I have variable luck with fiction that is based on real lives and can think of some recent notable failures. There's something about feeling a little duped, especially if it's a life I don't know well and the author takes liberties in going off on a frolic of their own with events which never happened, and then I get completely confused and frustrated over the blurred boundaries between fiction and fact. If I know the life well it can be even worse.
The Paris Wife by Paula McClain arrived in proof copy from Virago months ago and I had reluctantly set it to one side to read nearer to the March publication date. I say reluctantly because it came in a really unusual and very appealing proof edition, a facsimile of an aged and well-read book with a couple of postcards inside, but I still had my reservations...
'Hadley Richardson is a quiet twenty-eight year old who has all but given up on love and happiness, until she meets Ernest Hemingway...'
So a fictional account of that doomed marriage and a Big Scary Male Author to boot. A double whammy in that case because I have some Ernest Hemingway reading in my sights this year too, having always been slightly put off by everyone's else's apparent distaste for a man that many seem to regard as brutish and unpleasant.
It takes me back to the debate about reading authors we have reason to dislike as people, do we read them unfettered by prejudice or do we bring along the baggage?
Can we and should we overlook personal flaws in order to appreciate the writing or are we too influenced by what we know about them?
So I picked up The Paris Wife with some trepidation having only the mere basics about Hemingway's life in place, along the lines of several marriages, not shy of a bit of hunting, shooting, fishing and killing before turning the gun on himself... very basic knowledge indeed, so I hardly needed to fill the gaps with fiction before I know the reality. I turned to the acknowledgements at the back first, just to reassure myself that there might be some factual references and to my delight there were plenty, along with a big reassurance from Paula McClain
'It was important for me to render the particulars of their lives as accurately as possible, and to follow the very well documented historical record. The true story of the Hemingway's marriage is so dramatic and compelling, and has been so beautifully treated by Ernest Hemingway himself, in A Moveable Feast, that my intention became to push deeper into the emotional lives of the characters and bring new insights to historical events, while staying faithful to the facts.'
There follows a detailed selection of other books as well as references to the correspondence between Hadley and Ernest, and Hemingway's original manuscripts all sufficient to allay any fears about being fictionally duped and so I proceeded with confidence.
There be spoilers here because I am assuming you all know the background but The Paris Wife is told through Hadley's first person narrative. Having lived a sheltered, stunted life with low expectations and the grief of a father who has committed suicide by shooting himself, Hadley carries an inherited kernel of anxiety that is buried deep within when she meets and falls in love with the young, unknown writer Ernest Hemingway. Somehow you know that kernel of anxiety sits there unbidden, barely concealed and will eventually surface, but the mere knowledge of its existence offered a useful tool for this reader, a way of interpreting the real anguish of what happens to Hadley versus the painted-on smile at which she is so adept.
In the early days Hadley seems able to cope with all Ernest's flaws, of which there are plenty. Shell-shocked and traumatised by the First World War, Ernest is portrayed as selfish and egocentric, almost child-like in his need for comfort and security, and most essentially for the couple's shared world to revolve around him. Yet he can be charismatic in company, one of those big people who take up all the air in the room, and there are moments when Ernest's brilliance and boyish charm shine through, seemingly dissipating all those flaws as the couple move from America to settle in Paris in order for Ernest to make his name as a writer.
Moving effortlessly into the Parisian cafe culture that would include Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and a passing acquaintance with Picasso, whilst regularly holidaying in Switzerland but living on greatly reduced finances by comparison to their friends, Hadley holds the marriage together with her devotion to Ernest's cause. Slowly the cracks start to appear, and nowhere more vividly than one horrific moment, brilliantly described by Paula McClain, when Hadley is travelling to meet Ernest and decides at the last minute to take all his manuscripts with her so that he can work on them, perhaps get some published. I think I felt as sick and panicky as Hadley at that moment when she discovers, to her complete horror, that they have been stolen on the train, and equally fearful at arriving at the destination where Ernest would meet Hadley and I off said train and we were going to have to tell him....I'm afraid I hot-footed off to the Ladies to powder my nose and left Hadley to it.
The defining moment when those cracks become a yawning chasm is Hadley's discovery that she is pregnant, and by this time I knew Ernest well enough to know that he wasn't going to be dashing off to Mothercare for babygros and making a start on decorating the nursery. Ernest is the needy, demanding child in this marriage...
'He loved and needed praise. He loved and needed to be loved, and even adored.'
Even as I read of the incongruity of Hadley sitting watching a gruesome bullfight whilst stitching a baby blanket, it's clear no amount of pandering to his whims is going to bring Ernest around. There won't be room for two children and with Ernest's threat systems in overload, Hadley allows him to retreat from her and write (still with little sucess) whilst she literally bears the brunt. As the baby, nicknamed Bumby, makes his presence felt, Hadley valiantly clings to her slowly dissolving essence of self in the face of Ernest's infidelity. The moments of happiness become increasingly fleeting and it is Ernest's slightly unreal insistence that his lover should become a part of the family, living happily ever after as a menage a trois, that finally crumbles the seriously depleted and disempowered Hadley's devotion to shreds. It's more the disturbing nature of Ernest's belief that Hadley, so biddable and controlled and still so in love with him, would actually agree to this and I found myself heaving a huge sigh on her behalf. That moment when 'easier to stay' is transformed into 'essential to leave.'
Hadley's voice throughout is beguilingly simple and easy-going, it's impossible not to warm to her yet somehow nor does Paula McClain cross the perilously tempting divide and villify Ernest, and that must have been seriously difficult not to do. Such authorial restraint offers up an engrossing read, especially for me with so little knowledge of the detail, a refined and beautifully balanced fictional account of a famous marriage and its route to breakdown, and I suspect there will be resurgence of interest in Ernest Hemingway's books from people like me who now definitely want to read more.