Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood

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Written by Victoria Best

Gertrude Stein said rather pithily of Hemingway, ‘Anyone who marries three girls from St Louis hasn’t learned much.’ In Naomi Wood’s brilliant account of all four of Hemingway’s wives, it seems that the women aren’t any better at learning their lessons, either. Hemingway exerts a fatal attraction, and it was ultimately to be as bad for him as it was for the women he married.

What a pull he has! What a magnetism! Women jump off balconies and follow him into wars. Women turn their eyes from an affair, because a marriage of three is better than a woman alone.

The novel begins when Hemingway’s first marriage to the gentle, out-of-her-depth Hadley (left) is in serious trouble. It is 1926 and the Hemingways have come to the South of France. Due to their young son’s whooping cough, they have been quarantined in a villa away from the main party where Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gerald and Sara Murphy, cause their own brand of trouble. They are not alone, however, as Hadley’s best friend, Fife (Pauline Pfeiffer) has come to join them; she is also Ernest’s mistress and Hadley has had the desperate idea of throwing them all together in the hopes that things will revert to their natural places. This idea is unravelling fast. A charmed life of cocktails and sunbathing and card games is underpinned by clandestine meetings, mistrust and heartbreak. What seems to be a ludicrous and painful situation, this crowded threesome, will turn out to be a stubborn default pattern in Hemingway’s love life.

Fife is the wife who relishes the marriage most, and who clings the tightest when it is her turn to be dislodged. The next Mrs Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn (right), is the least deeply smitten by Hemingway’s dubious attraction – her own career as a war reporter is as important to her as their marriage, something Ernest cannot abide. But still she hesitates on the brink, hurt and sentimental, when she discovers that Mary Welsh, another young reporter, has become her husband’s latest obsession. Hemingway had an extraordinary genius for begging one woman not to leave him whilst tenaciously courting another. The narrative swoops down on all four crucial moments in the lives of the Hemingway wives, as they realise their term is ending and the replacement waits in the wings.

This makes for an elegant structure to the story, as we get to see the differences in each situation – Pauline’s painful exile in the villa in Cuba, Gellhorn striding through war-torn Paris to the Ritz hotel that her husband has recently liberated from the Germans, and finally, Mary’s grief in the wake of Hemingway’s death, determined to convince herself that the gun went off by accident while he was cleaning it. But we also see the similarities, the ways in which the women are fools to themselves because Hemingway is a man who will not be tied down, whose passion is both fierce and elusive and keeps them on tenterhooks. But however turbulent their love for him, the novel suggests that in all four cases the love ran deep.

In many ways, Ernest Hemingway is a bit player in the story, in which the wives and their relationship to each other takes centre stage (several of them became friendly in the aftermath of divorce, and compared notes in ways that probably helped their sanity). In all cases the women grapple with Hemingway as an image in their minds – as a writer of genius and a man of terrific courage and stamina – and the Hemingway they must live with all too often in reality – the insecure, alcoholic, crumpled, sullen Hemingway, wanting to have everything his own way like a child. It really is his personal tragedy that he doesn’t learn much of anything, that all the love and nurture he receives fails to touch his empty, macho core.

This is a gorgeously written novel that is powerfully evocative of time, place and character, bringing the history of that part of the 20th century vividly alive. There is nothing clunky in this narrative, nothing that fails to fit in a way that indicates shoehorned research material. Instead the whole is gloriously imagined, and the storytelling is seamless. It is impossible not to have sympathy with all of Hemingway’s wives who love truly and memorably. I think they would have applauded Naomi Wood’s sensitive, vivid, assessment of their collective plight.

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Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books and interviewed Naomi Wood here.

Naomi Wood, Mrs Hemingway (Picador, 2014) 336 pages.

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