sees a public relationship with Letty to his advantage, i.e. marrying into a rich and at least locally distinguished family. Ironic that the ‘Latin lover’ in the film is played by Swedish actor Nils Asther, which I would think clever and ironic if I didn’t suspect it was entirely accidental.

The novel has all the xenophobia and racism (nigh onto eugenics) that you find in so many early 20C British novels — along with the typical English caricatures of the Scots and the Irish. But Letty makes a fascinating character, a flawed young woman who is dealt a limited hand and tries to do the most with the few aces she has, like her looks and the way she can use them. There are some nicely cold observations about the obtuseness of the privileged (how dare that ragged boy get in the way of my fancy motorcar!). Poor Letty, accused murderer, you have no idea how much worse things can be — until they are.

The very end is chilling indeed. A world away from the film.

Poster for Dishonoured Lady starring Hedy Lamarr