Great idea for a book! Is Ernest Hemingway a long standing passion of yours?
A small obsession, yes! It all began when I read The Old Man and the Sea, finishing it that afternoon in quite a state of tears! I then went back and read the books he published in his twenties and thirties, and became a fan of his tough, taciturn writing style. But it was in the letters to his four wives that the idea began to develop. They were so different in tone from his fiction, buzzing with warmth and sentiment. He called them ‘Picklepot’ and ‘feather cat’ and his own nickname was ‘little wax puppy’. Extremely different compared to his macho, hard-edged fiction.
He does seem to have been fatally attractive to women, despite his lack of money. What was the nature of that attraction?
I think he was one of life’s charmers. As I hope I show in the book, he could be vile when drunk and difficult when sober; he was a changeable, volatile person who blew hot and cold, but I think he was always seductive because of his energy for life: skiing, boxing, fishing, bullfighting, and he had a brilliant record of throwing the most enormous parties.
Which of the four wives is your favourite?
I don’t really have a favourite, but writing Pauline Pfeiffer’s part in Mrs. Hemingway felt particularly important. Because she didn’t outlive her husband, she never got to tell her side of the story. Hadley talked to a biographer, Martha wasn’t interested, and Mary wrote a memoir. Fife was captured as a kind of devil in Dior figure by Hemingway in A Moveable Feast, saying she played ‘the oldest trick there is’ in stealing a husband from an impressionable young wife. I think the true story behind that sentence was considerably more complex than Hemingway suggests.
To modern eyes, Hemingway’s women seem very submissive; they are prepared to tolerate infidelity and make endless allowances for him. And yet they are all strong and intelligent and very sophisticated. So why the submission?
I agree, and writing about this submission often sat uncomfortably with me. Hadley, Pauline and Mary were often willing to turn a blind eye to Ernest’s infidelities in order to keep their marriage alive. It was perhaps a sign of their times – they didn’t have as many available options as we do now. I think their submission was learned but it was also part of the mixture; they confronted him about his affairs, and demanded that they end, and when they didn’t his wives stayed anyway. Don’t we do strange things for the people