x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Papa’s partners

Naomi Wood’s fictionalised account of Ernest Hemingway’s four marriages is both movingly told and elegantly written, writes Lucy Scholes

The American author Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley, in Switzerland in 1922. There would be three more marriages in his lifetime. AP Photo
The American author Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley, in Switzerland in 1922. There would be three more marriages in his lifetime. AP Photo

At the end of A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway’s memoirs of his life in Paris in the 1920s with his wife, Hadley Richardson, he writes: “I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.” Hadley, however, was just his first wife, after whom there were three others: Pauline Pfeiffer (Fife), a wealthy society beauty who worked for Vogue; the intrepid, infamous war correspondent Martha Gellhorn; and the journalist-turned-homemaker Mary Welsh. These “unlikely sisters” are the subject of Naomi Wood’s new novel, Mrs Hemingway. A fictionalised account of the marriages of one of the 20th century’s most famous authors, the end of each union is witnessed through the eyes of the wife in question, Wood’s artistry weaving together a richly imagined context for facts and phrases found in the course of extensive archive trawling.

The story begins in June 1926. Hadley, Hemingway and Fife are holidaying together in Antibes. In a last-ditch attempt to save her marriage, thinking the holiday would “break their attachment to each other”, Hadley invited her husband’s mistress to join them, but it’s turned instead into a “boring game of treading water” – “Fife and Hadley wait and watch as if they are lining up for the last seat on a bus”. Their holiday companions are Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and Sara and Gerald Murphy – together they make a “golden set”, but one that Fife’s convinced she suits better than the homely Hadley.

More than a decade later, contemplating the impending loss of her husband to her successor, Fife looks back on her and Hemingway’s wedding as the day “their group came to look just as it always should have”; she was the correct companion for a “wild party” and a “wild author”. Why now, then, in 1938, after years of marriage and bearing him two sons, is she holed up in the “jerkwater island” Key West alone, while her husband roams Europe with perky, talented Martha Gellhorn in tow?

Gellhorn, ironically, is different from the “lapdog wives” who have come before her. At their home in Havana, she feels as if she’s “drowning in martinis and flowers”, she hates being “cautious and good and settled”, she wants to be travelling and away at war. “Not for her, the life of the writer’s wife.” Their marriage ends among the rubble and empty champagne bottles of Paris’s Ritz in 1944. Ernest is drunk and melancholy, but wife number four is already lined up, and Mary Welsh willingly swaps her ambition of rivalling Gellhorn’s journalism for inheriting the woman’s husband and home instead. But with these privileges comes plenty of baggage: three ex-wives, always present, and with them the niggling feeling that her and Hemingway’s life together is “just the appendix to a greater life he had once before”; and his depression, the “sackful of darkness” he carries with him that grows heavier by the day.

The novel, and indeed the marriages, fall rather neatly into two halves. The young writer, full of ambition and still making his mark on the world, loved to a degree of near-distraction by Hadley, then Fife – women who managed, despite their rivalry for the man they loved, to remain friends first and last. Then the older, booze-soaked man of letters, loved by two women whose affections don’t constrict him.

It’s really only in the final two sections, Martha’s and Mary’s stories, that Hemingway himself comes to the fore, but he does so with such force that I was left wondering whether Wood’s title was deliberately evasive all along; are his women merely vessels for his containment? Wood certainly isn’t the first to have been captivated by Papa’s story – last year saw Paul Hendrickson trace Hemingway’s life through the central object of his beloved cabin cruiser, Pilar, in Hemingway’s Boat.

So too, it’s impossible to read Mrs Hemingway without thinking of Paula McLain’s fictionalised account of Hadley and Hemingway’s relationship, The Paris Wife (2010), not least because Wood’s story takes up where McLain’s closes (a slightly unfortunate consequence of which makes Wood’s Hadley section seem like a poor man’s recap of McLain’s expansive account).

These quibbles aside, however, I don’t see our obsession with Hemingway ending anytime soon, and Mrs Hemingway is an elegantly written and movingly told addition to the ever-growing archive.