The Paris Wife

The first vignette in ErnestHemingway’s A Moveable Feast shows the writer feelingmelancholy as he walks through the winter “wet blackness” of theParis streets. Settling into a café instead of hiscold workroom, he establishes himself with a café au lait and loses himself alternately in his work and in thecontemplation of a pretty girl. He moves on to a couple of shots of rum, adozen oysters, and a half-carafe of white wine. He feels good and we feel goodabout the life of an artist. He decides to go to Switzerland. He returns hometo tell his wife—but, hey, what’s she been doing all this time? Waiting, itseems, for precisely what he has to offer, for she is a woman whose “smilelighted up at decisions as though they were rich presents.”

The wife of this self-centeredModernist, if that is not a tautology, was Hadley, the first of Hemingway’sfour wives, and the narrator of Paula McLain’s novel, The ParisWife. Born in 1891 in St Louis, she was the daughter of abusinessman who committed suicide and a musical, over-protective mother. A trip to Chicago to visit friendswhen she was almost thirty brought the twenty-one-year-old Hemingway into herlife. Despite her reservations about the difference in their ages, the two marriedin September, 1921 and hauled up in Paris a couple of months later.

McLaindraws a sympathetic and credible picture of Hadley, who was what you might callan old-fashioned woman—a person who understood that her role was that ofhelpmeet. The novel is completely free of editorializing, overt or covert, butat the same time it shows the predicament of a person whose entire liferevolves 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 companyof Hemingway and desperately lonely and homesick when he is off elsewhere,writing stories or reporting on some distant front. She fills her time when heis away reading, playing the piano (when there is one), eventually lookingafter their child, and yearning for a more conventional life.

Hadleyfinds that she simply doesn’t signify in this world which prizes originality inart above all. Ernest “was inside the creative sphere and I wasoutside,” she tells us. It rankles her to be treated as a nonentity whenthey visit Gertrude Stein; she is consigned to chatting with Alice B. Toklaswhile the two greater minds commune with each other. “Alice seemed to feeleasier in her role as an artist’s wife, throwing herself wholly behindGertrude’s ambition, but maybe she’d just been doing it longer and could hideher jealousy better.”

ThroughHadley we meet the stock literary figures of 1920s Paris and run through thecouple’s travels, especially to Switzerland and Spain. We visit such notoriousepisodes as Hadley’s loss of her husband’s manuscripts and the treachery of herfriend Pauline Pfeiffer in supplanting her. Hemingway’s life and adventures areso well known, however, that their familiarity gives the novel a pro formaquality. McLain’s obedience to the record and her workaday prose—reflection ofHadley’s workaday mind though it may be—do nothing to loosen things up. Even her fair-mindedness about Hemingway—a noblequality utterly absent in, say, T. C. Boyle’s depiction of Frank Lloyd Wright’smarriages  in The Women—leaves the reader hankering for a tincture ofvitriol.