Monday, 14 October 2013

Ignorance vs. bliss: Would you want to know if your spouse had an affair?

Hadley and Ernest Hemingway wed in September 1921
When I started thinking about packing for our holiday in Fiji last month, there were two items top of my packing list: a new swimsuit and a great read. It took a few hours to track down some swimmers I could bear to wear in public, but finding the perfect book took only a few seconds.

Paula McLain's The Paris Wife, the factional story of Ernest Hemingway's relationship with his first wife, Hadley Richardson, was already waiting for me on my bookshelves. A good friend gave me the book a while ago and I'd put it aside until I knew I would have a good chunk of time to devote to it.

I loved the book instantly. I don't know that much about Hemingway's work, but I didn't need to. The Paris Wife is a compelling tale of two young people navigating their way through marriage and life in post-war Paris. As a writer it was fascinating to read about the early years of Hemingway's career. Hadley describes his passion for writing brilliantly:
"His ambitions for his writing were fierce and all encompassing. He had writing the way other people had religion..."
It's widely known that Hemingway was a womaniser and eventually, like his father, brother and sister, committed suicide, but the early years of the marriage were happy. The Hemingways didn't have a lot of money compared to some of their peers, but still managed to spend a lot of time traveling around Europe rubbing shoulders with the literary glitterati of the time.

Hadley warns us in the prologue to: 'Keep watch for the girl who will come along and ruin everything.' And come along she does, insinuating herself into the lives of the Hemingways and eventually causing the break up of their marriage. It's frustrating and heartbreaking to see Hadley aware of what's happening and struggling to break free from the awful ménage a trois her marriage has become. As a reader, I wanted her to fight harder, but she explains why she can't:
"There are some who said I should have fought harder or longer than I did for my marriage, but in the end fighting for a love that was already gone felt like trying to live in the ruins of a lost city. I couldn't bear it and so I backed away..."
Reading The Paris Wife, it's easy to empathise with Hadley who knows her marriage is under threat, but isn't sure how to protect it. Nola Duncan, joint author with Libby Harkness of The Widow, faced a very different challenge. Happily married for 30 years, she thought her husband Michael was the perfect man - until clearing out his office on the anniversary of his death, she discovered 741 love letters between Michael and his lover, proof of his passionate six-year affair with a woman 23 years his junior.

 Nola Duncan's husband took his secret to the grave
It's hard to imagine how shocked and betrayed Nola must have felt. Her story asks many unanswered and perhaps unanswerable questions: why did he keep the letters? Can a man love two women at once? And how could Nola not have known?

I don't pretend to have any of the answers. But the question that is haunting me now is whose shoes I would prefer to walk in - Hadley's or Nola's? If your husband has an affair is it better to know or not?


  1. I'd definitely want to know! Ignorance is only bliss while you're in it; but the truth will always out. Jane

  2. I quite agree. And how devastating to find out, as Nola did, only after your husband's death.

  3. But does you question imply that you will have to go looking for clues? The need to know isn't a passive thing. It'll force you to go through his credit card statements, pockets, drawers. Won't it?

  4. I don't think so. Neither Hadley Hemingway nor Nola Duncan were mistrustful - the knowledge of the affairs was thrust upon them. I just wondered who had it worst. And I think it was Nola - her husband was dead by the time she found out so she couldn't even have a go at him about it.