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Better novelist than husband

04 January 2013

Peter Anthony enjoys The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

Ambitious: Ernest Hemingway in his pass­port photo from 1923  

Ambitious: Ernest Hemingway in his pass­port photo from 1923  

THIS novel, The Paris Wife, brings to light the astonishing story of a figure whom it would otherwise be easy to overlook. It recounts the heart-breaking tale of Hadley Richardson's experience as Ernest Hemingway's first wife, living in the Paris of the 1920s.

The title of the book neatly expresses something of the way in which historians have all too often categorised her simply as the first in a seemingly hopeless string of women to marry and then be cast aside by the ruggedly alluring Hemingway.

Paula McLain's great achievement is to give us a new lens through which to examine this story. Hadley ceases to be a footnote in someone else's biography, and is given a voice in her own right, in a way that reveals the callous shadow-side to Hemingway's genius, and the monstrous scale of his uncompromising ambition.

The story that Hadley tells begins in the American Midwest. She, a gauche 28-year-old, who had largely given up on the prospect of marriage, meets the younger, dashing Hemingway, freshly returned from the war. He seems to be everything that she needs and yearns for.

Yet the confidence and flare that she finds so exhilarating in Hemingway is fuelled by a ruthless ambition. Time and time again, through the novel, he will turn on those who have supported him, betray those closest to him, and heartlessly abandon anyone with the potential to be a rival. It becomes clear that the only moral absolute in his life is the appetite of his own ego.

The couple marry, and move to Paris at the height of the Jazz Age. They rub shoulders with a glittering array of artists, critics, and writers, all partying their way wildly through life in a haze of drink, sex, and absinthe. Hemingway's career gradually begins to take off, and his talent is recognised by publishers and his artistic peers.

It is surprisingly late in the novel that the figure of Pauline Pfeiffer emerges. She is the woman who will eventually have the affair with Hemingway that causes the break-up of his marriage. The strains in his relationship with Hadley are apparent early on, however - not least in his ambivalence at the unexpected arrival of a son. The last few chapters chronicle the helpless anguish that Hadley experiences, as she gradually realises that she is losing Hemingway, but cannot face the sexually open marriage that he wants.

At the heart of this book lies a series of questions about artistic genius, creativity, and ambition. It is difficult to come away from the narrative with anything other than a low view of Hemingway. The image he cultivates of himself as the heroic, creative adventurer is shown to be a crude sham, and a ridiculous parody of male machismo.

He is plagued by jealousy, fear, and envy, and is inveterately unable to sustain relationships, because of his selfishness. Hadley shows us what the emotional cost of great creativity can be. The flip side of Hemingway's extraordinary literary talent could, at times, be an appalling callousness that stemmed from an inability to connect with the feelings of those around him.

It is clear that The Paris Wife is not just about the evocation of two individuals, but also about the evocation of an age. Hadley's and Hemingway's story is inextricably linked to the remarkable period they lived through in 1920s Paris, and the people they lived it with.

Yet Hadley embodies a combination of instincts that are modern and traditional at the same time. The Parisian set in which she moves challenge all the established sexual mores of their day; yet she ultimately realises that she is not suited to the arrangement that her husband eventually proposes, in which he would be allowed to keep a lover. For all his much-flaunted modernity, Hemingway displays some loathsomely unenlightened expectations of his wife as far as tolerance of his philandering is concerned.

One of the most striking distinctions that we encounter throughout this novel is the increasing contrast between the honest simplicity and openness to love that is the root of Hadley's true nobility, and the phoney gesturing and insecure braggadocio that gradually consumes Hemingway.

At the beginning, they seem to complement each other, but, by the end, we are left in no doubt whom McLain considers ultimately to have lived a life more in touch with reality - more fruitful, creative, and loving. Although Hadley married again, and returned to relative obscurity, the tragic suicide that ended Hemingway's life years later points to a nihilistic kernel at the heart of his genius which it is difficult to envy.

The Revd Peter Anthony is Junior Dean of St Stephen's House, Oxford, and Junior Chaplain of Merton College, Oxford.

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain is published by Virago at £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20); 978-1-84408-668-9. 


What did you know about Ernest Hemingway before you read this book? Had you read any of his work? Are you more, or less, likely to do so, having read this book?

How would you describe Hemingway's character? Do you like him as he is depicted in the book?

How different from the life she led as an adult was Hadley's upbringing? Do you think that she had been prepared for her adult life?

If Paris were a person, how do you think Hadley would have described it?

"Was it love?" What answer does Hadley find to this question?

"He had writing the way other people had religion." What does Hadley mean by this?

Why was Hemingway so against the idea of children?

In an interview, Paula McLain says: "Although to many Hadley might simply appear to be Hemingway's 'Paris wife' . . . [she] was actually fundamental to the rest of his life and career. He couldn't have become the writer we know now without her influence." How does McLain show this influence?

IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 7 February, we will print extra information about the next book. This is Christ in the Wilderness by Stephen Cottrell. It is published by SPCK at £9.99 (CT Bookshop £9); 978-0-281-06208-9.

Author notes

Stephen Cottrell was born in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, in 1958. After a slow academic start, he took A levels at a girls' school, before going to the Polytechnic of Central London to study film and media. He was ordained priest in 1984, and served his title in Forest Hill, before taking up other posts in Chichester, Wakefield, and Peterborough dioceses. In 2004, he was appointed Bishop of Reading. In 2010, he was translated to Chelmsford.

He is married to Rebecca, a potter; they have three sons, and a dog. His interests include cooking, reading, music, and following Southend United FC. He has written other books, including the Archbishop of Canterbury's Lent Book for 2004, I Thirst (Zondervan); Do Nothing to Change Your Life (2007); The Things He Said (2009); How to Pray (2010); The Nail (2011); and a book of stories for children, The Adventures of Naughty Nora (2008).

Book notes

Stanley Spencer planned a set of 40 paintings for Holy Trinity, Cookham, in Berkshire, as a Lenten meditation. He completed only eight; they captivated Stephen Cottrell when he first saw them displayed in an exhibition at the Barbican in 1991. His book Christ in the Wilderness, named after the paintings, takes five of them, and uses the images as a starting-point for reflection. He shares more than 20 years' worth of his own thoughts triggered by the paintings, and offers insights into the life of discipleship required of those who follow Christ. 

Books for the next two months:
March: Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the conquest of Everest by Wade Davis
April: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

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