Talking Mrs Hemingway with Naomi Wood
When I ask Naomi Wood what Ernest Hemingway would make of her new novel, Mrs Hemingway, quick as a flash she replies: “Oh my! He would be a) rolling in his grave and then b) he’d grab his shotgun and come and hunt me down. Oh yes, he would have absolutely hated it.”
But although the great man himself might not welcome this fictional representation of his life and loves, Wood’s preoccupation is not with Ernest’s story. This is the story of his four wives: Hadley, Fife, Martha and Mary.
Her starting point was reading some of Hemingway’s letters. Having read his fiction as a teenager and knowing a fair amount about the man, “the myth, the legend, the sort of ‘he-man’, game hunter explorer, fisherman, womanizer type figure,” she found his letters to his wives were not what she expected. “To all four of them,” she explains, “they were full of baby-talk, just treacley with, phrases like, “Hi my little waxen kitten, from your little feather dog,” and I just found it so interesting that he was able to be like this with his wives and yet such an uber-masculine figure for the rest of the time.” From the letters, Wood turned to Bernice Kert’s biography, The Hemingway Women and from there came the idea – that it would be fascinating to read their story “not factually, but through fiction, with the whole emotional freight that was involved in this sort of carousel of wives and mistresses.”
The novel that resulted is tension-filled, intricately structured and enormously entertaining. Each wife tells their own stories loving and losing (or leaving) Ernest and each has their own distinct voice.
Hadley Richardson and Ernest Hemingway were married from 1921 until 1927. In the biographies Wood read when researching the novel, Hadley kept appearing to as a rather passive character. “She doesn’t do much,” says Wood of Hadley. “There are lots of taped interviews with her on The Hemingway Project – it’s a blog – and you can hear what Hadley says about what happened. She even describes herself as ‘very flaccid’… So writing her was interesting because I wanted to show that side of her but I also wanted to show a bit of backbone, a bit of spine, because otherwise I thought it would be very difficult to empathize with her.”
Hadley’s strengths and weaknesses have already been debated by fans of the highly successful novel, The Paris Wife and Naomi Wood remembers very clearly when she first found out that a book potentially so similar to her own had just been published.
“A section of the novel was submitted as part of a doctorate for a critical and creative writing PhD,” she recalls. “And I got some funding to go to Washington to do some research in the Library of Congress. I remember looking up Hadley Richardson in the catalogue and seeing this book. I’d had an inkling, of it before but I didn’t realize it was coming out so soon and so I was quite nervous. I thought, ‘oh no. Someone’s written the same book.’ And so I bought it but I didn’t read it at first because I thought, well, I’m just going to finish this project. I think I was six months in. I’d started and I meant to go on.
But when I did read it, I realized it was actually fine. I was looking at all four wives and by their nature the two stories are quite different. The Paris Wife really sticks to historical facts and because it only takes place over six years or so, there’s a lot more information in there. Whereas mine has this cascade of different wives and mistresses. It’s necessarily a bit more squashed up in time. It’s a week in 1961, or a day in 1926. So yes, The Paris Wife was nerve-wracking at first but then after I read it and enjoyed it, I had the confidence to carry on and do all four wives and for it to be different and still valid.”
In fact readers of The Paris Wife will welcome Mrs Hemingway, not least for Wood’s portrait of the other woman in Paula McLain’s novel, Mrs Hemingway number two, Pauline Pfeiffer, someone Wood speaks of enthusiastically.
“I really empathized with Fife – with Pauline Pfeiffer – because of many things. In terms of her representation in A Moveable Feast, she is ‘the rich’ who has come to infiltrate this perfect couple. I think she is often seen as a real aggressor, the devil in Dior who moves in on the marriage. Yes, she did act very badly but I think she also gets an exceptionally rotten deal and was never able to either write about her experiences or sort of fight back after A Moveable Feast. She also died at the age of 56 – she was the only wife not to outlive him – and I think she paid a huge cost for that in terms of not being able to give her own representation of the story. So it might sound a bit pretentious, but it felt kind of important to write her side of the story because in A Moveable Feast and The Paris Wife you do get the idea of her as the antagonist. But she was a woman with her own set of problems and issues. She was deeply in love with him and then he ditched her for a gorgeous blond 28 year old – which I think would feel awful to any woman.”
The blond in question was the war journalist, Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway’s wife from 1940 to 1945 and the only one of Hemingway’s wives who can claim to have been famous for more than being Mrs Hemingway. Comparing writing about Fife and Martha, Wood reflects, “Martha was tricky because there is just a huge amount written on her. With Fife was there was less, so there was more space for my imagination to sort of conjure up, or more licence to go away from the story and imagine what would be her position. Martha was tricky because obviously she’s a writer in her own right. She published all this fiction, all these letters – there are a couple of biographies about her – so finding a space away from all these primary and secondary sources was hard, but enormous fun because she’s the one that gets rid of him and rejects him. She’s much more identifiable to a 21st century woman.”
Last but not least, there is Mary Hemingway, the last wife, who divorced her first husband in 1945 to marry Hemingway in 1946 in Cuba. They remained married until his death in 1961 and Wood’s depiction of Mary’s struggle to come to terms with the manner of her husband’s death form some of the most moving scenes in the novel. “In terms of writing,” says Wood, “Mary was perhaps the easiest, the last one, just because writing her side of the story meant that a lot of our negative feelings towards him could be re-calibrated by her grief. So we saw he did all these things but we also saw that he paid the largest cost.”
And it is this underlying affection and admiration for Ernest Hemingway that wins out when I ask Wood to suggest one book by or about Hemingway that she would recommend to readers of Mrs Hemingway.
“One? Okay that’s difficult. I think I’ll just go for my favourite, The Old Man and the Sea. I think when you read that and you know a bit about the biographical information, it completely enriches the text. It was published in 1951 and it’s about an old man whose hand cramps and he can’t reel in the fish. That hand is a metaphor for handwriting. You realize it’s about Hemingway thinking he could no longer write and then he manages to catch the fish and then it’s savaged by the sharks so when you realize the biographical parallel to the novel I think its completely devastating. Especially knowing that he didn’t publish anything more until his death a decade later. There was nothing more. Norman Mailer said something about Hemingway carrying enough anxiety to suffocate an ox. I feel it’s a great way into Hemingway. If you want to know about the biographical stuff, the sort of 1920’s Anglo-American writing scene in Paris in the 1920’s, people should read A Moveable Feast. But The Old Man and the Sea for his fiction.”
Naomi Wood is a member of the Historical Novel Society. Mrs Hemingway is her second novel.