“I don’t want any more of your facts!”
“Maybe they’ll seem more interesting after you’ve had a dose of poison in your boiled rice.”
All his friends agree that Charlie Horst is a lucky man. His new bride Bedelia is the perfect wife, and no one can figure out how shy Charlie managed to win her heart, least of all Charlie himself.
Once the dust settles from their whirlwind courtship, however, Charlie can’t help wondering why his wife is so reluctant to talk about her past. Isn’t Bedelia just a little too good to be true? A sudden snowstorm may reveal the truth, or bury it forever.
The mystery at the heart of Bedelia appears to be a simple one, a question of whether Bedelia is everything she seems. The more we learn about her, however, the less obvious the answer. Vera Caspary never settles for anything easy. She keeps on pushing her characters, creating a thought-provoking portrait of a complicated relationship. The intense, claustrophobic snowstorm sequence, which takes up nearly the entire second half of the book, is a masterpiece of tension, building to a shocking climax.
The question that torments Charlie is not so much whether his wife is a killer as whether she is a good woman. This being 1913, the definition of that is quite narrow. For proof, look no further than the first wedge that comes between the couple, a disagreement about whether it’s respectable for Bedelia to wear costume jewelry. “I’ve been unlucky all my life,” she tells her husband, spinning the romantic tale of a tragic widow’s quest for love, with Charlie as the happy ending. Whether the middle of the story, the part she always glosses over, contains other men or even murder makes little difference to him. His image of her would be equally shattered either way.
Up to now, Bedelia’s faults have been charming, “feminine” ones, like being afraid of the dark or fussing too much over her husband’s health. She is an attentive wife, but Charlie is just as delighted to care for Bedelia in return, cooking for her and even scrubbing the kitchen floor. Indeed, the other women in his life (his divorced cousin Abbie and his friend Ellen, a journalist) attribute Bedelia’s appeal to the very qualities that might seem, from the outside, to be most annoying: her clinginess, her childish nature, her open neediness. The two women are almost disturbed by how completely Bedelia fulfills their society’s ideals of womanhood.
“Bedelia’s a man’s woman. Men fall in love with her because she’s crazy about men, and they sense it. She exists only for her man, her whole life is wrapped around him. Without a man she couldn’t live.”
“And we can, I suppose?”
“Unfortunately,” sighed Abbie. “You and I, pet, have got too far from the harem. You earn your living and enjoy it. I have an income and live quite adequately alone. Men aren’t our lords and masters. And they resent us.”
Ellen and Abbie both admire and begrudge Bedelia’s seemingly effortless perfection. As demoralizing as it may be to fall short of an impossible image, it’s even more disheartening to see another woman actually achieve it.
Ellen especially struggles because she is in love with Charlie herself. She does feel jealous and threatened by Bedelia’s overt femininity, so different from her own, more straightforward style. “She had bought a new coat that fall and no one liked it. Too mannish, they said.” Abbie warns, “There’s nothing so abhorrent to the masculine eye as a plaid silk shirtwaist. It simply shrieks old maid,” sending Ellen into a spiral of self-doubt. She feels happy and confident as she is, but does she need to change herself to have any hope of love or marriage?
Into this already fraught situation comes Ben Chaney, a newcomer from New York. He says he’s an artist. He’d like to paint Bedelia, show her as she really is. The arrival of this stranger into a close-knit community will have far-reaching consequences.
“All helpless things seem female to me,” says Bedelia. In this book, life is an endless battle of the sexes, and women don’t stand a chance. If they are strong, like Ellen, they never even make it onto the field. If they are soft, like women are supposed to be, they’ll get slaughtered. As the story marches toward its brutal conclusion, there seem to be only two roles for Charlie and Bedelia to play, either victim or monster. Bedelia shows, however, that when it comes to love, it’s possible to be both.
Bedelia is a good book, but more than that it fascinated me for Caspary’s thought-provoking and subversive look at male-female relationships. I like how this author thinks. I wince whenever I hear someone say they’ve met Mr. or Ms. Perfect. There’s no such being, and I tend to think that whoever says otherwise is working from a checklist of characteristics that commodifies a human being. Bedelia may be a nut-job, but she’s a nut job that men want to be around, and what does that say about relationships?
I sat up in bed until the wee small hours to finish it and was totally hooked from the first page. There are plenty of twists and turns and ambiguities to keep you in suspense until the very last page, and though this is far and away from the genre and style of novel I usually read, I couldn’t help but love it. It’s more than just a trashy noir, though; Caspary, through the juxtaposition of interesting female characters like the Stepford-esque Bedelia, the career driven spinster Ellen and the predatory divorcee Abbie, shows that the world is changing for women and that the Angel in the House figure is a dying breed. Bedelia’s perfection as a wife and homemaker is no longer something to be admired; instead it is something that Abbie and Ellen instinctively find subversive and disturbing. In a modernising world, such women who seek to totally submit themselves to their husband’s desires seem unnatural, and Bedelia’s flawless veneer hiding a darkness underneath undermines the image of the perfect housewive and makes her a figure of subtle menace; an enemy rather than an ideal.
This is pulp fiction at its cleverest and best, a good tense read that messes with some preconceptions along the way.
Bedelia is available as a paperback or ebook from the Feminist Press.