[The narrator is visiting his cousin and his wife Molly – he hasn’t seen the couple in some time]
[Molly] had a mature, experienced face, handsome rather than pretty, and that comfortable self-confidence so often lacking in young girls. A full skirt showed off the narrowness of her ankles and the arched instep of her high-heeled shoes. Her blouse was one of those loose affairs that slide off the shoulders with every shrug. Her face was still firm enough for her to wear her hair girlishly long without looking like mutton dressed as lamb. The general effect was mildly wanton, like that imaginary portrait of Salome in the Metropolitan, but if you looked closely you saw that the cosmetic mask and lacquered nails and load of conspicuous jewellery were all more feminine than the woman who wore them.
I have a theory that modern western woman has taken over eastern nail and eyelid paint as compensation for a life that is becoming less and less like that of an odalisque in the home as well as in factory and office. The servantless housewife who spends a great deal of her day performing such tasks of the untouchable caste as cleaning out toilet bowls and garbage cans revolts by making herself look as much as possible like an idle temple prostitute in the evening. But her air of luxurious decadence is all on the surface. Underneath she is the executive in the home, the business manager of the family.
commentary: That top image is some picture isn’t it? I was amused by the idea that the narrator felt he had to say it was an ‘imaginary’ portrait (as opposed to what? An ancient photograph of Salome?), and then I wondered how hard it would be to identify it.
But the moment this came up it was obvious it was the right one – it’s Salome by Henri Regnault. I think it’s astonishing: you just want to stare and stare at it. And if pushed you would be hard put to guess its date - it’s actually from 1870. The black and white photo (of a French girl of the era) is probably more what Molly looked like, but still…
You might think that Molly was going to be a major player in the story, (temptress? bad girl?) but that is not the case, it’s just an example, perhaps, of the way the narrator thinks. The discussion of western women is also not followed up, but it’s an interesting theory. 1950s America is often seen as a glory time for the US housewife – time-saving inventions in the house, a buoyant economy, houses and well-paid husbands apparently available. What could a woman complain about? I think the passage above is more convincing from Helen McCloy than from the character who says it.
This is a difficult book to describe. It’s a standalone, not one of her Basil Willing books. It is very psychological, in a McCloy way and in a very 1950s way. The main characters are privileged and entitled, living in a small town, Clearwater, in Virginia: they are well-connected and live comfortably. The narrator has come into an inheritance, and gone back to a home from his past, with his childhood sweetheart Celia, now married, nearby. A fairly standard setup, and it’s hardly a surprise to the reader when strange things start to happen. But that’s as much as I’m going to say about the plot, as it would be too easy to spoiler.
Let’s just say that it’s well up to McCloy standards. Curt Evans has an excellent review over at his Passing Tramp blog, very much recommended, and I will quote from him:
Someone coming to the book today, fifty-six [now 61] years after it was published, may anticipate some of the developments, but even after McCloy herself makes a major revelation a good way before the end of the novel, interest only increases. This is the definition of "psychological suspense."
A book that must be read to the very last page....If that doesn’t make you want to read it, I don’t know what would.
And, I wouldn’t have missed seeing that Salome picture for any money.
There are some other Salome pictures on the blog - see this post in particular for early photographs of actresses and singers, and this one for a painting. For the full range of mentions and pictures of Salomes on the blog (a varied collection I promise you) look here.