The current vogue for fictionalised biographies continues in Naomi Wood’s latest novel, Mrs. Hemingway. Elizabeth “Hadley” Richardson, Pauline Pfeiffer (“Fife”), Martha Gelhorn, Mary Welsh: four women vitally connected over time through marriage to Ernest Hemingway are brought together once more and their relationships put under the microscope. Where Paula McLain, in The Paris Wife, focuses on Hemingway’s relationship with his first wife Hadley, Wood writes from four female viewpoints. It’s an ambitious and humane project, stretching over four decades from 1926 until Hemingway’s death in 1961.
In her “Afterword”, Wood informs us, “this is a work of imagination. To find out about the real lives of Hemingway’s wives”, she writes without irony, “the best place to start is Bernice Kert’s group biography, The Hemingway Women.” Yet Wood delights in laying out her extensive reading in Hemingway’s personal papers, letters, and journals (the book is printed with permission of The Hemingway Foundation) during the PhD on which the book is based, raising the main question that niggles away at the back of my mind while reading about the intricate, overlapping relations between Hemingway and his four wives: why write it as fiction? Hemingway playfully addresses such concerns in the preface to his memoirs of his time with Hadley, his first wife, in Paris from 1921 to 1926, which was published posthumously by Mary, his fourth wife, as A Moveable Feast: “If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction. But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact.”
Wood’s approach in Mrs. Hemingway is to use fiction in the same way as Hemingway treats memoir: when everything has been uncovered, picked over, published, annotated, and analysed, and still aspects of a man’s life and his relationship with his wife (or wives) remains hidden, the truth of fiction becomes as plausible as the truth of biography.
It isn’t a rescue operation; Wood neither demonises Hemingway’s failings nor indulges in feminist special pleading to give prominence to herstory over history, but she depicts each of the four women as an individual rather than an extension of the Hemingway myth. Ultimately, each (aside from Mary, who outlived him) was rejected when Hemingway moved on to his next wife. Wood details their romances, the love affairs, their ménages a trois and their betrayals, switching easily between the past and the present to contextualise the drama.
She is particularly good at mapping the modulation from grand passion to coldness, from the first flush of attraction to the hardness of scorned love and the myriad ways that lovers delude themselves with fictions. For example, Hadley’s “muddled reasoning” when she suspects Ernest of having an affair with Fife brings matters to a head and ends their marriage, and yet it seems perfectly reasonable within the context of the story she relates. “And so she thought she could perhaps break the affair by setting them up like this, so that the pressure of three would reduce them again to two.” Wood sets the scene and delineates the strain of living in the Fitzgerald’s glamorous villa in the South of France, and it seems perfectly logical that Hadley would invite Fife to stay with them, both to find out the truth of what is going on, and to force Ernest to choose between them. Wood writes of Hadley:
Lying next to him she wonders how it is she has lost him, although perhaps that is not quite the right phrase, since she has not lost him, not yet. Rather Fife and Hadley wait and watch as if they are lining up for the last seat on a bus.
The novel is structured in four sections named after each of the four wives. In keeping with the convention of biography, the story is written as a quest; Hemingway’s journey is from wife to wife in relentless, restless pursuit of unachievable contentment. With Martha Gelhorn, naturally, the trivia of society cocktails and card games moves to the more serious issue of writing:
Martha thought it wonderful that they all were sitting there in the presence of a genius … . She wanted to ask Hemingway questions without sounding like an ingénue: how does one edit one’s work and know what is good and what was bad if one thought the whole thing, invariably, was rotten?
We don’t learn what Hemingway thinks of these things as the storyline compels us to ponder how long he will stay with Fife before moving on to Martha.
It’s an act of boldness to write descriptively so well, so evocatively, when one’s subject is a master of pared syntax. Wood excels at the Hemingwayesque description:
The waves leave their foam on the beach. Smells of wet rope and fish hang on the air. Draped over the landed boats are fishing nets, the moonlight crusting scales and shells on the wind. The night hides the far-off trees and the raft where they dived this morning. Nothing is visible but their limbs going forward, long and brown.
Wood’s research is drizzled lightly through the narrative and doesn’t inhibit the forward action. Yet, although we know all she tells us, and we know what is to come, what is so good about Mrs. Hemingway is that, although we know, we read on to find the truth in relation to this version of the story of what will happen. Dropped as heavy weights to remind us of the impending, inevitable future when Hemingway will take down his shotgun and head into the vestibule of the Idaho home he shared with Mary, the story is peppered with mention of guns and shooting and death; the last section is dark, elegiac. Sorting through his effects, Mary comes across an album: “a book of wives. In each picture of each couple a ghost wife hovers behind them. Each decade has its triptych.”
Proust wrote, “it is those periods of existence which are lived through carelessly, unwillingly or in boredom, that most often fructify into art.” He could have been writing about how Naomi Wood fashions Mrs. Hemingway from love enjoyed and wives cast aside so carelessly.