Wrapping Up The Imaginary Summer Book Club: Bedelia By Vera Caspary

(Click here for information on the 2020 edition of Molly’s Imaginary Summer Book Club Featuring Classics of Women’s Literature.  This week, the September selection, Bedelia By Vera Caspary)

Who is to say it is too late to conclude a Summer Book Club? WHAT IS TIME??? I usually aim to conclude The Imaginary Summer Book Club around Halloween with a spooky tale, but in a happy coincidence, this one is actually set at Christmastime!

Background: Vera Caspary is best known for providing the source novel for Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944), a twisty film noir that is on my short list of the greatest movies to come out of the Classic Hollywood era. The following year she followed it up with this tense little thriller, the rare 1940s neo-gothic with a male hero-victim. Or is he? Hmmm…

The Plot: The novel, set in 1913, opens at the Connecticut estate of Charlie Horst, in the midst of a massive Christmas party thrown by his new wife, Bedelia, the first time she has entertained Charlie’s stuffy WASP friends and she is eager to impress.

While charming everyone, they can’t help but note that the new Mrs. Horst is openly acquisitive:

Bedelia sought Charlie’s approval. He saw how much she wanted to open the packages, and gave in like an indulgent father.

Bedelia’s prodigality astonished them all. These people were not accustomed to lavish giving. Even the richest, those whose safe-deposit boxes were crammed with New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad Stock, had been taught to be grateful on Christmas morning for an orange, a pair of mittens, a sock filled with hard candy, a copy of the Bible or Emerson’s Essays.

But even the stuffiest townspeople are completely charmed by Bedelia and her devotion to Charlie and excitement over Mrs. Bennett’s gift of “three gingham potholders bought in August at a church fair and put away for just such an occasion.”

A small crisis arrives with lady-reporter Ellen Walker (insistent that she’s proud to be an old maid, but still seeming to carry a torch for Charlie), who is unexpectedly accompanied by her flamboyant cousin Abbie Hoffman, a divorcee from New York City. Bedelia is upset that she has no gift for Abbie, and Charlie suggests she surreptitiously wrap a piece of her own jewelry and slip it under the tree, a faux-black pearl ring, a costume piece that Charlie found unspeakably vulgar, but he assures her will be acceptable in New York City.

Bedelia is evasive on the subject, finally admitting that she gave away the ring after Charlie expressed his disapproval, and smoothly talks him into instead giving Abbie an antique bracelet that Charlie had purchased for her. When Charlie returns to the party (they have been away an indecent amount of time…) Bedelia hastily retrieves the black pearl ring from her jewelry box and secrets it away in a dark corner of her wardrobe…

Meanwhile Ellen and Abbie are gossiping about everything under the sun, neatly bringing the reader up to speed on Charlie and Bedelia’s marriage (at a health spa in Colorado Springs, after the death of Charlie’s mother and Bedelia’s first husband) and the presence in town of Ben Chaney, a handsome young artist renting a room in the house of the local judge.

Back at the party the topic turns towards art and artists, as that was the occupation of Bedelia’s late husband, Raoul Cochran, a prodigious young talent whose work was sold at auction in New Orleans before Bedelia left for Colorado… but hadn’t she said that it had been sold through an agent? Well, an agent had wanted to buy it you see, but her husband’s friends insisted that she would get a better price at auction, you remember, Charlie, dear, we went over this…

In Charlie’s presence, Bedelia seems to be the perfect meek and retiring wife, transforming Charlie from an anemic middle-aged mama’s boy into her master and protector. She seems to be the perfect wife in every way. At least until Charlie keels over one night.

While Charlie has been suffering from bouts of “dyspepsia” for some months, the local doctor abruptly changes course after a conversation with Ben Chaney, insisting that the Horsts take on a trained nurse who will supervise every aspect of Charlie’s recovery… especially his meals.

Ellen’s suspicions are raised when she sees Chaney meeting said trained nurse at the railway station, but when Charlie makes a full recovery, everyone’s suspicions are allayed. Life returns to normal, and the Horsts privately rejoice over the news that Bedelia is pregnant.

At least until Chaney off-handedly mentions that an old friend of his, another artist named Keene Barrett is scheduled to arrive in town as soon as the snow clears in the middle-west.

Bedelia reacts violently, fleeing the house in the middle of the night in the middle of a blizzard, which proves impassible and she is found unconscious the next morning. Charlie puts her to bed, but Chaney arrives on snowshoes to enlighten him.

As Chaney (who is a private detective, not an artist) explains, Bedelia wasn’t tragically widowed merely once, but at least four (and possibly as many as seven) times, collecting substantial life insurance policies; Keene Barrett is a former brother-in-law who will arrive and provide positive identification. Charlie orders Chaney from his house, refusing to believe it… but also starts adding up his wife’s missteps and his own misgivings, and begins to wonder: is he snowbound with a serial killer?

Well, yes. A big part of the pleasure in reading it is Bedelia’s ability to explain everything away- or turn Charlie’s own arguments against him. And Charlie is such a prig that it’s hard to sympathize with him- at one point he contemplates the prostrate form of his wife and is more disgusted by the realization that she dyes her hair than the fact that she has murdered at least four (and possibly seven) husbands. She also corrupts Charlie, and the dilemma resolves with the mild-mannered husband finally forcing his wife to drink her own poison, and then blandly descends to the drawing room where he allows Ellen, Chaney and the just-arrived Keene Barret to conclude that it must have been suicide.

Apparently Caspary was not satisfied with the filmed adaption of Laura (!!!) and shopped this story to British filmmakers; the film version appeared in 1946, with some substantial changes made to the story, including moving the action from New England to Yorkshire.

The film also opens with a lengthy prologue, set in Monte Carlo, which introduces (renamed) Bedelia and Charlie Carrington on their honeymoon, meeting Ben Chaney for the first time. Played by Margaret Lockwood (probably best known for her role in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes) who gives a somewhat uneven performance, only occasionally capturing the character’s subtle menace.

A few changes are made to make the story more cinematic, including an elaborate ruse by Chaney involving forging paintings by Bedelia’s late husband (Lockwood’s reaction is unintentionally comical in this scene).

The male leads are also only adequate: Ian Hunter plays Charlie as even more obtuse than his literary counterpart; Barry K. Barnes is more sinister than suave as Chaney (it is a role tailor-made for John Garfield, but Barnes just kept reminding of John Dall in Rope.)

The other substantial changes are the addition of a scene in which an already-suspicious Charlie physically restrains his wife from stopping her beloved pet cat from eating some poisoned cheese intended for Chaney, watching as the cat drops dead before their eyes in a shocking display of cruelty.

However, Bedelia’s character is given a softer treatment at the end, as she arranges for Ellen to join her husband for lunch before drinking poison of her own accord.

Despite Caspary’s supposed distaste for the previous adaptation of her work, the ending borrows heavily from Laura, as the camera tracks out to reveal Chaney’s portrait of Bedelia; even more strangely there is a flashback in which Chaney visits the Keenes which cribs Mrs. Danvers’ dialogue from Rebecca!

Availability: Recently back in print as part of the Femme Fatales series published by the City University of New York’s Feminist Press.

The film doesn’t look like it ever got a home video release, but it is available on YouTube.

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2 Responses to Wrapping Up The Imaginary Summer Book Club: Bedelia By Vera Caspary

  1. Uly says:

    Bedelia sought Charlie’s approval. He saw how much she wanted to open the packages, and gave in like an indulgent father.

    Ew. I don’t care if it IS 1913, Charlie deserves to die just for that.

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