The wives of Ernest Hemingway
A novel by an AHRC-funded PhD student and International Placement Scheme award-holder is winning prizes and garnering public and critical acclaim.
Dr Naomi Wood’s novel ‘Mrs Hemingway’ won the 2014 Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize, was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize - and is about to gain national prime-time media coverage through its selection for the Richard and Judy Book Club.
The book, submitted for Wood’s PhD at the University of East Anglia and published by Picador in 2014, charts the personal life of American writer Ernest Hemingway, Nobel Prize Winner and author of twentieth century classic novels such as A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea. A great deal has been written by scholars and critics about his macho persona, his struggle with alcoholism and his eventual suicide, but little has been written about his relationships with women, surprising perhaps considering he married four times.
“What we know about Hemingway is a 1930s version of Hemingway: out in the public domain, fashioning an image for himself within the media, this he-mannish figure, seen on safari or on a big fishing trawler, the soldier, the bullfighter, this hyper-masculine image,” says Dr Wood. “My aim in writing the novel was to give the private side of him, the domestic side of him, and what the four Hemingway wives saw in him.”
Wood came up with the idea for the project while sifting through Hemingway’s correspondence with the women in his life, and realising there was a significant gap in the studies of the author and his work.
“There are mountains of material about him, but not a huge amount written about him from a female perspective,” she says. “In the letters to his wives, he was much warmer and more sentimental than he seems in the mean economy of his prose. Nobody had written from the perspective of the four wives, which really fascinated me. You read so many accounts of the era and these women are really not given a voice; they can’t articulate their experience with him. So I had this idea, that was going to be really exciting, a re-appropriation of Hemingway from a woman’s experience.”
The manuscript was bought by Picador while Wood was still completing the PhD, meaning that she was receiving editorial advice from her academic supervisors as well as her publisher. Fortunately, there were not too many conflicts of interest.
“Sometimes you worry with a creative piece, a clear decision is not always self-evident as it might be in a more empirical piece of research,” she says. “It was very reassuring when they thought the same things and all recommended similar courses of action.”
Wood has always been interested in books: her first degree was in English Literature at the University of Cambridge, and after a time working in publishing, she applied to study an MA in Creative Writing at UEA – a long-held ambition.
“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I left my undergraduate degree,” she admits. “I went into publishing because that was the obvious thing to do, but I would get frustrated at looking at books from the outside rather than the inside. I had always been really passionate about the Master’s degree at UEA, but thought I would do it a bit later in life.”
However, the university suggested that before she began the course she should gain a little more writing experience, prompting her to move to Paris and write her first book, The Godless Boys, published in 2011, which she then worked on during her MA study.
After graduating, she opted to stay on at UEA to work towards a PhD, which was AHRC-funded. The initial grant was for her research into the women of the Hemingway family – and she then won an award through the AHRC’s International Placement Scheme to travel to the Library of Congress to research their archives. As the AHRC marks its tenth anniversary, Wood is quick to thank them for the funding she received over a number of years, which she says has been integral to her success.
“I spent two years researching and two years writing up the novel and writing a critical thesis as well on Hemingway texts, so the funding I received from the AHRC was crucial to getting the novel written that was very closely researched, and based on their actual lives,” she explains. “While I was in England, I was looking at all the archives I could get here: all the biographies, all the novels, looking at the texts in the British Library, including first editions, which was exciting, and brilliant video records of the wives, which are in the British Library as well. As soon as I got to America I was looking at primary sources and looking at some special collections that the Library of Congress holds as well as visiting the JFK Library in Boston.”
The historical accuracy of the novel has been noted by literary reviewers: the Daily Telegraph observed that it felt “more real than many novels”, and the Daily Mail enthused, “whilst this is a fictionalised account based on known facts, it is so beautifully written, so true and so vivid that it eclipses anything strictly biographical.” The AHRC funding that supported Wood’s painstaking research was crucial to ensuring that, she says.
“I wanted to write the best I could – having the funding meant I didn’t have to get a part-time job, I didn’t have to space everything out, and it meant that I could finish it relatively quickly, especially in view of how much research there was to do,” Wood explains.
“Hemingway was so prolific: he spanned so many years and the book spans so many years that I had to do a huge amount of research in order to get everything right. The funding definitely enabled me to write that well-researched novel in a much shorter time – and that is hugely appreciated.”
Article by Carrie Dunn