In Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith, the Whitbread-shortlisted biography by Andrew Wilson, Patricia Highsmith is shown to be a woman who never found true happiness. Condemned by her own psychology to seek out inappropriate and often unavailable women, she never had a relationship that lasted longer than a few years.
An almost life-long alcoholic, Highsmith’s happiest moments came from writing. She was misanthropic, lonely, shy, often hiding behind her curtain of black hair.
But she was a brilliant writer, unappreciated in her own country, the United States, where publishers were obsessed with the categorisation of fiction. Highsmith’s fiction, like the woman herself, defied categorisation.
Highsmith’s childhood and college years
As Andrew Wilson elegantly illustrates in Beautiful Shadow, the writer’s problems began early in life, in her family circumstances. Her biological father was almost unknown to her. She was raised by her mother and stepfather (who gave her the Highsmith name.)
The Oedipal complex is given a twist here since the young girl had an intense love for her mother, and a desire to kill her stepfather. Highsmith’s difficult love-hate relationship with her mother, Mary, lay at the root of her problems with women, as Highsmith herself recognised:
“I am married to my mother I shall never wed another.”
Her mother, meanwhile, could see the teenage Highsmith was not “normal” and at one point advised her to “straighten up and fly right.”
Although her sexuality was not clear-cut, Highsmith on the whole preferred women. But she constantly engaged in fantasy relationships with unavailable heterosexual women, or became involved with difficult or controlling partners.
Patricia Highsmith’s feelings about herself as a woman were complicated by the fact that she saw herself at times as having a male identity. Although very beautiful, she had a tendency to dress slightly butch, softening it with a necklace or lipstick.
Her fellow students at the all-female Barnard College thought she seemed “dashing.” She was certainly promiscuous, successfully luring both straight and non-heterosexual women into her bed.
Trying (and failing) to go straight
For a time, during a relationship with a man she hoped to marry, she underwent analysis, in the hopes of turning herself heterosexual. Her biographer records this well, setting it within the context of psychoanalytic attitudes of the period. As Wilson points out, the therapist’s interpretation of Highsmith’s case was “laughably simplistic and over-dependent on Freudian theory.”
Not only that, such practitioners failed to recognise that Freud did not believe in “curing” homosexuals, but instead in counselling them into accepting their sexuality. Pat’s therapist recommended group therapy alongside married women with latent homosexual tendencies. Writing in her diary, Highsmith mused:
“Perhaps I shall amuse myself by seducing a couple of them.”
Needless to say, the therapy proved useless.
Highsmith the diarist
Highsmith was a passionate diarist. She left countless “cahiers,” her notebook/diaries which Wilson had access to. These cahiers go back to her youth. Consequently, the biography is very detailed, and the reader gets the impression that Wilson’s book could have been double or triple the size.
One of the frustrating things is the inability to go into greater detail about individual episodes. This is not Wilson’s fault though, because he’s dealing with a huge volume of information. But it would be fascinating to read more of Highsmith’s words directly and perhaps it might be possible in some other book in the future.
On the other hand, because of the density of information, it would be possible to read this biography a second time and get even more out of it. Particularly if read in conjunction with her work, which Wilson analyses.
Highsmith’s cahiers are a vital insight into her personal life, her psychology, and her mindset as a writer. From them, Wilson has been able to construct how Strangers on a Train came into being. And also where her most famous character, Ripley, came from.
Something else that becomes obvious is the way she used her infatuations with women in her work.
The Price of Salt (Carol)
Her lesbian novel, The Price of Salt (now Carol) was inspired by a woman, Kathleen Senn, who walked into the toy department of Bloomingdale’s where the twenty-seven-year-old Highsmith was working temporarily. Highsmith was immediately smitten with Senn but never met her again.
However, she later tracked the woman down to her address. There she saw her in a car as it backed out the driveway and headed towards her. Writing about it later in her diary, Highsmith said:
“For the curious thing yesterday, I felt quite close to murder too, as I went to see the woman who almost made me love her when I saw her a moment in December, 1948. Murder is a kind of making love, a kind of possessing. (Is it not, too, a way of gaining complete and passionate attention, for a moment, from the object of one’s attentions?) To arrest her suddenly, my hands upon her throat (which I should really like to kiss) as if I took a photograph, to make her in an instant cool and rigid as a statue.”
Kathleen Senn became the unsuspecting muse who inspired The Price of Salt, a book remarkable for its happy ending, something not previously seen in lesbian literature in the 1950s.
In spite of the fact that Highsmith never had any contact with Senn, Wilson tracked down the woman’s surviving relatives. He brings out the other more poignant side of this brief encounter.
What Highsmith never knew is that the glamorous, sophisticated Senn had a history of mental health problems. Sometime before the publication of The Price of Salt, Senn walked into her garage, closed the door, and switched on the engine of her car. She would never know the part she’d played in literary history.
The women in her life
Throughout her life, Highsmith would use the women around her, lovers or women admired from afar, as her muses.
In spite of this, Highsmith was considered by some to be a misogynist.
Andrew Wilson, though, shows the difficulties in such an easy reading of Highsmith’s character. The women in Pat’s life lived in the shadow of her mother. Highsmith was a shy, lonely character, and her behaviour at times could be misinterpreted.
There’s no question she was a difficult human being to be around. But she had her admirers as well as her detractors.
Some people had a better understanding of her nature. She was a brutally honest person, which didn’t always serve her well, though some admired her for it. Her political opinions were hard to define. Some could be termed left-wing liberal. Whereas others veered to the right, and included anti-Semitic tendencies as well as a virulent hatred of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians.
Highsmith spent a great deal of her adulthood in Europe. In exile, she watched in horror as the U.S. went into various conflicts. Her visits back to America often served to confirm her opinion that the country had lost its way. She saw it as a modern-day Roman Empire, and her criticisms wove their way into her fiction.
Highsmith wasn’t a popular writer in America during her lifetime. The irony is the way she’s been embraced there since her death.
Wilson believes Highsmith was a writer ahead of her time. Her books, which some have seen as evil and immoral, don’t tread an easy path. She was more interested in psychopaths than do-gooders. These psychopaths were often the viewpoint characters, drawing the reader into their amoral worlds.
Pacifist and animal lover
In spite of this, she was a gentle person in real life and a pacifist. Generally, she preferred animals to people and had a life-long love of cats and snails. Wilson documents how Highsmith smuggled her pet snails into France under her breasts.
Snails and cats are somehow fitting companions for this misanthropic woman. Her love of animals would take a comic dark turn in some of her short stories. There, animals got their revenge on humans, particularly in The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder.
For those wishing to track down her publications, especially the short story collections, there’s a list of her books at the beginning of the biography. Wilson does not ignore the significance of her short stories, summarising their plots and analysing them along with the novels.
He’s also managed to get some quite revealing information from some of Highsmith’s lovers, as well as those who worked with her. It’s to his credit that he doesn’t set Highsmith within a heterosexist reading of human sexuality or gender. He clearly has enormous sympathy and respect for “Pat” even as he depicts her, warts and all.
Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith is an exceptionally well-written and researched book. Wilson has done a fine job in pulling together the strands of this remarkable woman’s life.
This review was originally written in 2004.