24 February 2015

Naomi Wood: Mrs Hemingway (2014)

'Mrs. Hemingway'. With a full stop. Naomi Wood is English with an MA from the UEA Creative Writing school, with a PhD to boot, and this fictional work is based on true events and archival research. The full stop is there, I think, not just because Americans still use it but also because it fits in with the use of the time, like the 1920s swimming costumes worn by Hemingway, Hadley and Pauline on the cover above.

Obviously Ernest Hemingway's work is not the central interest, in fact it's of little interest at all, merely serving as a backcloth to the five characters: Hemingway himself and the generic 'Mrs. Hemingway', who is actually four people – Hadley, née Richardson (1921–27); Pauline (here 'Fife'), née Pfeiffer (1927–40); Martha, née Gellhorn (1940–45); and Mary, née Welsh (1945–61), 1961 being the year of Hemingway's suicide.

An omniscient narrator relates the stories of the four Mrs. Hemingways, each wife being presented in order of her existence in Hemingway's life, although there is frequently a great deal of playing with different periods of time: the end may be related at the beginning of a section before backtracking, for example.

A little of Hadley's tale is told in Paris, although almost all of it takes place in Antibes, France, and it is very much a story of a threesome: not sexually (at least together, that is) but of Hadley and Fife sharing Hemingway until the very tolerant Hadley declares a one hundred day moratorium on the Fife/Hemingway relationship but concedes defeat long before and 'gives' her husband away to his lover.

Hemingway and Hadley went through some tough financial times, although life is made much easier now that one of Fife's relatives gifts them the house in Key West, Florida, where much of this section is set. But then Fife discovers that her husband's frequent trips away are due to his wanting to be with his new girlfriend Martha, a reporter who delights in writing about war.

But marriage to Martha is destined to be relatively short: sick of living in the peace of Havana, Cuba during the war, Martha makes a potentially hazardous journey to report on the war in Europe. And not too long after that Mary comes along.

Mary and Hemingway settled in Ketchum, Idaho, and Hemingway was already beginning to see himself as an old man. Certainly he had health problems, as the ever-loving Fife discovered on her visit to the couple: not just the pills in the cabinet, but the knowledge that he had had EST (ECT) therapy at a sanatorium. Hemingway had quite a family heritage to try and cope with –  mainly the suicides of his father and a brother and sister. His alcoholism obviously made matters worse, and in the end he blew his skull away.

I'm left with the impression that it can't have been easy at all being any 'Mrs. Hemingway', and even though the man may have been to some extent fighting a genetic legacy of mental illness, he comes across as egotistical, frequently callous (both to women and animals), and a braggart.

A fascinating character he may have been all the same, and an important writer too, but I find it very difficult to like him as a man. Naomi Wood has done a pretty good job here.

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