To my mind, one of the most quietly brutal attacks on middle-class American life was published in 1946, Elizabeth Sanxzay Holding’s The Blank Wall. Set smack in the midst of WWII. Sanxay Holding’s noir novel refutes the stoic, brave, middle-class mothers and equally resolute and self-sacrificing children of wartime propaganda pieces like Since You Went Away or The Tender Comrade. Instead, The Blank Wall reveals civilians annoyed by rationing, shortages, and gouging businesses; children wrapped up in selfishness and self-righteousness; and mothers and sons afraid the war won’t be over before that son hits draft age. Into this disenchanted view of the actual world that “our boys are fighting for,” Holding stirs noir criminality amongst the nicest of people to further debunk the American middle-class ideal.
Lucia Holly’s daughter Bea, out of boredom, inexperience, and ego, gets herself entangled in an affair with a artist-lowlife (Ted Darby), whom the grandfather, living with Lucia’s family, accidentally and unknowingly kills. Lucia, trying to be the ideal mother of movies, sermons, and full-color magazine ads, takes on the entire burden of covering up her father’s and daughter’s criminal involvement, even determining to hide her efforts from them. As a result, Lucia (constantly berated by a selfish and ignorant daughter, while berating herself for not being the perfect mother cocooning her children from all worry and error) soon finds herself the victim of a blackmail scheme – first over her daughter’s scandalous letters to the “artist” then over implications of the girl’s culpability when the man’s dead body is found.
The first assault on Lucia’s middle-class world comes from a harsh, brutal criminal who does embody how 1940s (or even 2010s) middle-class values would perceive the threat of the lower-classes. The revelation this blackmailing Nagle wants to destroy Lucia for her membership in a higher class holding him down emphasizes his threat to the upper middle class that Americans are supposed to revere. Nevertheless, the novel proceeds to demolish middle- and upper-middle-class values in terms of gender and class roles. The husband, the respectable strong American male, is off defending his nation. Yet to do so, he has abdicated another middle-class American role, protective and guiding pater familias. He leaves vulnerably on their own a wife trained to be dependent and children pampered into incompetence. Lucia has never been allowed to think for herself but has had drilled into her the need for respectability and her obligation to serve everyone else’s needs. As a result of her “training,” Lucia sees the criminal justice system only as a threat to her family’s stability and reputation rather than as a safe or valid way of dealing with Ted Darby’s blackmail, her father’s accidentally killing him, or with Nagle’s predation. Instead, she finds herself struggling to defend hearth and home, constantly thwarted by her children’s egocentric ignorance, her father’s ineffectual geniality, and the fear inculcated into her of undermining her children’s social acceptability. The weakness of a woman’s position in this modern and respectable world is powerfully hammered home when Lucia does try to act independently. Trying to raise the blackmail money on her own through bank loan, sketchy credit services, and pawning her own jewels, Lucia fails because, as a nice little housewife, she has no credit or collateral. What she does posses in her own name, her jewelry, is regarded by those controlling money as holding insufficient value to empower her.
Lucia does have allies in The Blank Wall, but here Holding again challenges the safety, legitimacy, and compassion of the American ideal. The only people who treat Lucia with regard and compassion, who help empower her and teach her to grow, are people this society marginalizes as unrespectable, inferior. Sybil, who serves as cook, housekeeper, and guide, is a black woman; her gender, race, and class as “servant” deprive her of power and standing in society – witness the overall depiction of black women as only servants in films, books, and society itself at the time. Yet Sybil is the only person in the household whom Lucia can trust, and whose realism and experience Lucia turns to with esteem. Their mutual respect and unity come to the fore when the novel’s concluding metaphor reveals that Lucia has grown to share with Sybil a recognition of the self-delusion maintaining their society’s empty values. The other person to treat Lucia decently, unselfishly is Donnelly, Nagle’s partner and a man born of the lower social orders, a foreigner and immigrant to boot! Always on the outside, struggling to get into America and the American dream, literally and figuratively, he appreciates the sacrifices she makes for her family that they all unthinkingly take for granted; he appreciates her courage and wit finally emerging as she battles to overcome the persecutions and selfishness of others. He is the only one, aside from Sybil, who tries to make her life easier (even ultimately trying to pay off her blackmail to Nagle). Donnelly’s interactions with Lucia liberate her strength, independence, and intelligence; yet in this world it can only be done “illegally” in connection with paying off blackmail or covering up murders. Further, the genuine concern between them is more reliable than respectable marriage vows made by a man who is not there for Lucia.
The conclusion of The Blank Wall may be hard to read. There is the metaphor of advertising fake cinnamon and butter as truly delicious, which all of America seems willing to buy into – all but Sybil and Lucia. They recognize a lie into which everyone else deludes him- or herself. Are these two women free because they see the truth or are they isolated because they cannot demand something real when everyone else insists on blindly embracing delusion?
In 1949 Max Ophuls directed an outstanding film version of this novel, The Reckless Moment. Though some material was cut from the novel for the film, The Reckless Moment is a superb adaptation, capturing the novel’s claustrophobia for women in American society. There is some shift in Lucia’s character. In the novel, Lucia’s strength and intelligence are buried beneath socially imbibed passivity and self-abnegation but brought out and strengthened by facing adversity with the encouragement of Sybil and Donnelly. In The Reckless Moment, Lucia is clearly a woman of discipline and intelligence, but her strengths have been hemmed in, stunted, or misdirected rather than suppressed by the people surrounding her. Sybil and Donnelly provide similar support and encouragement. Joan Bennett, James Mason, and Frances E. Williams effectively recreate Lucia, Donnelly, and Sybil. Williams is listed by IMDB as uncredited in the original credit cards, sadly reflecting the very marginalization by gender and race that the film and book undercut. Click here to watch the film on YouTube.
For over thirty years, Elizabeth Sanxay Holding was a successful writer of both romance and mystery, especially of the noir variety of the latter. According to the Fantastic Fiction Site: “In 1949 Raymond Chandler chose her as ‘the best character and suspense writer (for consistent but not large production)’, picking The Blank Wall (1947) as one of his favorites among her books.” For more information on her, please take a gander at the following sites: Fantastic Fiction ; Women Crime Writers of the 1940s and 1950s; “The Goodmother of Noir: Elizabeth Sanxay Holding”, Goodreads. Lisa Scottoline writes an insightful essay on the novel, with some helpful links to articles on The Reckless Moment. Don’t ask me how to pronounce Sanxay.
Joan Bennett from Reckless Moment: author’s collection