I was not aware until recently that women wrote pulp fiction in the 1940s. I associated pulp with the great Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. But women’s pulp fiction has been reissued both in The Feminist Press’s Femmes Fatales series and in a stunning Library of America volume, Women Crime Writers: Four Suspense Novels of the 1940s. Last fall I read Vera Caspary’s unputdownable Laura. Laura, a popular advertising executive, has been murdered, killed by a sawed-off shotgun. The novel is cleverly told from three different points of view, that of Laura, an obese newspaper columnist, and the detective.
I recently read Vera Caspary’s “domestic suspense”novel, Bedelia,, a gripping story of a mad housewife.
Men love sweet, naive, seductive Bedelia. She and Charlie, a well-to-do architect, are newly married. Bedelia, a widow, met him at a resort in Colorado, where she was recovering from the death of her husband, who she said was an artist in New Orleans.
Set in 1913, the book starts with a Christmas party in Connecticut. Bedelia is excited, and Charlie dotes on her.
This was to be his wife’s first Christmas in Charlie’s house. They had been married in August. She was a tiny creature, lovable as a kitten. Her eyes were lively, dark, and always slightly moist. In contrast with her brunette radiance, Charlie seemed all the more pallid, angular, and restrained.
Although I do not like “kitten” women, the party is wonderful. Bedelia’s decorations and food are delightful. And she has bought expensive, thoughtful gifts for everyone.
There is, however, trouble from the beginning: we suspect she is less naive than she pretends. There is trouble about an artificial black pearl ring,. Charlie doesn’t like artificial jewelry, so he gives her a garnet ring to wear instead and she assures him she has given away the black pearl. It turns she still has the ring. He is frustrated by this deception.
Still, she is lovely. Here is a description of how he views his darling Bedelia’s housewifery skills.
Bedelia had tied over her blue dress an apron as crisp and clean as the curtains. She looked less like a housewife than a character in a drawing-room comedy, the maid who flirts with the butler as she whisks her feather duster over the furniture. The kitchen, with its neat shelves, starched curtains, and copper pots, made Charlie think of a stage-setting. And when Bedelia brought out her red-handled egg-beater and started whipping up a froth in a yellow bowl, he was enchanted. He had to hug her.
Life isn’t all neat and starched, though. Bedelia has terrible nightmares. Really terrible. She won’t sleep unless the light is on. And she communicates her fear to Charlie, so that he, too, becomes paranoid about the dark.
Gradually her fears had infected him. In the daytime he resolved to harden himself against contagion, but when she clung to him in the dark, weeping, his mind filled with strange fancies and his flesh, under the blankets, chilled. By day his wife was earthy, a woman who loved her home and had a genuine talent for housekeeping. In the dark she seemed entirely another sort of creature, female but sinister, a woman whose face Charlie had never seen. It was absurd for a man of his intelligence to let himself be affected by these vague and formless fantasies, and he tried to account for his wife’s fear of the dark by remembering that she had lived a hard life.”
Bedelia becomes more and more tightly wound, especially about their artist neighbor, Ben. Charlie wonders on earth has happened to his wife. We become suspicious.
Well, I don’t want to tell you too much, but I will tell you this: things are not what they seem. I couldn’t stop reading it! It is not as good as Laura,–I thought the ending was a little weak–but I enjoyed it very much.
I do intend to read more Caspary, and if anyone has recommendations, I would love to hear them.
Never heard of Vera Caspary – this novel certainly sounds hugely readable.
It is great fun!
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From what you write, there is something of Edward Hopper and other realist painters about the “day life” of Bedelia – and a little of cartoons where life is so perfect! -, and something of Love and Psyche, or maybe better, Melusine, about her “night life”, when her husband does not see her face: she seems secret and hidden and never revealing herself. If you add hard boiled or pulp fiction of the 1940s, this is truly intriguing!
I do like the Edward Hopper analogy! It is a bit like that. Bedelia is a very strange woman… Not a Psyche, though. But this is a very entertaining and surprising book!
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I wrote psyche but then thought better and added Melusine who withdraws not to be seen by her husband when she becomes half woman and half snake. You seem to say that Bedelia changes during the night and that her husband does not see her face then.
What is the difference between “pulp” and “hard boiled”? In detective lovers groups, they put Hammet in the “hard boiled” genre.
Yes, I was trying so hard to hide what happens–this is one of those books you read mainly for plot–so you could not really tell who Bedelia is! (And I still haven’t told you!) As for pulp vs. hard-boiled, the ulps I’ve read by women seem to be less detective novels than about victims and amateur investigators, but according to the Feminist Press their Femme Fatales series “restores to print the best of women’s writing in the classic pulp genres of the mid-20th century. From mystery to hard-boiled noir to taboo lesbian romance, these rediscovered queens of pulp offer subversive perspectives on a turbulent era.”
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Then, according to the Feminist Press; “pulp” would be the “mother genre”; hard-boiled noir, lesbian romance and other subversive novels would be “sub-genres”. I wonder if we have the same qualifications and the same authors in France. Women seem to have written differently – either they are very well known, like Colette or Simone de Beauvoir, or they wrote very conservative novels almost unreadable today. I should look up the various books Mother read at the end of the 1960s and in the 70s. There is almost nothing as “sub-genres” before this time. Classics or classical French literature (what we see as the cannon) prevail on the bookshelves.
Sounds good Kat – women can write thrilling books for sure! I read “The Blank Wall” a few years back and loved it!
“The Blank Wall” was in my Library of America book and I loved it. This one is very weird. Bedelia is strong but… I can say no more.
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Oh yes they’ve been doing this since Louisa May Alcott. Suzy McKee Charnas (of Vampire Tapestry and My Father’s Ghost fame — both superb) writes them — but under a pseudonym. Joanna Trollope uses a pseudonym for her Trollope-like concoctions. So sometimes we don’t recognize them. They are aimed at different audiences whose radar is out for books like these. There is a series of modern Sherlock Holmes books where he has a sidekick woman.
What I like is when they are feminist — as in the mini-series versions like Prime Suspect with Helen Mirren.
The writer of the Afterword of the book (I don’t remember her name) has a feminist interpretation of this book, but I honestly didn’t read it that way. She does point out it has roots in Madame Bovary and Lady Audley’s Secret. I prefer the 19th century sensation novel to pulp, but it is very interesting. The women in pulp are not celebrated.
You’ve probably heard of Olive Higgins Prouty’s Now, Voyager, another example of woman’s pulp that was made into a film of the same name, starring Bette Davis. The novel is available from feministpress.org
There’s also a connection to Sylvia Plath. Prouty attended Smith College and was the benefactress of a scholarship awarded to Plath in 1950. Prouty also provided financial and emotional support when Plath attempted suicide, paying for Plath’s stay at a psychiatric institution and visiting her often. Prouty was transformed into a character in Plath’s The Bell Jar, Philomena Guinea, but Plath derides her writing style.
Elain, how fascinating! I loved the movie Now, Voyager and will look up the Prouty. Oh my goodness, I must reread The Bell Jar.