The Iron Cobweb (1953) by Ursula Curtiss

Ursula Curtiss The Iron Cobweb Cover 01

8 Stars (8/10 stars)

What are we going to do about Elizabeth?

Elizabeth March has nothing to be afraid of.

Happily married, with a beautiful country home, she balances a successful writing career with raising two children. She’s even recovering well from a recent stillbirth. And why not, when there are so many people who want to help her? Cousin Constance, after years nursing her own invalid mother, has moved in to lend a hand. The new nanny Noreen is so good with the children—even if nobody knows much about her. Best friend Lucy and her husband Steven support Elizabeth despite the difficulties in their own marriage. And Elizabeth’s husband Oliver always makes sure she takes her sleeping pills. Always.

So there’s no reason for her to feel so unsettled. Until the evening she does not take her sleeping pills and overhears Oliver asking Lucy, “What are we going to do about Elizabeth?”

From that night on, Elizabeth is disturbed by a series of minor but odd events. All the petals are torn off her bouquet of roses, covering the floor in bloody red. Someone switches the tags on her Christmas gifts. Her young daughter screams at an invisible enemy. Then the incidents become more serious. Elizabeth cannot confide in anyone, because her family and friends are the ones she fears most.

Constance, Noreen, Lucy, Steven, Oliver. One or more is her enemy. Unless, of course, her true enemy is Elizabeth.

The Iron Cobweb is an absolute classic of domestic suspense. Elizabeth is an intelligent and self-aware narrator, which only adds to the ambiguity of her situation. She is proud of her quick recovery from the stillbirth, her reward for obeying doctor’s orders. Yet she is suffering terrible anxiety right from page one—she simply refuses to attribute it to her recent trauma. It’s obvious that she’s looking for something, anything else to blame for her free-floating worries. Strange things certainly happen, but there’s nothing overtly nefarious about most of them. Are they merely, as Oliver suggests, “Mystery We’ll Never Solve, Number 2000”?

Regardless of whether Elizabeth is in physical danger, the fears that bind her are very real. Just out of theUrsula Curtiss The Iron Cobweb Cover 02 hospital, she is disturbed by how easily her absence has been filled. With Constance to run the house, Noreen to care for the children, and (she fears) Lucy in her husband’s bed, there is no longer a role for Elizabeth in her own home. Efforts to seek fulfillment in her career are equally doomed. After she disobeys Oliver’s orders and spends a day writing, her studio burns down. She has no choice but to retreat back into the home, the worst place she could be.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. Elizabeth is quick to comment on the absurdities of daily life with her  children, Maire and Jeep. At Thanksgiving, for example, “they formed an instant and devoted attachment to the docile creature in the roasting pan. Jeep said dubiously, ‘Might bite you,’ and Maire said earnestly, ‘No, he loves you, Jeep,’ and the turkey went into the oven amid pattings and farewells.” The children’s sweetly morbid reactions to the tension in their home lead to moments that are both comic and chilling.

What makes this novel unusual for the time is how explicitly its feminist themes are expressed, while recognizing the nuances of each woman’s situation. Elizabeth loves both her home and her career–she would never want to give up one in favor of the other. But she can only be happy in these roles because she has money, household help, and confidence in her marriage. She is vulnerable because she takes these things for granted. Her cluelessness is at best tactless, at worst infuriating to other women who have much less than she does. As we learn more about their struggles, it is easier to understand how one of them may have been tempted to sabotage Elizabeth’s picture-perfect life. Although aware that she leads a very privileged life, Elizabeth is occasionally slapped in the face by just how lucky she is compared to Lucy, Constance, and especially Noreen—with whom she has more in common than she realized, if she had only stopped to ask.

Over the course of the story, Elizabeth will find that life is not so sweet when she has to care for her own house and children, wondering all day just what her husband is doing in the city. It’s no coincidence that she’s only able to write once during the two months we spend with her; there’s no time for Elizabeth’s personal fulfillment when the children need their bath. Each strange event chips away at Elizabeth’s faith in herself and those around her, undermining the foundations that support her life.

Elizabeth said, forcing herself to be quiet and even, “You think I’m a hysterical idiot, all swallowed up in morbid self- pity over the baby, taking too many sedatives, imagining things. And I think—” damn her voice for starting to shake “—that you’re the stair that wasn’t there, so that you let me trip and make a fool of myself. I know better now, and I won’t make the same mistake any more. No more confiding tears, and,” said Elizabeth, steady again, “no more trust. You’re interested elsewhere, you—” […]

Behind her, so close that she stiffened, Oliver’s voice said tautly, “Elizabeth, you’ve got to believe me.”

“Do I? Why, I wonder, when you don’t believe me?”

The only disappointment is the ending. The Iron Cobweb is all buildup, with insufficient payoff. Even the final showdown is not as dramatic and deranged as it should be; thanks to a series of coincidences, it’s over almost before it’s begun.

Despite this anticlimax, The Iron Cobweb is a remarkable portrait of the dark side of postwar domesticity as Elizabeth struggles to trust herself and gain control over her own life.

Second Opinion:

Saturday Review, June 6, 1953:

Heavy stress on atmosphere; not up to author’s previous trio.


Out of print, like all of Curtiss’ work, but used copies are widely available.

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