Literary Wives Series: The Starter Wife, in Paris

Three is a crowd.  This becomes abundantly clear in Paula McLain’s popular novel The Paris Wife (2011).  The fictional narrative is from Hadley Richardson Hemingway’s perspective.  She is the first (and as we learn in the end) favorite wife of American modernist author Ernest Hemingway.

Please also visit the blogs of and read the reviews of the other bloggers participating in the Literary Wives series today.

Ariel Price of One Little Library

Audra Friend of Unabridged Chick

Angela Cybulski of Persephone Writes

paris wife cover
These types of novels, the first-person narrative of somebody famous, are hard for me.  It was hard with American Wife, and it was hard with this novel.  I think it is a stretch for me to believe it, when I have the cognitive dissonance of knowing that it is fiction but also realizing that it is based on a real person and purports to be their innermost thoughts.  It requires me to suspend my disbelief, as Coleridge famously noted.  A good author can make this suspension easy.

The best part of the book, for me, was the acknowledgment of and even imitation of Hemingway’s novels and short stories.  When Hadley and Ernest visit Milan, we hear about Ernest’s first love Agnes, a nurse during World War I.  He is nostalgic for her and the time they spent in Milan together.  Hadley isn’t jealous, but what struck me most about this scene was the rain.  McLain doesn’t just mention the rain, but she weaves it through the narrative the same way that the rain is symbolic and persistent in A Farewell to Arms (1929), the Hemingway novel that portrays young American officer Frederic Henry falling in love with his nurse.

This was my second read of The Paris Wife.  I found it most enjoyable because I have read almost all of what Hemingway has written (due to a class during my Master’s degree focused on Hemingway), and seeing the fiction come to life in this narrative proved satisfying and fascinating.  The Sun Also Rises (1926) is portrayed when the Hemingways take a trip to Pamplona for the running of the bulls.  There, they hang out with a boyish woman named Duff and her two suitors.  The “real-life” experiences of Hadley and Ernest there are then turned into one of Hemingway’s most celebrated novels, with memorable character Lady Brett Ashley.

I love that The Paris Wife gives me some experiential context, however fictional, for Hemingway’s work.  Reading it with Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast (1964, posthumously) is advisable.  I picked up A Moveable Feast right after I read The Paris Wife the first time.  It was a good move.  McLain, in fact, mentions her own use of that memoir to reconstruct some of what happened in Paris and in the marriage.

Now, the marriage is what is central to the novel and what our Literary Wives series is really about.  The marriage begins wonderfully and seems like a fairy tale, but it quickly turns sour when Pauline joins the marriage as Ernest’s lover who won’t let go.  In fact, this part of the book is so startling and vivid that after reading it the first time, all I remembered about the book were the scenes involving Pauline living with them and having discreet relations with Ernest while Hadley looked on helplessly.  Reading about this happening from Hadley’s perspective is suffocating and panic-inducing.  I wanted her to scream at Pauline or make a scene or lash out and stand up in some way, but she never really does.

And that is her role throughout the book and her marriage.  She is a passive victim.  Hadley constantly reinforces the notion that her job is to suffer for his career.  She gives up her own identity to do so, canceling a planned piano concert and not complaining when she has no piano to practice on, despite the fact that it is her gift and her art.  This is one way that she sacrifices herself, but she also gives up a separate identity to do this.  This comes through in the novel in several ways, but most noticeable to me is the fact that she cuts her hair and claims to have started looking like Ernest.  She also reminds us (and Hemingway constantly reminds her) that they are alike.

This paints a portrait of a dangerous marriage, in which one partner is swallowed up into the other.  I can see the way Hadley justifies this because of Ernest’s neediness and his large personality, but she is a person too.  Yet she never really discovers that.  Maybe she does once she has married Paul Mowrer and moved on, but we don’t get to read about that in this novel.  And when things with Ernest don’t go her way, even the small things, she just shrugs and says something like “That’s how it was.”  I wanted to say back “So why not change it, Honey?”  It is as if she has no agency, but she willingly gives it up to let Ernest suck all of the oxygen from her life.

I think that is why it is so easy for him to cheat.  He has never seen Hadley as a person but instead as an object or an ornament to his own life and success.  He really doesn’t seem to understand how she feels once Pauline takes over.  He just claims that he must cheat and that he cannot fight it.  He wants both women, like a spoiled child who has never not gotten his way or learned to control his appetites and passions.  He is a terrible partner for marriage, which is why the marriage is so unbalanced and not a partnership throughout.

This lack of respect and balance is portrayed through Hadley’s role in Paris.  She is just “the wife,” like Alice B. Toklas to Gertrude Stein.  Hadley accepts this, although it does seem to bother her.  But she admits, even during their courtship, that she was willing to do a lot to keep Ernest happy, even if it meant being swallowed up and ignored.

Despite this passiveness, Hadley does come off as the hero in this narrative.  As much as I wish she hadn’t just let herself be used, she does keep saying how she did not want to hold him back, both in love and work.  It is almost as if Hadley is really responsible for the great writer that Ernest became.  She is that typical woman behind the good man.  He really wouldn’t have made it without her, but it is a shame that she had to lose herself for those years and that he rewarded her with infidelity and chucking her out like a piece of garbage.  Is that the reward good women get for being supporters?  Is that what they should expect after a short marriage’s sacrifices (of poverty, leaving home, and bearing a child) or even a lifetime of devotion to family and husband?

Is there a lesson here for women?  Maybe women shouldn’t sacrifice themselves for a man’s ambitions, for this tale gives the warning that it doesn’t satisfy and that the person you’ve done it for won’t care anyway.  I know all men aren’t like Ernest.  All marriages don’t result in adultery or divorce.  But would fewer end that way if women stopped sacrificing their very cores for the other?  Or would it require men to sacrifice more or be more willing to suffer for what women want or need?  I’m not sure of the answers to any of these questions, and I’m sure it is different in every relationship.  But the novel raises these interesting issues and asks some philosophical questions about marriage without actually articulating them.

Marriage is referred to as many things throughout.  Here are some of the interesting quotes.

“Not everyone believed in marriage then.  To marry was to say you believed in the future and in the past, too—that history and tradition and hope could stay knit together to hold you up” (p. xi).

“So your wife would take care of you?  That’s an interesting way to think about marriage” (p. 65).

“Marriage could be such deadly terrain” (p. 145).

“Happiness is so awfully complicated, but freedom isn’t.  You’re either tied down or you’re not” (p. 180).

“[H]e hasn’t a clue how hard it is to be a woman” (p. 188).

“Ernest once told me that the word paradise was a Persian word that meant ‘walled garden.’  I knew then that he understood how necessary the promises we made to each other were to our happiness.  You couldn’t have real freedom unless you knew where the walls were and tended them.  We could lean on the walls because they existed; they existed because we leaned on them” (p. 296).

“[H]ow can you really say you’ll love a person longer than love lasts?  And as for the obeying part, well, I just wouldn’t say it” (p. 305).

Now although I first referred to Pauline’s interference in the marriage as the idea that “three’s a crowd,” I suspect that the marriage was crowded in more ways than just another woman (or many other women).  Ernest was first wedded to his ambition and desire to be a great literary star.  He’s constantly reminding Hadley that she must support him and put his craft first.  This is the true downfall of the marriage, that Ernest cannot love another more than he loves his own talent.  That’s enough to crowd a marriage.

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