Is Vera Caspary’s Bedelia the Wickedest Fictional Anti-Heroine?
By Francis Booth | On | Comments (0)
“As in Laura and now again in Bedelia, Vera Caspary avoids the conventional groove. No mysterious opening doors for her. No velvet-gloved hands or hidden rubies. No eerie cries in the night. Murder, yes, suspense, yes – plenty of it – but at the core of her stories is a comprehension that illuminates and gives credibility to the incredible actions of men and women.” (from the back cover blurb of the 1945 first US edition).
The following analysis of Bedelia (1945) by Vera Caspary is excerpted from the forthcoming A Girl Named Vera Can Never Tell a Lie: The Novels of Vera Caspary by Francis Booth. Reprinted with permission.
“She seduces men … but does she kill them? A mystery about the wickedest woman who ever loved.” (— Front cover blurb from the 2012 paperback edition published in the Femmes Fatales series by the Feminist Press at the City University of New York)
Is Bedelia the wickedest literary woman who ever loved? There are certainly some earlier candidates. Young and innocent-looking murderesses in Victorian British fiction include Lydia Gwilt in Armadale by Wilkie Collins: “I shall be your widow,” says the poisonous Lydia, “in half an hour!” and Lucy Audley, from Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret, who “bore the red brand of murder on her soul.”
At least one academic has seen multiple parallels between Bedelia and Lady Audley; it is entirely possible that Caspary read Braddon though there is no direct evidence that she did.
We do know however that she admired and deliberately emulated Wilkie Collins — as we have just seen she imitated him in the literary form of Laura and as we will soon see, even more closely in Stranger than Truth.
Close to Caspary’s time and style are husband murderer Cora from James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) and Phyllis Nirdlinger from Double Indemnity (1943), who seduces an insurance agent into helping her kill her husband for the money; the same twin themes of insurance agent and husband murder as we find in Bedelia, but with the role of the insurance man reversed.
Carmen Sternwood in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939) and its 1946 movie murders her brother-in-law and tries to kill Philip Marlowe. There is also Miss Wonderley from Dashiell Hammett’s novel and 1941 film The Maltese Falcon (1929), a murderess who tries to use her charms to manipulate Sam Spade and does seduce him.
A brief introduction
If you had been reading the original hardback American or British versions of Bedelia before the film appeared, you would have been a hundred pages in before suspecting the charming heroine of being a murderess. And if you had bought any of the paperback editions with their unsubtle front cover blurbs giving the game away, by page one hundred you might be starting to feel disappointed — no one has yet died.
Earlier on though, Caspary would have teased you with the doctor’s suspicion that Charlie Horst’s recent illness may have been caused by poison – a poison that was perhaps given to him by his new wife Bedelia. But Charlie doesn’t believe it and we’re not sure either. Bedelia does seem like the perfect wife for Charlie, and they do seem to be in love.
As the novel opens on Christmas Eve 1913, the couple has invited in many friends. Bedelia has done them proud with her lavish preparations, literally without breaking a sweat, while Charlie is sweating from all the exertion.
“Bedelia’s ivory-tinted skin continued to look as fresh and cool as the white rose she had pinned in her sash.” The rose is from a bouquet brought by neighbor Ben, an artist newly moved into the area, with whom gossip has it that Bedelia might be enamored, and perhaps vice versa; he wants to paint a portrait of her.
Bedelia has bought rather expensive presents for their friends. “She had packages for the men as well as for their wives. And such luxurious trifles!” Charlie’s old money New England friends see this as rather crass, the Austen-named guest Mrs. Bennett “computed the cost of Bedelia’s generosity. ‘We’ve none of us measured up to your wife’s extravagance, Charlie. It’s not our habit to be so ostentatious as Westerners.’”
Bedelia is no New Englander, not at all like her husband’s snooty neighbors.
“She was different from the other women in the room, like an actress or a foreigner. Not that she was common. For all of her vivacity, she was more gentle and refined than any of her guests. She talked less, smiled more, sought friendliness, but fled intimacy … Her mouth, when it was not smiling, was small and perfect, a doll’s mouth.”
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A heroine and a villain
Charlie had not known his new wife very long before they married and still knows very little of her background.
“There were times when Charlie felt that he knew nothing about her. All that she had told him of her girlhood and first marriage seemed as unreal as a story in a book. When she related conversations she had with people she used to know, Charlie could see printed lines, correctly paragraphed and punctuated with quotation marks. At such times he would feel that she was remote, like the heroine of the story, a woman he might dream about but never touch.”
Bedelia is indeed the heroine of her own story, as she is the villain of Caspary’s. She has told Charlie that she was born in California and that her previous husband was an artist named Raoul Cochran, with whom she lived in New Orleans. She says that Raoul is now dead and that she lost the baby she was to have with him, though she is now pregnant – or is she? – with Charlie’s baby, even though they only met in August.
When she met Charlie, in Colorado Springs, Bedelia says, she was desperately poor; Charlie may have taken advantage of her: his love for her is by no means chaste and pure and he may have exploited her poverty in pursuit of his lust, which is undiminished since the marriage.
“He was glad he had married a widow,” according to a passage in the book. He soon won’t be, hints Caspary with a wink.
Later, when Charlie sees her wearing her black silk corset, he thinks it is “the most seductive garment he had ever seen and, whenever Bedelia wore it, he wanted to make love to her.”
This is quite strong stuff for the mid-1940s, implying a laxity of morals on the part of Bedelia, a laxity that is intended to attract men. Nevertheless, Bedelia also has “a natural talent for housekeeping. With less fuss than his mother had made with her two servants, Bedelia and the young girl, Mary, kept the house like a pin.”
The ideal wife – apparently – Bedelia is the perfect male-fantasy combination of naughty and nice, slutty and house-proud, at home in both the bedroom and the kitchen. She wears a black crêpe de chine dress which exemplifies this ambivalence. “The bodice was cut low but filled with ruffles of white lace. The dress was both decorous and daring. No woman could criticize, no man fail to notice.”
Later, while she is in bed and Charlie is ministering to her during the snowstorm when the house is cut off by blizzards with no phone or power and the maid and the doctor cannot get to the house, Bedelia explains to Charlie his attraction for her.
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Vera Caspary signed bookplate. Photo: AbeBooks.com
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Sneaky, sinister deceit
Charlie has already felt that something is not entirely right about his perfect new wife. For one thing, she is afraid of the dark, though he tries to wean her off having the light on all night. It makes him see her, literally, in a different light.
“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.”
Knowing what we know from the book’s blurb about Bedelia’s wickedness, the first hint Caspary dangles in front of us is when Charlie, with “sunken eyes, colorless lips, and a pistachio-green complexion” is ill. Bedelia makes him a sedative, pouring powder from a blue packet into a glass of water. “Drink it fast, you won’t notice the taste,” she says, as presumably do all female poisoners administering the coup de grâce.
Charlie does not die, or anywhere close to it. Nevertheless, the doctor is suspicious and appoints a nurse to act as secret guardian. “I don’t want you to eat or drink anything, not even a sip of water unless she gives it to you.”
Charlie sees the doctor’s implication, resents it, and shouts at him. “You have just made a filthy, rotten insinuation against my wife,” he says. While the doctor is still in the room, he calls Bedelia — “He needed the assurance of her physical sweetness, and he hoped to make a show of defiance before that old fool of a doctor.”
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The Ultimate Caspary Woman: Laura by Vera Caspary
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From trophy wife to suspect
Soon the storm comes in, and the house is cut off. Charlie is used to this weather in New England, but Bedelia feels trapped in, and demands they leave, go to Europe. Charlie says she is crazy; little does he know how crazy she is.
One night he finds that Bedelia has walked off into the snow. He finds her and brings her back but she is now ill and has to stay in bed for several days. While she is still in bed, but after the house has become accessible again, Ben arrives to see Charlie. He reveals that he is not an artist at all but a private investigator working for a group of insurance companies and suspects Bedelia of insurance fraud.
Ben is following up a lead on a woman who is believed to have murdered three husbands and claimed large life insurance payouts. We remember that in Laura, things were the other way around: shortly before her death, Laura has taken out a large life insurance policy in favor of her fiancé. Ben believes Bedelia is the murdering woman. He tells Charlie detailed stories about how all three men died, apparently unconnected, apparently accidental deaths, all explainable quite easily by natural causes.
According to Ben, all three men had taken out very large life insurance policies in favor of their wife shortly before they died and two of the wives had said they were pregnant before disappearing with the substantial insurance money soon after the husband’s sudden, unexpected death.
Ben explains the connection between the three mystery women and Bedelia. “In every case the woman was pretty, winning in her ways, and quite able to charm the man’s family.” They also had unusual names: Annabel, Chloe, and Maurine, and “were always sweet-tempered, docile, and patient.”
Another important factor for Ben is that the three mystery widows “photographed so badly that all of them, pretty women, too, were more afraid of cameras than pistols . . . Or poison. Have you ever taken a picture of your wife?” Charlie has but has lost the camera.
He realizes that the expensive German Kodak, a gift from his mother that he had used to take pictures of her on a trip to the mountains had “quite by accident, fallen off a cliff.” Charlie remembers how careful he had been with the precious object, not leaving it anywhere near a cliff edge at any time.
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A clinching plot twist
The clinching factor seems to be the fact that the last dead husband collected black pearls. While Bedelia was ill in bed, Charlie found hidden in her box the black pearl ring that she had claimed was a fake and claimed she had given away. But still, Charlie is no more convinced than he had been by the doctor.
Partly because of the black pearl ring, Charlie eventually decides to force his wife to tell him the truth. She tells him about her first husband, Herman, whom she married when she was seventeen; he was not one of Ben’s three dead husbands. Playing the role of innocent ingénue to perfection, she answers all Charlie’s questions about Herman.
It is only at this point that Charlie realizes “that when she tried to tell the truth it was tarnished by deceit. For Bedelia, there was no clean line between honesty and fabrication.”
Bedelia seems to still fondly hope that Charlie will come away with her. But Charlie says he can’t afford to take her away, he is not a rich man, and she has always known it. Bedelia smiles graciously, though we now see that she is truly mad. “I’ve got plenty of money . . . I’ve got almost two hundred thousand dollars . . . You can live like a prince on that in Europe.” Charlie is shocked.
But, even presented with the absolute certainty that she has accumulated this wealth through the insurance on husbands she must have killed, Charlie still appears ambivalent. As he watches her making breakfast, watches her “enjoy the jam, pour cream over her oatmeal, measure sugar into the coffee, she seemed so innocent, so sweet and sane that he was ready to discredit everything Ben had told him.”
At this point it seems the story could go one of several ways: Charlie could forgive his wife, go to Europe with her, living off her money; she could murder Charlie and perhaps Ben for good measure; she could be arrested, convicted, and hanged; she could be arrested, tried and get off for lack of evidence.
Charlie catches Bedelia trying to poison Ben’s Gorgonzola cheese with the powder in her pillbox. “He had thought the powder in it was a polish for her fingernails.” Charlie realizes “he could no longer close his eyes, deafen his ears, remain mute, or comfort himself with miracles.” He physically attacks his wife.
“Charlie’s hand had tightened on her throat. When she saw that he was not to be cajoled out of his anger, her eyes darkened and hardened. She fought back desperately, writhed in his arms, kicked at his legs. A kind of ecstasy seized Charlie. His knuckles bulged; knots rose in his hands as they felt the warm throbbing of Bedelia’s throat. Her jetty restless eyes reminded Charlie of the mouse who caught in the trap, and he thought exultantly of the blow that had killed it.”
He doesn’t kill Bedelia, though he takes away her lethal powder. She begs for him to take her away. “I haven’t anyone else in the world. Who will take care of me? Don’t you love me, Charlie?” He takes her upstairs, lays her on the bed. “Bedelia submitted humbly, showing that she considered him superior, her lord and master. He was male and strong, she feminine and frail. His strength made him responsible for her; her life was in his hands.”
Bedelia threatens to kill herself if he lets them take her, but he is “no more moved by her threat of suicide than by her appeals and ruses.” Charlie takes a drink up for her. “Please drink it
“A bromide, dear? But I haven’t a headache.”
“I want you to take it,” he said firmly.
Bedelia looked at Charlie’s face and then at the glass. The water was clear and bubbling lightly as if it had just gushed out of the artesian well. Charlie had not known how much of the white powder to put in it, but he had guessed that a small amount would work as well if not better than too much.
“Bedelia knew that she was beaten.” She tells him she had thought he was different, not like all the others. “She sighed, pitying herself, a woman wronged by a cruel man. Reproach shone out of her eyes and her lips were pulled into a hard knot that said, wordlessly, that Charlie was to blame for everything.” Charlie is unmoved.
“Drink it!” he orders. She responds: “It’ll be your fault, they’ll blame you, you’ll hang for it,” she repeated. And seizing the glass, drank the mixture in one long swallow.
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1946 Film Adaptation
In the 1946 film version of Bedelia, she drinks the poison from a vial while she is alone after Charlie has left the room. Before she takes it, she asks Mary, the maid, to make sure that Ellen comes for lunch so that Charlie will not be alone, which is a nice touch but not in the novel.
Aware of the difference in British and American tastes and having shown the script to the US censor, an alternative ending was shot in which Bedelia turns herself in to the police rather than drinking the poison; they also reshot certain scenes where Margaret Lockwood’s hint of cleavage was deemed too indelicate for American tastes; murdering several husbands is fine but there was no hint of flesh allowed in Hays Code Hollywood.
More information and sources
- Wikipedia (novel)
- Wikipedia (film)
- Vera Caspary – IMDb
- Bedelia by Vera Caspary on GoodReads
- New York Times Review (film adaptation)
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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 currently working on High Collars and Monocles: Interwar Novels by Female Couples.
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