Bedelia: Vera Caspary (1945)

I finally decided to pick up a copy of Vera Caspary’s novel Bedelia (published in 1945). This American author is best known for Laura–the book immortalized by the film of the same name. Bedelia held more appeal; how could I pass up the tagline emblazoned so cheaply across the book’s cover:

She Seduces Men…But Does She Kill Them?

A mystery about the wickedest woman who ever loved.

I have a thing about the film-book connection. The film and the book don’t have to be identical. In fact I’d rather that they’re not, but the best outcome occurs when the film brings a deeper understanding of the book and one acts as a complement to the other. This is certainly the case with Bedelia, and when it comes to the film-book connection, Bedelia has a big pay-off, but more of that later.

The book begins at a Christmas party in Connecticut. It’s 1913, and the very staid, very reliable Charlie Horst is hosting his first party with his new bride, the beautiful Bedelia. It seems that Charlie lives in the home that he grew up in, and that after his mother’s recent death (yes she lived there too), and “before the flowers were withered on her grave” he eagerly began a few modest, long-delayed remodelling projects for the house. Then he decided to go off on holiday for a change of scenery. And it was on holiday that he met, fell in love with, and courted a widow named Bedelia. In a way, I suppose, Charlie ‘remodels’ himself through marriage to this unpredictable woman.

Someone should have warned Charlie about holiday romances….

Bedelia appears to be a perfect wife. She has “a natural talent for housekeeping,” and keeps the house “like a pin.” But more than that, she’s also the perfect hostess. Charlie enjoys indulging her, and who can blame him? He’s entertained just watching her in the kitchen or walking across the room. Bedelia is not only beautiful, but she’s refined, gentle, and loving.  Oh yes, she’s perfection personified. And the little flaws she has– weakness for bright, shiny objects and a certain flightiness–well Charlie is only too happy to indulge her. He calls her “my little jackdaw” because of her love of finery. Here’s the opening of the book:

His wife came into the room and Charlie turned to watch her. She wore a dark-blue velvet dress whose sheath skirt was slit to show her pretty ankles and high-heeled bronze pumps.

The yule log caught fire. Flames licked the crusty bark. This was a great moment for Charlie. He had cut the log himself and had had it drying in the shed for a whole year. Bedelia perceiving his pleasure, flashed him a smile and skipped across the Orientals to the love-seat, perched beside him, and rested her head against his shoulder. He took her hand. The Yule log cast its ruddy glow upon them. At this moment, ten minutes after five on December twenty-fifth, 1913, Charlie Horst believed himself the luckiest man in the world.

I’ve read this passage now several times and while it seems modest, nothing too earth shattering going on here, these few lines set the tone for the book in its presentation of a happily married couple who have all the trappings of domestic bliss. Note how proud Charlie is of cutting the log himself, and the way Bedelia skips like a child over to sit next to him after perceiving his deep contentment.

Then shortly afterwards, the Christmas party begins and is attended by many of the locals in the Horsts’ social circle, including Doctor Meyers and his wife, insurance agent Wells Johnson and his wife, their new neighbour Ben Chaney, and Charlie’s cousin Ellen and her friend Abbie. Ellen who nurses an unrequited love for Charlie,  is a newspaper woman.

This evening, as it turns out, is significant for several reasons, and it’s also the day that the Horsts’ marriage begins to crack. Bedelia who’s been gracious, elegant, affectionate and attentive to Charlie begins to act peculiarly. Of course, there have been hints that Bedelia is … well… of a nervous disposition (she can’t sleep in the dark), but it’s at this party that her behaviour begins to disintegrate. And then within a few days, Charlie almost dies as a result of something he ate….

Gradually Bedelia’s story is revealed, and just who and what Bedelia really is a matter of great interest as the novel continues. There are so many things going on in this novel. On one hand it’s a mystery story, but it’s much more than that; the undercurrents beneath the novel’s top layer are fascinatingly subversive. At first, Bedelia seems like the perfect wife (and for that matter Charlie seems like the perfect husband), but there again, their relationship is based on the parent-child paradigm. While Bedelia is a good manager and an elegant hostess when it comes to her interactions with Charlie, she becomes a little girl, and of course that makes him the father. Bedelia is immature and undeveloped in many ways, but what does that say about Charlie’s approach to his wife? Here’s Charlie preparing to go to bed:

Charlie went off to the bathroom to wash and brush his teeth. When he came back, Bedelia was in bed, her hair loose on the pillow. His mother had always braided her hair at night, straining it back from a bulging forehead. For Charlie his wife’s careless tresses had sluttish charm. Her bedroom slippers were of rose-coloured satin with french heels. Her pretty lingerie, ribbons, embroideries, and scents delighted him. Before his marriage he had, like every respectable man, known a number of wantons. Looking back upon their seductions and comparing them to his wife, he saw the girls as drab unfortunates. Bedelia’s easy pleasure gave to the marriage bed a fillip of naughtiness without which no man of puritan conscience could have been satisfied.

Caspary’s novel is a mystery which emphasizes the psychological aspects of the relationship between Bedelia and Charlie while indirectly analyzing the pathology of the Horsts’ marriage. The implication is that neither of the Horsts are particularly healthy when it comes to what they expect from a spouse. In the exploration of Bedelia’s past and her drive to kill men, the subversive undertones that support the mystery make this novel rise above the ordinary.

The novel is loaded with descriptions of Bedelia as a “doll,”  “kitten,” “affected puss” and of course on the other end of the female spectrum is Charlie’s cousin Ellen–an intelligent, plain woman who doesn’t design her personality around the goal of snaring males. The book resonates with the idea that Bedelia’s negative characteristics are appealing to men, while Ellen’s positive character traits are a definite romance-killer. Bedelia’s excessive submission and her continual bending to Charlie’s opinions are also seen as admirable by their social crowd. At one point, Abbie actually cheers Bedelia’s submissive practices and calls her behaviour “more successful” than Ellen’s “feminist attitudes.”

My copy is published by the Feminist Press and this publisher has brought a number of forgotten pulp and noir titles back into publication. The book includes a foreword on the subject of Women Write Pulp, and the afterword from A.B. Emrys contains some interesting information about Caspary, her novels, and the films made from her books.

Caspary was a communist at one time in her life and was subsequently gray-listed during the McCarthy period. She acted as an advisor to the script of Bedelia and according to the afterword, she objected to the film version’s updating the action to 1938. Caspary felt that the original 1913 setting allowed less choices for Bedelia, but the film version, I think, works very well. Watching the film and reading the book were huge payoff experiences.

The book begins with the Christmas party in 1913. The film begins in Monte Carlo in 1938 and opens with Bedelia on her honeymoon with her ‘second’ husband. Right away we are dragged into her lies, and the film concentrates, quite rightly on the visual. Ultimately the book and the film acted as two interconnecting pieces of the same puzzle; the book provides the details of Bedelia’s past which are only sketchy in the film, and the tale becomes  increasingly claustrophobic as Bedelia’s lies unravel. The film magnifies the role of Ben Chaney to create a strong third character.

Finally, I am intrigued with Caspary–both as a person and as a novelist. Bedelia is a good book, but more than that it fascinated me for Caspary’s thought-provoking and subversive look at male-female relationships. I like how this author thinks. I wince whenever I hear someone say they’ve met Mr. or Ms. Perfect. There’s no such being, and I tend to think that whoever says otherwise is working from a checklist of characteristics that commodifies a human being. Bedelia may be a nut-job, but she’s a nut job that men want to be around, and what does that say about relationships? Bedelia acts the role of spoiled child, and Charlie then as the authoritative parent. He supposedly has all the power, but what happens when he realises that he doesn’t and that his little wife, consummate actress that she is, has been playing a role? As for the  book’s conclusion…chilling. And that’s as much as I am going to say.

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “Bedelia: Vera Caspary (1945)

  1. The description reminds me rather of Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, which if I recall correctly I took to more than you did.

    Wonderful cover. I’ll see if this is in the UK too.

  2. Love the film Laura, but never really realised it was based on a novel. The subject matter of this books appeals – as does the time period. Interesting about the period change for the film. From the perspective of 2010, I wouldn’t think women’s choices were so significantly better in 1938 to greatly change the impact/point re Bedelia’s options.

  3. Max:
    The thing is that I loved Abbott’s The Song is You. I’ve read all of her novels now and this one has that haunting quality that you sometimes find with noir. I still think about that book, and just writing about it makes me want to reread it.
    After that Queenpin comes in second place.

    This publisher has a whole line of noir titles:
    In a Lonely Place, Laura (of course), Bunny Lake is Missing etc. There are old versions from the 50s available too, but this newish publication was worth every penny for the foreword and afterword.

  4. Gummie:
    The film version of Laura is a much slicker film than Bedelia. The opening lines are stupendous, but actually I think I prefer Bedelia.

    Caspary liked Preminger’s direction but did not like how he interpreted Laura.

    When I watched the film, I picked up a few gothic touches which at first I ascribed to the director Lance Comfort who directed another Gothic noir Hatter’s Castle, but then when I read the book, I wasn’t so sure.

    In the scene at the Horsts’ Xmas party, Bedelia look positively Victorian compared to the other women who look tacky next to her.

    Anyway, for me Caspary is, as I said, a great find.

  5. leroyhunter

    Sold.

    Caspary sounds like a fascinating individual, I looked up a little about her after your previous comments on another thread.

    Elements of this seem quite reminiscent of Highsmith as well. The line “Before his marriage he had, like every respectable man, known a number of wantons” seemed to especially echo – the idea of compartmentalisation of your life or personality, the acceptable limits of “respectability”, the concealment or sublimating of deviance.

    Really interesting stuff about the book/film transfer and changes.

  6. Thanks for pointing out the Highsmith connection. That’s a good point.

    Some of her books sound wild for the times. I tracked down a couple of copies of her other titles (the cheap ones).

    The film really brings out the pathology of female behaviour because of the visuals. You can tell she’s a nut job but every one just thinks she’s the highly-strung type. The book shows how Charlie is revolted–not just because of how he’s been lied to–but also because she’s not the fantasy figure he created in his mind.

    Yes, Charlie does want the perfect cook, the perfect hostess but he also wants ‘the wanton’ in the bedroom. Why am I thinking of the Pleasure Model from Blade Runner?

  7. Stay tuned for the next issue of _Clues: A Journal of Detection_, in which Laura Vorachek discusses how Caspary rewrote Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s _Lady Audley’s Secret_ in _Bedelia_.

    _Clues_ also featured an earlier piece by A. B. Emrys, “_Laura_, Vera, and Wilkie,” which discusses the influence of Wilkie Collins on Caspary (for example, Waldo Lydecker was based on Collins’s Count Fosco).

  8. Thanks Elizabeth. There’s a mention of Lady Audley’s Secret and Collins’ Armadale in the afterword, and since I’m a fan of both authors I’ll watch for the article.

  9. Pingback: Bedelia | Susan Hated Literature

  10. Just watched Bedelia. which you sent me a year or two ago! I quite liked it.
    The scenes near the end when she has a mental meltdown are striking, especially when she reveals her deeper motivation, her hatred of men, her envy and malice towards all those ‘comfortable’ people for whom life is all “jam and sweets.”

    As you note in your film review, one wonders just why Charlie is so indulgent towards her, after he knows his story. He selects her punishment by leaving her the poison, confirming her feminine-subservient status.

    Just what, BTW, does ‘grey listed’ mean? You mean she was allowed to work under a cover name? Blacklisted people – Dalton Trumbo- did that too.

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