The Paris Wife

The first vignette in Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast shows the writer feeling melancholy as he walks through the winter "wet blackness" of the Paris streets. Settling into a café instead of his cold workroom, he establishes himself with a café au lait and loses himself alternately in his work and in the contemplation of a pretty girl. He moves on to a couple of shots of rum, a dozen oysters, and a half-carafe of white wine. He feels good and we feel good about the life of an artist. He decides to go to Switzerland. He returns home to tell his wife—but, hey, what's she been doing all this time? Waiting, it seems, for precisely what he has to offer, for she is a woman whose "smile lighted up at decisions as though they were rich presents."


The wife of this self-centered Modernist, if that is not a tautology, was Hadley, the first of Hemingway's four wives, and the narrator of Paula McLain's novel, The Paris Wife. Born in 1891 in St Louis, she was the daughter of a businessman who committed suicide and a musical, over-protective mother. A trip to Chicago to visit friends when she was almost thirty brought the twenty-one-year-old Hemingway into her life. Despite her reservations about the difference in their ages, the two married in September, 1921 and hauled up in Paris a couple of months later.


McLain draws a sympathetic and credible picture of Hadley, who was what you might call an old-fashioned woman—a person who understood that her role was that of helpmeet. The novel is completely free of editorializing, overt or covert, but at the same time it shows the predicament of a person whose entire life revolves around a man who believes that his work has the greatest priority—and, by extension, himself as its source. McLain's Hadley is only happy in the company of Hemingway and desperately lonely and homesick when he is off elsewhere, writing stories or reporting on some distant front. She fills her time when he is away reading, playing the piano (when there is one), eventually looking after their child, and yearning for a more conventional life.


Hadley finds that she simply doesn't signify in this world which prizes originality in art above all. Ernest "was inside the creative sphere and I was outside," she tells us. It rankles her to be treated as a nonentity when they visit Gertrude Stein; she is consigned to chatting with Alice B. Toklas while the two greater minds commune with each other. "Alice seemed to feel easier in her role as an artist's wife, throwing herself wholly behind Gertrude's ambition, but maybe she'd just been doing it longer and could hide her jealousy better."


Through Hadley we meet the stock literary figures of 1920s Paris and run through the couple's travels, especially to Switzerland and Spain. We visit such notorious episodes as Hadley's loss of her husband's manuscripts and the treachery of her friend Pauline Pfeiffer in supplanting her. Hemingway's life and adventures are so well known, however, that their familiarity gives the novel a pro forma quality. McLain's obedience to the record and her workaday prose—reflection of Hadley's workaday mind though it may be—do nothing to loosen things up. Even her fair-mindedness about Hemingway—a noble quality utterly absent in, say, T. C. Boyle's depiction of Frank Lloyd Wright's marriages  in The Women—leaves the reader hankering for a tincture of vitriol.

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