It’s snowing at this side of Manchester as we make our way to the school hall around the corner from Urmston Book Shop. We’re here to listen to Naomi Wood talk about her award winning second novel Mrs Hemingway.
Because Urmston Book Shop’s Book Club have been reading the novel, Wood decides not to read from it and instead goes straight into what inspired her to write it.
It began when she was sixteen and read The Old Man and the Sea one afternoon, she says. She found it an extremely fascinating portrait of a man coming to the end of his powers. After that she started reading everything by Hemingway that she could get her hands on. She describes him as a connoisseur of the clipped and economical style, his fiction’s cold, the sentiment is buried. But his letters to his wives are completely different; they’re overflowing with emotion and sentiment, using pet names for each of the women – Wicky Poo, Lovebug, Kitty Kat, Small Friend or Picklepot. Wood says that this private side of him was neither well explored nor well illuminated so she set out to do some research.
She went to Washington D.C. to explore the archives where four decades of Hemingway documents are held. Wood considered only writing about Hadley but then saw that The Paris Wife by Paula McClain was going to be published. She then switched to a slide which said ‘Fifty Shades of Hemingway’, apparently a title recommended for the book by her editor!
She describes Hemingway as an ‘Übermensch’ who knew no bounds and then shows a short clip of him where he’s shown and described very much as a manly man, looking danger in the eye, capable of all sorts of feats. She says his public self was curated and fashioned by him and for him.
Wood then goes on to talk more about Hemingway’s wives. She describes Fife’s letters as showing her ‘like a flapper of the era’, they’re blowsy and flirty. She based the first section of the novel on a quotation from Hadley:
I told her she could stop by here if she wants – it would be a swell joke on tout le monde if you + Fife + I spent the summer at Juan-Les-Pins…
Wood thought this was weird, she couldn’t understand why a woman would make this sort of offer to the woman she knew was her husband’s mistress. She came to the conclusion that this was Hadley’s last resort; she thought it might put pressure on Hemingway and Fife. She says that people feel sorry for Hadley, that people see her as ‘the dumped farmwife’.
Fife gets harsher treatment, however. Throughout the talk, Wood discusses Hemingway’s published works. The one that stands out in relation to his wives is the short story ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’. It documents the protagonists ruin through alcoholism and has his wife portrayed as a rich bitch. It’s believed he used Fife as his inspiration.
Martha was ‘the blonde peril’. There’s only one letter from her to Hemingway but Wood describes it as ‘coquettish and flirtatious’. Martha says about them:
We were good in war and when there was no war we made our own.
Wood then plays a short clip from the 2012 film Hemingway & Gellhorn staring Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman. It’s unintentionally hilarious suggesting that war reporters’ first impulse when the hotel they’re in begins to collapse from the bombs falling on it is to shag against the wall. I suspect it’s not quite true to life somehow.
There is then a brief mention of Mary, wife number four, as Wood mentions the two year gap between them meeting and marrying, which was very different to the previous women. She says she thinks Mary was ‘testing his mettle’.
She then talks specifically about the book, telling us it’s centered around threes. For the first three sections – Hadley, Fife and Martha – the threes are Hemingway, his wife and his mistress. In Mary’s section, the mistress is alcohol which Wood describes as ‘a far more demanding mistress than any of the others’.
Before she takes questions from the audience, Wood has two treats for us. One is a song written about the plane crashes Mary and Hemingway survived in 1954. When a journalist asked Hemingway how he survived, he replied:
I had a bunch of bananas and a bottle of gin.
So the chorus of the song goes:
I got a bunch of bananas and a bottle of gin
They keep the hunger out and the happiness in
I got a bunch of bananas and a bottle of gin
My luck she is running very good
It’s as bonkers as it sounds.
The second is a short clip of Hemingway at the bullfighting, at the end of which, he turns and winks at the camera. Wood comments that he can’t have been monstrous all of the time and in that short clip you get a sense of what it must have been like ‘to be in the beam of his love’.
Wood then takes questions from the audience:
Is there any evidence for him striking Mary?
Yes. In her memoir she says he cuffed her on the chin. Wood says she took Mary’s recollection to be truthful.
Did you write the novel chronologically?
Yes. She says she did quite a lot of research before she began writing. She wanted to be a little in the dark about each wife/what the mistress was like, to put herself in each of their positions. She spent six months per wife writing and then a year editing.
She goes on to say that the structure of the novel was easy. She doesn’t find writing easy, she says, but the structure did come easy. She knew she wanted to begin at the end of each relationship and flash back to earlier moments.
Mary broke the mould. History kept repeating. What are you thoughts on why that was?
She says that if you were writing fiction you’d never write a story in the way Hemingway’s life went. It’s too repetitive. She puts this down to human psychology, making the same mistakes over and over again.
What the hell was the attraction of Ernest Hemingway?
He was witty and charming and generous and seductive. He knew how to party and he was the centre of the party. He curated his life as if he lived in The Sun Also Rises. What an amazing life!
She goes on to say he was decadent, glamorous, crazy and mad but also a lot of fun. When he met Hadley who at 28 was considered to be a spinster, he said let’s move to Paris!
She thinks Martha’s marriage to him was a mistake she regretted. She describes him as ‘a very bad man!’, then mentions that Hadley found a great companion and steadfastness in her second husband but he was a bit dull. She also mentions that Hadley became a mistress herself for a time, her second husband, the journalist Paul Mowrer was married when they met.
He was extremely accident prone, was this to do with his alcoholism?
Wood says he was accident prone before the alcoholism and suggests it was a consequence of him seeking out dangerous situations along with his huge capacity to party and drink and to crave that massive high. She says it was probably him being drunk too much and not being careful. Not quite aware of his own body or strength.
Do you have a favourite wife?
It’s controversial, she says, and more to do with the way history has treated her, but it’s Pauline Pfeiffer. She’s portrayed as ‘a snake in the grass’, ‘a devil in Dior’ in A Moveable Feast but died prematurely in her 50s and never got to tell her side of the story.
‘There were three people in that marriage, to echo Princess Diana,’ Wood says. Fife behaved badly but so did Hadley. Hemingway never admitted to his part. She feels sorry for her; she always kept a flame for Hemingway.
Can you tell us more about the myth of Hemingway?
He was seen as superhuman. There were myths and lies created and he tended to confirm them by not refuting them. When he returned from World War I, a reporter made up that Hemingway was in a tribe of Italian knife throwing, warrior bandits. There were others too: he knocked out a famous boxer; he fought a bull when the matador was knocked out. Wood likens him to Marilyn Monroe.
How do you feel about the Hemingway Estate?
Wood mentions a couple of times during the evening that the Hemingway Estate refused her permission to quote from the letters in her novel. She says that earlier drafts contained quotations and she had to paraphrase them. She says she’s glad they didn’t give permission now as the novel is 100% her own words. She says she has complete sympathy with them, as they have no control over a published work of fiction and they were well within their rights to say no.
Has she been influenced by Hemingway’s writing style?
She says they’re very different; he’s very restrained and she’s ‘quite happy in the territory of emotion’. She says she did take inspiration from words he liked to use, like ‘fresh’, and from the women and their letters but she thought if she did ‘cod Hemingway’ she’d be criticised.
Was he a good father?
That’s a difficult question, she says. It was a different time and fathers and sons probably had more distance from each other. He was extremely fond of Jack Bumby and Patrick, Fife’s eldest. Gregory, Fife’s youngest, published a slim memoir called Papa which is very generous and quite moving. Hemingway blamed Gregory for Fife’s death as they’d fought over Gregory the night before she died. Gregory had been found wearing women’s clothing. Hemingway said, ‘He has the dark secret we all have.’ They had a terrible relationship after this and Gregory went on to train as a physician so he could disprove Hemingway’s theory that he caused Fife’s death.
How was his relationship with his mother?
She had a strong personality. In his early childhood, she pretended Hemingway and his older sister were twins and dressed them in dresses. His dad was under the thumb and Hemingway blamed his father’s suicide on his mother’s tyranny. By 1929 their relationship was fractious and difficult. She was needy and conservative. His mother used a metaphor of love and banking to talk about their relationship, saying that he was overdrawn on love and in debt to me. It’s interesting that he married mothering women.
It was a fantastic evening. I read Mrs Hemingway last summer and intended to post my review when the paperback was published but after the event, I’ve decided I want to re-read it before I put my review up having learned so much more about the background to the book.