Whose Life?

The Paris Wife, Freud’s Mistress, Vanessa and Her Sister: Biography battles fan fiction for the right to a writer’s story.

Illustration by Jen Wang.

Illustration by Jen Wang

Who’d be a writer’s wife? Between the poverty and loneliness while you wait for him to make it and the glamour and loneliness once he does, there’s no room to exercise your own creativity: After all, someone’s got to keep the baby alive. You show up in his books in guises you don’t recognize—the ingénue, the handmaiden, the shrew—or worse, you don’t show up at all. He can do what he likes with you in print, including erase you, and then the biographers come along and take him at his word. You held him back from greatness. You tormented him with banal domesticity. You were crazy, after all.

It’s no wonder that feminist biographers have fought so hard to bring the wives, mistresses, secretaries, and maids back into the story of masculine literary creation. Nancy Milford broke the ground with Zelda in 1970, and ever since, biographers in Britain and America—including Phyllis Rose, Hermione Lee, Claire Tomalin, Victoria Glendinning, and Stacy Schiff—have worked to bring the private lives of great men (and women) into the public eye. There’s now no doubt that marriage matters, even if a statesman or artist never mentioned his wife or family in his own autobiography. And there’s also no question that every marriage has two equally privileged witnesses, and that both ought to be given a fair hearing.

But any private life is full of gaps and secrets. Even in the vanished heyday of ink and paper, diaries and letters did not necessarily record what was said in the argument that finally broke the marriage apart. Even writers and diligent self-documentarians keep some of their joy and grief and shame and lust buried in silence. Biographers can’t get everywhere. Their unwritten code of conduct stops them at the bedroom door, no matter how tempting it may be to peek inside.

Novelists, however, have no reason to be so coy. If the biographer won’t speculate exactly how it felt to have sex with F. Scott Fitzgerald, fiction writers are happy to step in and describe it. In the past few years, a flood of what amounts to biographical fan fiction has swept conventional literary biography out of the way. The success of Nancy Horan’s 2007 novel Loving Frank, about the private life of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, followed by Paula McLain’s 2011 hit The Paris Wife, told from the point of view of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, has made publishers eager for stories that draw heavily on biography but wriggle out of its ethical constraints. Zelda Fitzgerald, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, all the other Hemingway wives, all Wright’s other women, Sigmund Freud’s lover Minna Bernays—these real women have no defense against being shoehorned into romances that presume to tell us what we secretly want to know about famous people. This month sees the publication of Vanessa and Her Sister, a novel constructed as the fictional diary of Vanessa Bell, née Stephen, Virginia Woolf’s sister. In her author’s note, novelist Priya Parmar regrets that she almost has too much truth to work with: “It is not easy to fictionalize the Bloomsbury Group, as their lives are so well documented.” They therefore leave little space for “invention,” which perhaps invites the question as to what invention gains, beyond allowing a character to voice thoughts like “Who knew I would like sex as much as I do?” As Parmar also tells us, Vanessa Bell never kept a diary in which she recorded a liking for sex or anything else. Is there something in that silence we ought to respect?

Parmar’s liberty is a familiar one to readers of these novels. Speculation on the sex lives of historical subjects is often bolstered awkwardly by research, as though to prove that these moments are important rather than just indulgent. At the crucial moment in The Paris Wife, Paula McLain has Hadley Hemingway remember an article her mother wrote in the New Republic arguing “that a wife who enjoyed sexual activity wasn’t any better than a prostitute.” (The article’s referenced in Michael Reynolds’ biography The Young Hemingway.) But Mother didn’t get to be alone with Hemingway, and naturally Hadley finds herself “surprised by [her] own desire.” Despite the presumed discomfort of losing her virginity on a rooftop in Chicago in March, she registers only “moments of pure crushing happiness.” The more explicit descriptions of sex are found in the brief sections of the book told from Hemingway’s perspective. McLain might be more enlightened about sex than Hadley’s mother, but still she has Hadley hoping, naively, for love and happiness, while the battle-scarred, self-loathing Hemingway pays a woman for sex when he’s reporting from the war in Turkey, just the first in a line of betrayals that sicken but don’t stop him. We know where they’re leading, and what we think they mean—poor, dull Hadley, that she doesn’t.

Virginia Woolf’s biographer Hermione Lee has spoken of her determination to restore the writer’s rationality—to understand her actions, even her suicide, as the products of intelligence and deliberate thought rather than insanity, emotion, or long-buried sexual trauma. However, Priya Parmar’s Virginia has once again lost that rationality. Seen through the eyes of her stoical sister, who’s not much interested in anything she has to say about Greek philosophy, Virginia is just a self-centered girl, whimsical to the point of madness, “a burrowing animal in search of perpetual notice,” possibly a “Sapphist,” possibly in love with her sister. There’s “evidence” for all these things in the reams of self-mythologizing letters and diaries and memoirs produced by the Stephen siblings (and the whole of the Bloomsbury Group) in the years when they lived together, orphaned and unsupervised, at the beginning of a new century. Both biographers and novelists sift and sort through evidence to make a character out of the remains of a person. But only novelists get to throw out everything that doesn’t fit.

Biographical novelists are usually scrupulous about acknowledging their sources in an afterword in the back of the book, listing the biographies they have consulted and recommending further reading. Sometimes, they’ll explain where they drew the line between what was documented and what was fiction, who was “real” and who was not. But this is not how novel-reading works. If a novel does its job and draws us into the world it creates so we can’t see the edges, we won’t keep checking with the notes in the back to see what we can trust. We surrender to the characters. We’ll take away from The Paris Wife a version of Hadley Hemingway that is, as Janet Maslin put it, “so stolid and clueless and plain and pregnant,” yet with artistic tendencies that could have flowered if only certain people hadn’t been so cruel. The “real” story about Zelda Fitzgerald is long and sad and full of gaps; it doesn’t come neatly wrapped. But reading her in the first person in Therese Anne Fowler’s Z, we can’t help but be “Team Zelda” rather than “Team Scott,” as Fowler characterizes the long tussle between the couple’s biographers.

Of course, biographers take sides too, and they are often fantasists and speculators, papering over the cracks in the evidence with “must have” and “no doubt” and “perhaps.” According to Margaret Atwood, “The biographer, like the novelist, is a constructor of narratives; it’s just that the ground rules are a little different.” Since biographers are usually trained first as historians or journalists, it’s assumed that they will adhere to the rules of those professions, backing up claims with documentary evidence and keeping their own feelings about the subject at bay. The trouble with following the rules is that it takes a very long time.

When imagination pours into the gaps in the biographical record, overcoming the frustrations of burned letters and lost diaries by making things up, it replaces history with a plausible lie, which tells us far more about our own time than it does about the past. But these distortions and flattening fictions have a way of sticking. Nicole Kidman’s prosthetic nose in the movie version of The Hours tells us that Virginia Woolf was unattractive, by Hollywood standards, and invites the audience to judge her, by those standards, as self-conscious and insecure. Who wouldn’t be, with a honker like that?

Hadley Hemingway, in The Paris Wife, has to rage with righteous indignation at Ernest’s philandering because her readers would, not because she actually did. McLain reveals in her author’s note that she didn’t obtain (nor even seek) permission to quote Hadley directly; instead, having read a cache of letters that provides her with a magical insight into her character’s “very particular point of view,” the author instead creates “an alchemical combination of her voice and my own.” Which would be fine, if that counterfeit compound weren’t labeled like the real thing—and weren’t replacing the real thing in the public consciousness. The Paris Wife, three years old, sits comfortably within the top 8,000 Amazon books, and the top 30 of its genre. Gioia Diliberto’s biography Paris Without End, an updated edition of her 1992 book Hadley, released to tie in with McClain’s novel and given the pointed subtitle The True Story of Hemingway’s First Wife, doesn’t crack the top 100,000. Despite a blurb from Vogue that it “reads as easily as a novel,” the true story clearly languishes in its struggle with fiction.

Even the writers who rode the late-20th-century wave of literary biography are calling the end of an era. Michael Holroyd, the author of several enormous, multivolume biographies of writers including Lytton Strachey and George Bernard Shaw, hinted in 2011 that his profession was doomed: “If you are writing a literary biography you have to try to hide the fact because it’s so tremendously out of fashion.” Even award nominations and a tantalizing subtitle like Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh may not be enough to seduce readers into picking up a 700-page biography like John Lahr’s of Tennessee Williams—at least, not enough of them to return the investment needed to sustain a writer through years of digging through archives and attics and negotiating with a subject’s prickly estate.

These novelists often share with the feminist biographers the impulse to liberate women from their footnote-to-history status. They bring wives and lovers and sidelined children back to center stage, and raise the stakes of domestic disputes (although most of the time, they pay as little attention to the nannies and maids who made these creative lives possible as the writers themselves did). But the idea that it is easy to imagine ourselves into a “relatable” and recognizable past, where people wore different clothes but thought basically as we do about love, happiness, and independence, is a cheap trick that flatters us at the expense of history and literature alike. This isn’t just fiction, it’s fan fiction—a fantasy built over the historical trace of a person we admire and wish we could know. But maybe the truth shouldn’t be an easy read, and maybe real people shouldn’t be quite so relatable to us. There’s value in those biographical details that we struggle to understand, which make us aware of the vast distance and moral difference between the subject’s world and our own. The past isn’t the present in fancy dress. Woody Allen’s Paris isn’t real, and Zelda Fitzgerald is not your friend.

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