Vera Caspary’s The Man Who Loved his Wife (& Other Diary-Driven Fiction)
By Francis Booth | On May 31, 2022 | Updated August 28, 2022 | Comments (0)
“The trouble with being the author of one of the all-time classics of suspense is that people keep expecting you to be that good again; and I suppose I must regretfully say that Vera Caspary’s The Man Who Loved His Wife is no Laura,” began Anthony Boucher’s February 20, 1966 review in the New York Times.
“But it is an intelligent and largely persuasive novel of a laryngectomy subject with a powerful death wish,” continued Boucher’s review, “ and was it himself or one of his family that fulfilled the desire?
I suspect that Mrs. Caspary has cast as a whodunit a story that could have been more effective without the puzzle element; but it still is well worth one’s attention – especially for her unflagging skill in creating unpleasant people.”
This look Caspary’s The Man Who Loved His Wife (1966) and other classic fiction in which diaries are a central plot element, is excerpted from A Girl Named Vera Can Never Tell a Lie: The Fiction of Vera Caspary by Francis Booth ©2022. Reprinted by permission.
A secret diary kept by a suspicious husband
From the 1966 Dell books edition:
“This is a brilliantly thrilling novel about a sick man who keeps a secret diary in which he records all the suspicions and highly charged emotions he feels for his beautiful young wife.
The story reaches its climax when the wife, refusing to lie, admits to one act of infidelity. Her confession induces in her husband fresh ravages of distrust and mental agony. Shortly afterwards he is found dead of suffocation.
The secret diary … finds its way mysteriously into the hands of the police, where its contents take on a seriousness that his wife could never have imagined. She finds herself in fact suspected of her husband’s murder.
If in fact he was murdered, could it have been by the wife’s lover, or perhaps by the dead man’s impecunious daughter or her unsuccessful husband? How, in any case, did the diary reach the police?
With absolute mastery of her theme, and in an atmosphere of mounting suspense, Vera Caspary builds up to a surprise climax with all the enchantment and skill for which she is famous.”
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Learn more about Vera Caspary
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Diaries at the center of classic novels
In a diary, a woman – or less usually a man – young or old, can say things she could not confide even to her closest female friend, assuming the diary will never be read by anybody else.
But in a novel the diary is bound to be found and read, probably by the worst possible person and to tragic effect – as with Chekhov’s gun, if an author introduces a secret diary in chapter one, it will inevitably be discovered and lead to dire consequences later on.
The diary, which is at the center of The Man Who Loved His Wife, is sometimes said to be a particularly feminine literary form and certainly most of the literary diaries we have were written by women, going all the way back to The Diary of Lady Murasaki and The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, both written in Japan around the year 1000 CE.
Hundreds of years later, the British novelist Fanny Burney started her wildly successful writing career as a teenager in 1768 with “a Journal in which I must confess my every thought, must open my whole Heart!”
Burney’s young female friend, on being told of the journal’s existence, “says that it is the most dangerous employment young persons can have – it makes them often record things which ought not to be recorded, but instantly forgot. I told her, that as my Journal was solely for my own perusal, nobody could in justice, or even in sense, be angry or displeased at my writing anything.”
But of course, this is naïve. In the novel, the finding of a diary and the disclosure of its secrets is often the driver of the plot; as in real life, the revealing of a woman’s diary – or in this case a man’s – can lead to unintended, perhaps tragic consequences.
Like Burney in real life, many teenagers in female coming-of-age novels keep diaries, often written in journals which are of themselves beautiful objects. These include:
- Charlie by Kate Chopin (1900)
- Invitation to the Waltz (1932)
- The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen (1938)
- A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (1943)
- The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault (1944)
- I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith (1948)
Hangsaman, by Shirley Jackson; (1951)
- A Diary of Love by Maude Hutchins (1953)
- An Episode of Sparrow, by Rumer Godden (1956)
- Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos (1926)
The plot-driving diary in The Man Who Loved His Wife, which is given to Fletcher Strode as a present by his wife Elaine, is a beauty too, “a good thick book, beautifully bound in dark green Morocco stamped with his initials.”
In Rosamund Lehmann’s Invitation to the Waltz Olivia decides to start hers straightaway “to keep a record of my inmost real-self thoughts. Perhaps it will help me to find out what I really am like: horrid, I know; selfish, conceited, and material minded.”
But Olivia has good advice for journal writers, ignored by Fanny Burney, Fletcher Strode, and most diary-keeping literary characters:
“Advice to Young Journal Keepers. Be lenient with yourself. Conceal your worst faults, leave out your most shameful thoughts, actions and temptations. Give yourself all the good and interesting qualities you want and haven’t got. If you should die young, what comfort would it be to your relatives to read the truth and have to say: It is not a pearl we have lost, but a swine?”
In Anne Brontë’s proto-feminist novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Helen Graham gives Gilbert her diary, which proves she is married and details her sadistic husband’s descent into drunkenness and debauchery. The Brontës, especially Emily, wrote illustrated diaries. In her Wuthering Heights, Lockwood first encounters Catherine through notes she made in her books. “Some were detached sentences; other parts took the form of a regular diary, scrawled in an unformed, childish hand.”
Elizabeth Gaskell, Dorothy Wordsworth, and Mary Shelley are among other women writers of the time who kept diaries that were later seen as serious literature in their own right, as was much later Anaïs Nin, whose diaries were first published in 1966, the same year as Caspary’s The Man Who Loved His Wife.
Vera Caspary’s Laura and Stranger than Truth both took Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White as an inspiration; in The Man Who Loved His Wife she is perhaps borrowing from Collins again. In The Woman in White, Collins uses Marian Halcombe’s diary as a narrative medium. Count Fosco – the inspiration for Waldo in Laura – reads it surreptitiously.
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A Girl Named Vera Can Never Tell a Lie is available
on Amazon (US) and Amazon (UK)
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Enter Elaine Guardino
The Caspary woman in The Man Who Loved His Wife is twenty-eight-year-old Elaine Guardino, second wife of wealthy businessman and alpha male Fletcher Strode. Fletcher, a word meaning a person who makes arrows, is very much the kind of man who “strode” through life, until his illness struck.
Elaine, a former model who is nineteen years Fletcher’s junior, had “a madness for living, spent her energy and her earnings with a zest that had been due not simply to youth, but to a freedom of spirit which he had never before found, nor even expected, in a woman.”
Their friends on both sides think they are mismatched, and not just because of the age difference.
“Her friends considered him the stereotype of the self-made man, a show-off who expressed himself by conspicuous spending and loud talk. His cronies were sure that he would never be able to live contentedly with a highbrow who talked about ambivalence, Shostakovich, existentialism and Martha Graham.”
Elaine was born to highbrow parents: even the ultimate man’s man Fletcher recognizes her name as coming from Tennyson’s Idylls – he had to do it at school along with Emerson’s essays – and she tells him how it originated in the first meeting of her academic, artistic parents in London.
“She told him that her mother had been working on illustrations for a children’s edition of The Idylls when she met Professor Guardino.
‘It was a pick-up. At the Tate. Mother had gone to London to study the Pre-Raphaelites and set up her easel before Burne-Jones, and Papa was a refugee from Rome and was waiting for his American visa. He had thought of translating Blake into Italian and was looking at the lithographs. But he never did. Blake, I mean. He always said mother took his mind of the project. You see, it was inevitable that they named me Elaine.’”
But Elaine is no cold, aloof intellectual: “Fletcher Strode had never before met a girl who could be, at the same time, so refined and so lusty.” She is refined yet lusty, a perfect combination for a Caspary woman.
Jealousy rears its head
Despite the concerns of their friends, Fletcher and Elaine have a very satisfying and happy marriage until Fletcher contracts cancer of the throat and has to have his larynx removed. This loud, vocal man, now silenced, feels emasculated.
“Aware of the frustrations of a young woman tied to an afflicted man, he recognized in her every sigh and silence the needs of a young woman’s passionate nature. When he had been able to satisfy her, Fletcher had enjoyed the spectacle of her charm for other men, and relished his triumph over her younger admirers. Now there was no solace for castrate pride.”
Elaine’s attractiveness, “the jets that sparked out of men’s eyes at the sight of her rounded limbs, the rise of her breasts, the delicious curves of hip and buttock,” now torment him. “He was determined that no other man should possess his lovable wife.”
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Plotting Elaine’s doom
Fletcher contemplates suicide. “He pondered it constantly, considered various methods, suffered the pain of poison, the terror of drowning, the stink of gas, the dizziness of the long plunge, the shock of gunfire.”
In his fantasy, Fletcher imagines his suicide appearing to the outside world as murder – committed by his wife. He starts to write his thoughts in the diary Elaine bought him, for which he buys a new Yale lock.
“The diary was also locked away. To show that she respected his privacy, Elaine asked no questions. . . It was beyond imagining that into this secret volume he was writing her doom.”
But he is. “How easy would it be to end it all with a man who breathes through a hole in his neck. Is she trying to work up the courage?” he writes. And “to love a woman who dreams about being rid of you. I live in hell.”
Fletcher does not want Elaine to be executed for his murder but prefers to “foresee her future in a woman’s jail where her beauty would fade, her sparkle dim, where she would grow old and stale, before, if ever again, she lay with a man.”
When Fletcher is out one day, Elaine is visited by the man who used to own the house in Los Angeles which she has bought and refurbished for Fletcher to give him peace and privacy. He is a doctor, Ralph Julian. They become friends, and eventually lovers.
“They made love in silence with no words of passion, no moans of rapture. Her lover was ardent and experienced, but Elaine felt delight less than the cessation of throbbing need.”
An failed attempt at recapturing passion
Ralph visits the house one day while Fletcher’s needy daughter Cindy – who is not much younger than Elaine – and her worthless, money-grabbing husband Don are visiting and are sitting around the pool. Fletcher compares his magnificent physique to the younger men’s puny one. “The sense of size and masculinity restored Fletcher’s temper.”
That night, Elaine comes to his bedroom; Fletcher is ready to make love to her.
“On a high wave of elation, the conquering male who had shown up two inferior younger men, he had chosen his best pyjamas, opened a bottle of French cologne, combed his hair, and in the mirror found a man. The surge of youth was strong. He strutted down the short corridor. This was to be the night of the miracle, the end of anxiety, the fulfilment promised by doctors, the reward deserved by his loyal wife.”
A although Elaine says and does all the right things – “you’re such a beautiful man. You’ve got a wonderful body.” – it doesn’t happen. “Nothing came of it. ‘I’m sorry,’ Elaine said, as always taking upon herself to blame for the failure.”
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See also: Bedelia by Vera Caspary
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Twisting facts in the diary
Fletcher twists the facts in the diary to make things look bad for Elaine: “she came to bring the sleeping pills and when I tried to make love, she let me know she was not interested.” Fletcher has been stashing away the sleeping pills Elaine gives him every night to make it look as though he is contemplating suicide.
Son-in-law Don flirts outrageously with Elaine and she does not do enough to put him off; Fletcher accuses her of having an affair with him, though he is a long way beneath her in any measure of sexual attraction.
She denies the accusation but admits she has had an affair though she refuses to tell Fletcher who the man was; now, because of his wife’s infidelity, he has a reason to commit suicide and make it look as though Elaine killed him so she can be with her lover.
At the same time, Don and Cindy want to buy a house and she asks her father for money, but self-made success Fletcher tells them they must make their own way. Cindy believes that if her father dies, all the money will come to her, so now she has a reason to murder Fletcher too.
Fletcher’s suspicious death—spoilers ahead
Then Fletcher, “the man who loved his wife,” really does die. At first everyone assumes it was suicide, that he took the sleeping pills. But the autopsy shows he didn’t – he was suffocated. Because he had to breathe through the tube in his throat, Fletcher could easily have been murdered by blocking up the hole – the pathologist thinks it extremely unlikely he would have committed suicide this way because when people try to suffocate themselves they always stop at the last moment.
Don shows the diary to the police, hoping that it will point to Elaine. It does. “I saw through her devious plans. She may not be brave enough to strike the blow herself, so she is trying to provoke me to do it myself. This thought saved my life. I refuse to make it easy for her.”
In the end, what gives Elaine away is the plastic bag that covered the dry-cleaning which turns out to be the murder weapon; one of the police officers calls that kind of bag “a cheap suicide.”
“‘A cheap suicide,” she said bitterly. ‘That’s what everyone would have believed, the suicide of a man who wanted passionately,’ the word affected her, she clasped her hands under her chin, ‘to die’ . . .
‘He wanted so much to die. I knew. For such a long time, Ralph. I knew at night when I’d go in and look at him asleep. He didn’t want to wake up. Ever! . . . But I knew I couldn’t. Ever. I could never leave him, and it would go on and on like that. I wanted to be free.’
The far-of cry sounded again, but whether it was in her head or on a street below the hill, she could not tell. Free? This, too, was illusion. No matter what her lawyer pleaded, a jury decided, a judge decreed, there would never be a day without memory, nor a night free of his ghost. Fletcher Strode would always possess her.”
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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.