Elizabeth X, or The Secret of Elizabeth by Vera Caspary

Prolific American author Vera Caspary’s last published novel, Elizabeth X, was released first in the U.K. in 1978, the year before her autobiography, The Secrets of Grown-ups. It was reissued in the U.S. the following year as The Secret of Elizabeth.

This analysis of Elizabeth X, or The Secret of Elizabeth by Vera Caspary is excerpted from A Girl Named Vera Can Never Tell a Lie: The Fiction of Vera Caspary by Francis Booth ©2022. Reprinted by permission.

We are back in familiar Wilkie Collins territory, with multiple narrators telling the same story from different angles. As with Collins’ The Woman in White and Caspary’s own Stranger Than Truth, but unlike Laura and Final Portrait, the narrators are listed in the contents at the beginning of the book, so we know in advance what to expect.

 

Echoes of The Woman in White

At the beginning of both Collins’ novel and Elizabeth X, the narrators find a mysterious woman dressed in white wandering down the road. Here is the scene from The Woman in White.

There, in the middle of the broad bright high road—there, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from the heaven—stood the figure of a solitary woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments, her face bent in a grave inquiry on mine, her hand pointing to the dark cloud over London, as I faced her.

I was far too seriously startled by the suddenness with which this extraordinary apparition stood before me, in the dead of night and in that lonely place, to ask what she wanted. The strange woman spoke first.

“Is that the road to London?” she said.

In Elizabeth X, a couple is driving down a road through a forest near Westport, Connecticut late at night when the wife sees a young woman in white wandering unsteadily; she wants to stop the car to help the distressed woman, but the husband is suspicious, thinking it may be a trap.

Among the dense foliage, a white shape moved like a specter, indistinct at first, then clearly seen, hidden again by thick brush, and after the car had rounded a curve, its headlights picked out a girl in a white dress. His foot remained steady on the accelerator  

… City crime had crept into the countryside. Young women were said to carry guns. Better for a man to mind his own business in these parlous days … Although he doubted the wisdom of the act, he stopped beside the girl. Kate jumped out. “Can we give you a lift?”

The girl seemed startled, wary as an animal who has heard movement in the underbrush. Kate’s hand fell gently upon the girl’s bare arm. “You needn’t be afraid of us. We want to help you. Where do you want to go?”

There was no reply. The girl, clad in a white dress with arms and legs bare, shivered in the cool night air. She obeyed humbly when Allan told her to get into the back seat. “Where are you going?” he asked and was again rewarded with silence.

The male narrator in Collins’ The Woman in White on the other hand has no suspicions about the strange young woman he meets.

“What sort of a woman she was, and how she came to be out alone in the high road, an hour after midnight, I altogether failed to guess. The one thing of which I felt certain was, that the grossest of mankind could not have misconstrued her motive in speaking, even at that suspiciously late hour and in that suspiciously lonely place.”

Similarly, although the husband in Elizabeth X thinks the woman must be either “stoned or drunk,” the wife assumes she is an innocent victim.

The narrator of this first section of Caspary’s novel is neither the husband, Allan Royce, nor his wife Kate, but is merely a neighbor of the couple reporting on conversations he has had with Allan on a morning commuter train.

And, in case we have not yet got the connection with Wilkie Collins, Caspary makes her prim and extravagantly literary first narrator – whose late mother was a writer of mystery novels and who himself has a Ph.D. in nineteenth-century mystery stories – hammer home the point with no attempt at subtlety, delivering it in a rambling, stilted, almost euphuistic style reminiscent of Collins’ nineteenth-century prose as well as the rather precious manner of speaking of Waldo in Laura, based, as we know on Collins’ Count Fosco.

. . . . . . . . . .

Laura by Vera Caspary -2012 edition

Laura by Vera Caspary
. . . . . . . . . .

Enter Chauncey Greenleaf 

I think we can assume that Caspary, on her twentieth full-length novel and at the age of seventy-nine is relishing the layers of irony here, especially as she has saddled this first narrator with the unlikely name of Chauncey Greenleaf.

Having protested that he is incapable of creating a mystery story, Greenleaf immediately proceeds to do exactly that, explaining, like the narrators of Thelma and Evvie, that he does not have perfect or first-hand knowledge of the story at this stage. Chauncey even admits to us that some of what he is telling us is made up or assumed.

Kate Royce wants to take the mysterious woman home and look after her, and Allan wants to go to the police. “They’d book her for vagrancy or something, and she’d have a police record for the rest of her life. An innocent young girl,” says Kate “What makes you think she’s so innocent?” replies Allan. Under protest, he takes the girl back to their stunning designer house in the woods, which looks like a film set – Allan is a modernist architect.

 

Kate’s loss 

Despite her glamorous house and enviable lifestyle, Kate is no Caspary woman. “Kate Royce had the correct Connecticut commuter’s wife appearance; tweed skirt, matching sweaters; a short string of pearls, ponytail.” We soon find out why she is so maternally concerned about the unknown girl.

“Allan recognized the sweetness and firmness that had been absent since that evil day when she had found her baby dead in its crib,” as Chauncey puts it. Ever the literary showoff, Chauncey tells us parenthetically, about Kate’s loss:

 “I am reminded of an entry in Mary Shelley’s journal: Find my baby dead. Send for Hogg. Talk. A miserable day. In the evening read ‘Fall of the Jesuits’

Kate even christens the amnesiac woman Elizabeth after her own dead baby. Having promised Allan that she will take the girl to the police the next day, Kate decides to keep her, a daughter substitute perhaps. She takes “Elizabeth” to her family doctor to be checked out; Dr. Greenspan is rather more thorough than is strictly necessary.

“There was no evidence of rape, but infinitely more startling was the fact that the girl was a virgin. Both Kate and Harvey Greenspan considered an unviolated hymen an anachronism in a girl whose exact age was undetermined, but who was certainly over twenty.”

 

Trying to uncover Elizabeth’s past

The Royces have brought in a psychiatrist to see if she can uncover Elizabeth’s past; the psychiatrist thinks her memory loss is a subconscious escape from something she is ashamed of.

Chauncey, like Kate but for different reasons, is so smitten that he cannot believe Elizabeth is anything other than an innocent ingénue. He quickly moves from being enamored to being possessive and proprietorial. Chauncey wants to remake her, new, from wet clay, to paint himself onto her wet canvas.

. . . . . . . . . .

A girl named Vera can never tell a lie

A Girl Named Vera Can Never Tell a Lie is available on
 Amazon (US) and Amazon (UK)
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Chauncey’s proposal 

In the next chapter, “Leaves from a Notebook,” the narration is briefly taken over by Elizabeth herself. Elizabeth makes it quite clear in the notebook what she thinks about Chauncey’s proposal, which he blurted out when he was alone with her one day.

“Mr. Greenleaf asked me to marry him. Not exactly asked. He said if we were married no one could take me away. I cannot imagine being married to an old man. He must be forty at least. Maybe more.”

Chauncey is forty-nine.

 

Disturbing memories begin to surface 

Elizabeth has been asked questions by the FBI who, think she may be on the run from some crime. In fact, she may — there are several young women on the FBI’s list of people wanted for grave crimes. And she does have flashes of something bad happening. “A dead man is lying on the floor. I see the pattern of streaks on a marble floor, but not the man’s face. Maybe he is not dead.”

To add to the mystery, Elizabeth starts dating a mysterious man, Rick Shannon, who turns up at the house and maybe a private eye but whose motives are not clear.

Kate takes over the narration in the next chapter, “The Private Life of an Amnesia Victim,” which is introduced by Chauncey who says that Kate can relate things he cannot know. Kate does not contradict him but does add extra detail.

“I have read what Chauncey has written and there is no need for me to repeat any of it, but there are many things he could not know. Like Elizabeth’s nightmares and her terrified reaction to blood and killing on television.”

Watching one of the violent programs on TV that Allan likes but Kate doesn’t, Elizabeth reacts very strongly. “I turned from the horror to see Elizabeth curled in the armchair, shrunken and as white as a ghost against the black leather upholstery. The look on her face is unforgettable.”

 

Is Elizabeth the fiancée of a multimillionaire? 

Kate tells us among other things that a well-known multimillionaire, Gordon Hildebrandt, thinks Elizabeth is his fiancée Claire Foster and has asked Kate on the phone to look after her until he can get there – he is apparently far too busy with important business to come immediately and asks if there is a small airfield near to them so they can fly there in his private plane when he is ready.

Hildebrandt then effectively kidnaps Elizabeth and flies her to New York where he keeps her in his suite at the Waldorf Astoria, locked in a room while he conducts his important business; as with the wealthy alpha male husbands in The Husband, The Man Who Loved His Wife and Ruth, we are spared the details of their major financial dealings.

We find out the truth about this relationship in a section containing the letters of Hildebrandt’s lawyer to his wife during the kidnapping episode, of which he disapproves: Elizabeth is not and never has been Hildebrandt’s fiancée; she has never even known him, but we do not find this out until much later.

Hildebrandt’s actual fiancée has changed her mind about marrying him and disappeared; to save face he has claimed publicly that she was kidnapped and has apparently paid a large ransom, but all this was made up to protect his public image; Hildebrandt needed a woman to play the part and chose the similar-looking Elizabeth.

After a few days of being imprisoned in New York’s top hotel, the lawyer helps her escape and Elizabeth goes back to Kate.

. . . . . . . . . .

The Secret of Elizabeth (Elixabeth X) by Vera Caspary

. . . . . . . . . .

Has she escaped from a sanitorium?

That leaves two parties claiming ownership of Elizabeth: a psychiatrist called Dr. Hyde – Kate keeps referring to him as Dr. Jekyll to keep the literary references coming – who claims she is Grace Dearborn, a disturbed woman who has escaped from the sanitarium which he runs.

Caspary drops a subtle hint that this may be true: later, when Elizabeth slowly starts to remember things, we find out the color of her room, probably another sly literary reference by Caspary to The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

“This is it. What I hoped and prayed for. Waking up. Remembering. Real, not a nightmare. But I think nightmares are real and real life is a nightmare. I am here. In this room, is a yellow room in Kate’s house. Elizabeth’s room, they call it. Please God let me stay Elizabeth.”

 

Is Elizabeth a senator’s daughter?

Elizabeth’s other possible backstory is that she is the daughter of a Senator from Kansas, though he is not claiming that his daughter, Gloria Dixon, is lost. Rick first spots the possible connection; it turns out that Rick is not what he seems and like everyone else he wants something from her.

Like Norman in The Gardenia, Rick is a newspaper reporter exploiting a woman with no memory for a story that he hopes will get him a full-time job with a national magazine. Rick is with Elizabeth when the moral fundamentalist senator Dixon appears on TV, accused of various improprieties; the look on Elizabeth’s face convinces Rick that she knows the Senator. He flies to Kansas to confront the man. Rick is met by the Senator’s housekeeper, Lucy Price.

 

Lucy Price

Lucy’s character seems to have been described in-depth for purely intertextual purposes – she has only one function in the plot, though it is a pivotal one. Later, when Elizabeth begins to regain her memory she tells us that “Miss Price was hired as my governess … Pricey is a white black woman—very beautiful, with eyes the pale green of peridots.”

Here, in what she probably expected would be her last novel, Caspary is referring us back to her first novel nearly fifty years earlier, The White Girl, and the subject of racism and “passing.”

Despite Lucy’s Master’s degree and her gold Phi Beta Kappa key, she has been held back by her race. Her role as governess immediately brings to mind – our mind as well as Rick’s – nineteenth-century novels of poor orphan girls making their way in the world, like perhaps Ruth, as written by another Elizabeth: Mrs. Gaskell.

Rick, suddenly becoming uncharacteristically literary, says of Miss Price:

“Her story was typical, the stereotype of an old-fashioned novel. Poverty, an unemployed father, a sick mother, tubercular sister. Lucy Price had been lucky in getting a job that might have been conceived by a Brontë sister or Daphne du Maurier.”

In some ways, Lucy is rather like Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca and her name perhaps concatenates the orphan’s Lucy Snowe from Villette and Fanny Price from Mansfield Park. Caspary is shamelessly and joyously squeezing in yet more references from her favorite classic British authors in this late and perhaps valedictory novel.

Caspary may even be thinking of Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), her prequel to Jane Eyre, where Mr. Rochester’s wife, a Creole heiress, is locked away like Elizabeth for being “mad.”

And if we know our Jane Eyre well enough we may remember Mr. Rochester saying to her, “Little girl, a memory without blot or contamination must be an exquisite treasure – an inexhaustible source of purification; is it not?” which seems to sum up both Chauncey and Kate’s view of Elizabeth’s blank canvas.

So, which claimant is right? We know that the so-called Elizabeth is not Claire but is she, Grace or Gloria? Well, in fact, she is both. Senator Dixon is her father but has had her locked up in a sanitarium under a false name. Her sin was – according to her father – lust, compounded by murder.

Elizabeth carries one horrifying childhood memory that she has always wanted to get rid of and that may help explain her amnesia: one day Elizabeth caught her father in flagrant with her governess, mentor, and friend Lucy Price.

It was this experience that exposed her father to her as a monster and drove her to offer her virginity to the nearest available man: her cousin Hugh, her father’s assistant.

 

Who killed cousin Hugh? 

But just as “Elizabeth” was about to give herself to Hugh, her father burst in on them in turn. What happened next is not entirely clear, even by the end of the novel, but Hugh ended up dead after a fight of some kind. The Senator claims his daughter killed her cousin Hugh; she, when she finally remembers, is convinced her father did it.

We are inclined to believe the Senator did do it because we know that Hugh had evidence to expose fraud by his boss, evidence which has now come out publicly. Elizabeth screams at him. “You’re scared. It wasn’t only that Hughie was ruining your little flower, it was what he knew about your lies and cheating and taking bribes and the filthy sex things you –”

Elizabeth’s father has had her locked up in the sanitarium, ostensibly to protect her from a murder charge but probably to keep her quiet. There she is subjected to terrifying treatments designed to break her down; this is apparently what led to her amnesia.

At one point Elizabeth goes back to Chauncey and tells him about her treatment in the sanitarium. She tells him that Dr. Hyde, during his twice-weekly treatments, tried to hypnotize her into believing that she had struck the blows that had killed Hughie.

 

“Elizabeth” takes off

Against all odds, Elizabeth gives her virginity to Chauncey, his coy confession making us cringe. “Although it may be indecorous, I shall state for the benefit of inexperienced readers that it is not unpleasant to bed a willing virgin.” But the next morning she has gone.

“I have not seen her since. She was not in my bed when I woke, nor in the guest room when I peeped in there before I hurried to catch the early train.”

Much later, Chauncey gets a present. It is from France, “from the Hermes shop on the Rue Faubourg St Honoré and contained a large crocodile traveling bag bearing my monogram in gold, and fitted with an assortment of brushes, combs, gold-topped jars, and crystal bottles; a typical gift of the rich, costly and far too heavy to be carried on a plane, thus utterly useless.”

He assumes it is from the former Elizabeth, staying with her mother in France but gets no reply to his letter. And that is the end of Elizabeth.

The lacuna she leaves behind her is however filled in one respect, with “the infant born nine months to the night that Kate and Allan took a lost girl into their home. As the child’s godfather, I held her in my arms when she was christened Elizabeth.”

The novel ends with a perfect definition of the psycho-thriller as invented and developed by Vera Caspary over a period of more than fifty years.

“Our recollections differ widely. To each of us, Elizabeth is an intensely personal symbol, the shadow of an unacknowledged need. We seldom speak of her nowadays, perhaps because she was dearest to us as a mystery.”

. . . . . . . . . .

Contributed by Francis Booth, the author of several books on twentieth-century culture:

Amongst Those Left: The British Experimental Novel 1940-1960 (published by Dalkey Archive); Everybody I Can Think of Ever: Meetings That Made the Avant-Garde; Girls in Bloom: Coming of Age in the Mid-Twentieth Century Woman’s Novel; Text Acts: Twentieth-Century Literary Eroticism; and Comrades in Art: Revolutionary Art in America 1926-1938.

Francis has also published several novels: The Code 17 series, set in the Swinging London of the 1960s and featuring aristocratic spy Lady Laura Summers; Young adult fantasy series The Watchers; and Young Adult fantasy novel Mirror Mirror. Francis lives on the South Coast of England. 

He is also a translator; a recent project isWilder, Eve, Some Early Poems of Else Lasker-Schüler.

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