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Extract: Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood



“In the dazzling summer of 1926, Ernest Hemingway and his wife Hadley travel from their home in Paris to a villa in the south of France.  They swim, play bridge and drink gin.  But wherever they go they are accompanied by the glamorous and irrepressible Fife.  Fife is Hadley’s best friend.  She is also Ernest’s lover.

Hadley is the first Mrs Hemingway, but neither she nor Fife will be the last.  Over the ensuing decades, Ernest’s literary career will blaze a trail, but his marriages will be ignited by passion and deceit.  Four extraordinary women will learn what it means to love the most famous writer of his generation, and each will be forced to ask herself how far she will go to remain his wife …”

About the Author

Naomi Wood is a writer based in London, England. She grew up in Yorkshire, but at the age of eight, her parents announced that they were moving to Hong Kong.  They had never been to China before.  In fact, none of them had ever been to Asia!  They lived in Hong Kong for ten years until Naomi moved back to the UK to study English Literature at the University of Cambridge.
After a short stint working for Random House, Naomi studied for the Masters in Creative Writing at UEA, where she wrote her first novel, The Godless Boys. This was published in the UK (Picador) and Norway (Font) in 2011.  The film option to The Godless Boys has been sold, and Naomi has been lucky enough to work with some wonderful people on the screenplay.
Naomi stayed on at UEA for a fully-funded PhD: this was where Mrs. Hemingway was born. Research took her as far afield as Chicago, Boston, Key West, Cuba, Antibes and Paris.  She also spent time as a fully-funded resident scholar at the Library of Congress in Washington DC, and was the British Library’s 2012 Eccles Centre Writer in Resident.
She is very proud to teach Creative Writing at Goldsmiths University and is the judge of the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum Short-Story Award.

Would you like to know more about Mrs Hemingway?

Read on for an exclusive extract that I have been authorised to publish thanks to Di at Pan Macmillan!

Chapter 12. Antibes, France.  June 1926

    They arrive at the party later than they would have liked; Scott is already very drunk, as is Zelda.  They greet everyone to reassuring murmurings:  they are so pleased Bumby is through the coqueluche, what a strong boy he is, etcetera.  Their friends say how much they have missed them, but they look tanned and golden, and Hadley suspects this might not be quite the truth.  Dinner has already been eaten: claws and shells are the leftovers of a bouillabaisse.  Sara and Gerald’s kids are evidently still closeted away, just in case the infection has been carried on the Hemingways’ coattails.
    Fife is nowhere to be seen.
    “We had to eat with the kids before they went to bed,” Sara says.  “You have already eaten, haven’t you?”
    Ernest says yes, even though they haven’t.  Hadley gives her husband a look, which is meant to say: I’m starving, even if you aren’t.  This performance shouldn’t be done on an empty stomach.
    Sara wears so many pearls she looks positively bandaged.  Most people – and most of the people here – prefer Sara to her husband, but Hadley has always preferred Gerald.  Ernest thinks him a poseur, but it’s precisely this that appeals to her.  Both she and Gerald seem miscast for their roles, while the others are pitch-perfect, delivering their lines pat.  He is a mortal, like her, among the gods.
    It had been Gerald who had laughed warmly when Hadley, at a café session in Paris, had gaily declared Ernest to be the first American killed in Italy.  “Amazing news that the man himself lives and breathes next to you, eh, Hash?”  She realized her mistake and blushed.  “Wounded,” she’d said quietly.  “I meant wounded.”  She caught Sara giving Fife one of those looks.  But she was thankful it was Gerald who had been on hand to deliver the gentler riposte.

Everybody is sitting around the table under the linden tree looking relaxed and handsome as spring.  “It’s so good to see you two,” Sara says.  “Have you been awfully pent up?”
    “It’s good to be out,” Hadley says in her best attempt at neutrality.
    “And Bumby’s completely out of it?”
    “It’s all out of him, thank God.  He was just too tired to come.”  Hadley wonders why Ernest had to lie about dinner.  Her eyes travel the empty bowls; there’s a bread roll left at Scott’s place.
    “Well that’s just wonderful.  I can’t wait to be all together again.”  Sara squeezes her hand and looks at Hadley, mother to mother.  She has an intense stare made more so by her bangs that come just short of the brows.  She is a handsome woman, though not like Zelda or Fife.  She isn’t skinny; could not slip, eel-like, into tiny dresses or bathing suits.
    “Fantastic news, eh, Hash?”  Gerald emerges from the house with a tray of drinks.  Framed by the black satin sofas, white walls, and the vast vases of Sara’s peonies, he could be emerging from a Hollywood set.  He could play a leading man, were it not for the creep of baldness.  “Cocktails!” he announces, and, as if on cue, he nearly trips on the step down from the house.
    “Do be careful!” Sara says but giggles.  She is never mean to her husband.

    The wind carries the smell of the citrus orchard from the bottom of the garden.  Heliotrope and mimosa flower by the gravel paths.  Gerald puts down the tray of drinks and cookies with a flourish.  Ernest looks embarrassed and barricades himself between Hadley and Sara.  Gerald kisses Hadley near the lips and Scott goes for another glass.
    “What number is that?” Sara asks.
    “I haven’t drunk a thing all night.”
    “Minus the aperitif before dinner.”
    “And the bottle of wine during it,” Gerald says as he passes drinks around the table.
    “So tell me, dearest Hadern,” Scott says, with the moniker only he uses for her.  “What have you been occupying yourself with?”
    The table turns to look at her.  “Oh, you know.  Reading. Writing endless telegrams to my absent husband.  Looking after Bumby, mostly.”
    “She is a doting mother,” Ernest says, looking at her proudly, but then his eyes flit upward toward the house as if he has been, in a moment, transfixed.
    Fife walks from the house smoking a cigarette.  A vest plunges from her shoulders.  Her skirt is made of black feathers, layer upon layer from the waist, and it resembles the closed wings of a swan.  Their spines click against each other as she moves, her feet making no sound, as if she really did advance like a bird of prey under the lounge’s electric lamps.  When Hadley turns back she notices her husband is entranced, as if only he has had the wherewithal to spot this goose no one else has thought to shoot.
    “Darling dress, isn’t it?” Sara asks, with a plump wink for Hadley who feels dumbfounded, ambushed. What can an old serge frock do next to this bird’s plumage?  Scott offers her a cigarette as if in consolation. She tries to recompose her features.  It’s just a dress.  Only a dress.  And Ernest has always hated women who care too much for their appearance.
    Fife sits down with a broad smile.  “Hello, chaps,” she says.  Her marcelled hair looks immovable.  She must have spent all afternoon getting ready after the abandoned game of bridge.  “Have I missed anything?”
    Tears feel like they will breach Hadley’s eyes with nothing more than a blink.  How can no one else see how schlocky and cheap is this show of feathers and skin?
    Hadley tries to join in on the conversation at the table: Sara still seems to be berating Scott but now it’s for his profligacy rather than his drinking.  “Surely you’re rich by now, darling?”
    “Not as rich as you.  I don’t think any of us can get to that dizzying height.”
    “I heard your last book’s advance was so big you’ve had to drink vats of champagne to get rid of it.”  Sara plays with the length of her pearls and puts them for a moment in her mouth.  “Dearest, I’m only teasing you. Besides, it’s old Hemingstein who’s going to have to worry about this soon.”  Sara drapes her arms around Ernest’s neck and kisses him on the cheek.  Storm clouds gather on Scott’s face.  He’d rather be teased than ignored.
    “Do you think so, Sara?” asks Ernest like an ingénue.
    “You’ll have girls walking around Paris talking like Brett Ashley in no time.”
    “What are you talking about?”
    “Talking?  Isn’t talking simply bilge?  Doesn’t Brett say that?  Did you steal that from me?”
    “Certainly not.”
    “The Sun is going to make you a star, Ernest.”
    “Of course it is,” Hadley says, looking over at her husband.  “It’s the best thing he’s ever done.  And he’s worked so hard at it.”
    No one speaks.  Ah yes, she has forgotten that success should come effortlessly or not at all.  It’s always got to be playtime.  Cocktail hour.  As if life were always a mooning adolescence or always blindingly fun. Hard work was for other people.  “I mean that it will be the great success we’ve been waiting for.”  There, Hadley thinks, half-saved.
    Fife’s feathers lift and fall in the breeze.
    “Wonderful title,” Sara says.
    “The Bible gives and gives, as my mother would say.”
    “And what does the Bible give, may I ask, aside from the obvious?”  A man has come up the gravel path from the direction of the sea.  He comes with a basket of fruit and a bottle of perspiring wine, like a figure from a Greek myth.  “Spiritual nourishment, the standard homilies, rolling papers for cigarettes?”

    The man looks to be in his late twenties, with short brown hair and a neat little mustache that does its bit to hide a large mouth.  A generous mouth.  Hadley thinks, though perhaps too full for a man.  “Harry, my dear!” Sara says, rising.  “We thought you were staying in Juan tonight?”
    “Oh no.  It’s positively malarial there this evening.  I haven’t ambushed the party, have I?”  Harry is handsome, though his eyes make Hadley think of the empty stare of geckos when they sun themselves at the top of the day.
    “But darling, we’ve eaten everything!  There’s nothing left.  The kids were ravenous from being in the sea all day.”  Hadley notices, as the man comes over to the table, that each step has a neat girlish bounce.  She can see Ernest grimace – he has never been one for queers.
    Harry places the basket on the table and Hadley eyes her supper in a couple of apples.  She notices his fingernails are very neat.  He kisses Scott and Zelda but shakes Gerald’s hand.  “You have met the Hemingways, haven’t you, dear?”
    “No,” he says, “I haven’t yet had the pleasure.”
    “Harry Cuzzemano, this is Ernest and Hadley Hemingway.  Ernest and Hadley, this is Harry Cuzzemano, book collector extraordinaire.”
    “Pleased to meet you, Harry,” says Ernest, holding his hand in his own as he asks, “What type of thing do you collect?”
    This is when those eyes come to life.  “Oh, anything I can get my hands on.  Rare books.  First editions. Manuscripts.  Anything with a definable …” – he seems to search for the precise word – “value.  I’m a sucker for anything that will make a killing in a few years or so.”
    He flashes a grin at Hadley, as if this comment is meant just for her.
    “Does it have to have merit?”
    He laughs.  “Just value, sir, just value.  But I must say, Mr. Hemingway, I read in our time.  I managed to get my hands on the Three Mountains edition.  If you carry on writing like that you’ll have given me quite the little nest egg.  I think it was a print run of a couple of hundred or so?”
    Ernest’s color is high with the flattery.  “I’m only in possession of one myself.”
    “Well, keep on to it man.  You know how expensive school can be nowadays.”  Hadley wonders how he knew Ernest was a father.  “I can only hope your next book will have a similar print run.”
    “I don’t wish for the same thing, you’ll be unsurprised to hear.”
    “Any other publications?”
    “The Little Review did something a while back.”
    “That should get your name out.”
    “I shouldn’t think so.  It’s only read by intellectuals and dykes.”
    “Dear man, it’s the most stolen journal in the country!  America, that is.”
    “Suits me fine,” Ernest answers.  “I’d rather be read by crooks than critics.”
    “Very right.  Very right.”  Cuzzemano seats himself between Ernest and Sara and pours himself a glass of white wine.
    “You don’t mind, Mr. Cuzzemano, if I steal a piece of fruit?”
    “Not at all.  Please.”
    Hadley eats the apple and tries to listen to Zelda’s conversation with Sara but she finds herself returning to watch this man.  Harry’s eyes are always on her when she looks at him.
    As the night moves on, dancing starts on the terrace.  At one point the Murphys’ kids, Patrick, Baoth and Honoria come down, rubbing their tired eyes, asking what’s going on, but with an eye on the plaguish Hemingways Sara shoos them quickly away.  Ernest and Scott are too busy singing along in chorus to “Tea for Two” for anyone to notice the kids’ dispatch.
    All evening Cuzzemano toadies up to her husband.  Ernest answers his questions cordially enough.  It is good to see Ernest behave well to someone he doesn’t like.  Sometimes he can say such astonishingly vile thing she wonders if it’s really him.  She knows he grapples with dark thoughts and low moods but that doesn’t give him an excuse to treat people badly.  Most often it’s the night-time when it’s worst: when he enters a world where he can’t find anything left that’s meaningful.  And then, in the daytime, Ernest is fine, and cheerful, and immensely interested in words and art and how to make a new kind of text from the bones of language.  The two personalities seem as if from two different men.
    Though he evidently has no good feelings toward the collector, Ernest signs a piece of paper which Cuzzemano puts in an envelope and seals with a swipe of his tongue.  On the envelope he writes E. HEMINGWAY, JUNE 1926.
    Later, Cuzzemano scrapes a chair closer to Hadley.  She prepared to be flattered.  “Mrs. Hemingway?”
    “Hadley.  Please.”
    “What a handsome name.  There’s a South Hadley where I’m from.”
    “And where’s that?”
    “Massachusetts.”
    “Where do you live now?  I assume it’s not Massachusetts anymore.”
    “Oh no.  I split my time between Paris and New York.  They’re the only places to really live.  London is such a bore.  Too many English to make it a city worth spending any time in.”
    Hadley wonders if he is queer, or married, or a bachelor.  Paris is full of all three, often doing all three at the same time.  Cuzzemano gives her an inquiring look, as if asking if the pleasantries have now been safely dispatched.  He has teeth that wouldn’t look amiss in the gums of a fish.  “Can I be frank, Mrs. Hemingway? Hadley?”
    Cuzzemano drops his voice.
    “Sara told me about a valise, Mrs. Hemingway, a suitcase full of papers gone amiss: Mr. Hemingway’s first novel, and several short stories.  Make no mistake, I inquire about this not to upset you, but because your husband’s work is of lasting literary merit … And whatever was in that valise will one day be worth a whole heap of money.”  Cuzzemano’s eyes wince, as if pained to think of its value.  “Now, my understanding is that it was lost at the Gare de Lyon?”  Four years ago, on a train bound for Lausanne?”
    Hadley is nothing but bewildered.  “I don’t care to talk about it.”
    Cuzzemano draws toward her.  His hands practically rest on her knees.  “Mrs. Hemingway, did anyone have any idea of what was in there?  Ernest, surely, would be so happy to see his work returned to him -“
    “Mr. Cuzzemano, I thank you for your interest in my husband’s work, but I think you are grossly exaggerating his place in the world four years ago.”  She keeps her voice to a fierce whisper.  “Mr. Hemingway had not even been published.  We’d barely been in Paris a year!  The case is lost.  Someone took it by mistake.  It’s all gone: stories, carbons, novel; the whole kit and caboodle.  And I won’t forget the horror of it.”  She recomposes herself.  “Nor will I ever forgive myself.  Now if you would kindly let the matter drop.  I don’t care to spend my evening furthering your enrichment.”

    Gerald leaves the jazz and puts on a waltz.  Ernest asks her to dance but Hadley wants to listen to the piano.  It has taken her some minutes to recover from Cuzzemano’s questioning, and now all she wants is to be quiet among this gang who will not quit talking.  Brett Ashley is right; all their talk is bilge.
    Ernest asks Zelda instead.  This is a safe choice.  No one is under any illusion of the mutual contempt they hold for each other and they dance together in a difficult embrace.  Zelda is stiff and unbending, and Ernest moves all of the wrong parts of himself to the wrong parts of the music.  He is pigeon-toed and jokey, but Zelda doesn’t find it very funny at all.  Evidently she doesn’t like to be caught in something so dumb and sentimental as a waltz.
    The music finishes and Zelda drifts back to the table to reclaim her sherry, but Ernest still has a hold of her wrist.  As a faster standard follows he attempts to whirl her around in a quickstep.  Zelda looks furious and the drink spills but Ernest still has a hold of her.  The Murphys, Cuzzemano, and Fife are laughing but to Hadley it looks as if everything is on the brink of turning sour; she knows Ernest when he is in this mood.
    “C’mon, Mrs. Fitzgerald!  Or are you only good for a cabaret?”
    Zelda disentangles herself but Ernest, for whatever reason makes sense in his drunk head, pulls her over his shoulder in a fireman’s hold.  “Put me down!”  Ernest will not let go.  Hadley looks at the scene with disbelief. “You BRUTE, Ernest Hemingway!”
    Scott emerges from the double doors, a bowl of fruit in his pale hands.  “What are you doing with her?” he says, grabbing the figs at the top of the bowl.  “Get off my wife!” he shouts, the ends of the words lost in his chin.  “I said: PUT HER DOWN!”
    Scott throws a fig which arcs across the garden and smashes on Ernest’s blazer.  He drops Zelda and has time to duck before the next one flies through the air.  Fife has leapt to his aid but then another one of Scott’s thrown figs explodes on her hard white skin.
    “Oh, Scott,” Fife says.  “What did you have to do that for?”
    Ernest glares at him as Zelda shuffles back to her chair.  Her lips press in a smirk.  He takes off his blazer and surveys the damage: two round purple spots where the figs hit.  “That wasn’t right,” he says.
    “For God’s sake, Scott,” says Sara.  “Why do you insist on behaving like a child?”
    Fife strides into the kitchen and Ernest follows the sound of the feathers.
    Hadley feels as if she wants to kiss Scott.  What a fine sense of grievance and possession!  How often had she felt like wringing Fife’s neck when a dainty slipper had fallen off a dainty foot in their Paris apartment and caught the wandering eye of her husband!  Back at the villa over bridge or sherry she had never felt that she could throw a tantrum – never mind fruit.
    Zelda toasts Scott his chivalry and Sara looks fit to burst.  Scott is too drunk to really notice anything but his feet and the kisses administered by his admiring wife.  Then Sara tells him what she’s obviously been dying to say all night.  She calls him a selfish infant who belongs in a kindergarten.  Children, Hadley thinks to herself, children are more civilized than this gang on the sauce.
    When she looks back, Fife and Ernest have left the kitchen.  The room is curiously formless without their figures in it.  “Well,” says Hadley, now that Sara has had her say and Scott sulks in the corner to the overtures of Mr. Cuzzemano, no doubt kissing up to him after the glories of Gatsby.  “After weeks of no fun at all I think I’ve had more than I can take.”  Hadley pushes back her chair.  “Will you excuse me?”  She goes into the house to fetch her things.

    Gerald has hung her shawl in the bedroom of his two sons.  If Sara knew about this she would be livid. Patrick and Baoth sleep curled around each other.  They are beautiful, just like their parents, and Hadley wonders what they’ll become.  Something amazing, she’s sure of that: they are of this boundlessly good and clever New England stock.  She’d like to kiss them good night, but if Sara caught her she’d be excommunicated entirely.  Especially after the debacle with the figs.  Though she is not a religious woman, Hadley thinks of a prayer her mother used to say over her at night to keep her safe while she slept.  These kids are intensely lovely.  They quite take her breath away.
    She’s about to take the stairs when she hears a noise from the landing.  A bedroom door has fallen open and voices travel.  Through the slot between door and frame, she finds a couple standing in the middle of the room.  There’s nearly no light and their faces are featureless.  The woman’s bustle comes into view, all spiky feathers tearing down from her waistline.  Hadley hears her own intake of air.  Ernest’s hand goes round between the two wings as if they have dropped open for him, like a swan’s downbeat in flight.  He kisses her forehead, her eyebrows, the lids themselves.  A spot of fig still stains her skin.  The feathers being to tremble. She says, “Two weeks and nothing, Nesto.  It’s been so hard.”  Hadley can feel how much Fife wants him. She can see how little weight is on those legs.  Then they fall onto the floor and the feathered skirt falls open. Hadley slams the door as hard as she possibly can.

    She sits on the edge of the chess-tiled patio.  Sara and Gerald are cleaning up in the kitchen and discussing Scott’s behavior and what should be done.  The Fitzgeralds and Cuzzemano are nowhere to be found.  A smell of camellias and oleanders wafts up from the garden.  Peonies rise from pots as big as fists. This garden is something else.
    So they’ve done nothing these past two weeks, and she realizes that it is Ernest and Fife who were under quarantine too, not just Bumby and herself.  That the whole fortnight has been sexless seems even more depressing.  Then the thought occurs that maybe what they have between them is only a sexual thing.  She had never felt particularly adventurous in bed.  Perhaps, if she could keep them apart, she might draw him off his attraction to Fife and make him see reason.  She would be like Emperor Tiberius: give them one hundred days of separation, and then Ernest would come back to her.  He hated to be alone for a day or even an hour when the horrors struck; he certainly wouldn’t be able to stand a hundred-day quarantine.
    While Sara stacks the crockery on the shelves, Gerald sits down beside her.  “It will be all right,” he says to her.  “You and Ernest … you’re hitched up to the universe.  You can’t be parted.”  No, she thinks, hitched up to a fresh decisiveness, but Fife and Ernest might.
    Ernest comes through the French doors looking sheepish.  He places a warm hand on her shoulder.  “Did you get the fig off?” she asks.
    “Yes.  All gone.  Time to go?”  His voice is cautious.
    And she says yes, time to go, and they hardly say a good-bye to the Murphys who seem, suddenly, full of understanding:  their features soft with sympathy, as if they had not realized quite how grave the whole thing had become.
    The Hemingways set off from Villa America down to the beach.  Fife will stay with the Murphys tonight. Hadley imagines there might be tears in both houses.  Soon they will reach the end of the beach, weave through town, then arrive at their villa, together or apart.
    This thought makes her tread slower on the sand.  She feels terribly sad, because she knows that the empty spaces inside her are the same as the empty spaces inside him, because they match, because their geographies correspond.  He does not match Fife, not like this.
    “No seaweed,” Ernest says, and they laugh, because it’s funny that Gerald has cleared the beach of its algae – to have gone to so much meticulous effort to please his friends!  He spent the whole of April at the task, removing the snaked green strands from the sand.  Perhaps they laugh for different reasons: Ernest thinks it’s silly; Hadley thinks it’s sweet.
    The waves leave their foam on the beach.  Smells of wet rope and fish hang on the air.  Draped over the landed boats are fishing nets, the moonlight crusting scales and shells on the threads.  Boat masts lean in the direction of the wind.  The night hides the far-off trees and the raft where they dived this morning.  Nothing is visible but their limbs going forward, long and brown.  “I’m sorry for acting like an ass.  I shouldn’t have done that to Zelda.”
    “It’s okay,” she says.
    They stop.  To carry on walking would somehow make this conversation casual.
    Hadley delivers this to the sea, not to him”  “When I saw you at the party in Chicago, I thought you were just playing up to me.  Interested only for the night.  I thought I was going to be a spinster in St. Louis forever.  Ernest, you changed everything for me.”
    “That night changed everything for me as well.  Of course it did.”
    Breakers come and go by her feet.
    “If you want to go, I accept that.  I don’t regret any of this.  What you have showed me.  And what we have done in the five years we have had.  It has been another class of marvelous.”
    Ernest doesn’t say anything.
    Hadley clears her throat, committing herself.  “Do you love her?”
    “I still feel the same way about you.”  The expression on his face changes completely.  She can’t read it.  She wonders if it is love.  It just might be.  “But my feelings for Fife are there.”
    “Are they very strong?”
    A pause, then: “Yes.”
    “Strong enough to end us?:
    He doesn’t answer.  Hadley walks on a little father and he follows her.  They come to a brightly painted canoe with big red letters:  DAME DE LA FRANCE.  The warm waves come over her feet and she leans on the boat’s body.  She will be the one, then, to set out the terms.  “This is what we will do.  We will go back to Paris.  You will move your things out of the apartment.  You can marry Pauline, if that is your wish.”  Ernest looks horrified and relieved all at once.  “But only after a hundred days of separation.  No more, no less.  If you want to be with her after that, then you have my blessing.  I will grant you a divorce.  But you have to prove to me and to yourself that this isn’t a passing affair.”
    “Hash.”  The tide reaches his feet them pulls away.  She rises from the canoe and walks up to the end of the beach.  He follows, walking over the sand slowly behind her.
    The trees sound out into the night.  They walk back to the villa, tracing the same steps they made early this morning when they came out to the raft to swim, to play their game by the rocks, and to hope, while they held their silence, that things could always just continue as they always had been.
    Near the lavender, at the villa’s porch, she says:  “I’m doing this for us.  A hundred days, Ernest.  It won’t be long.  You’ll work out what you need after that.”
    Behind him their three bathing suits hang in the breeze.  Upstairs, with the window open, is Fife’s room.  They tread quietly into the house alone.

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