Ernest Hemingway’s lesbians

 
 

When it comes to authors that every
gay girl should have on her shelf, there are certain names that come
readily to mind. Sarah Waters, for one. Maybe Radclyffe Hall
— who kick-started modern lesbian fiction with The Well of Loneliness
in 1928 — and Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West.

Jeanette Winterson seems a popular choice, as do Fannie Flagg
and Rita Mae Brown. I don’t think that many people’s first
— or second, or third — suggestion would be Ernest Hemingway.

But many people would, in my opinion,
be missing something. Hemingway is a fascinating author for queer women
to read — mostly because he seems to have been so fascinated by queer
women. A film of one of his last unfinished novels — The Garden of
Eden
, starring Mena Suvari

and former Bond Girl Caterina Murino — is due out in the U.K.
this year. And although I’m worried for various reasons that it may
succumb to Bad Lesbian Movie syndrome, the book did at least provide
a template for the filmmakers to create a wrenching portrait of a woman
trying to understand her gender and her sexuality.

The sprawling, unfinished manuscript
of Garden was first published, in severely edited form, in 1986.
It tells the story of David and Catherine Bourne, a young couple on
honeymoon in France in the 1920s. Although at first they appear idyllically
happy, cracks appear in the marriage as Catherine (who will be played
by Suvari, pictured above) becomes obsessed with androgyny and gender
role reversal, cutting her hair short and persuading her husband to
cut and dye his hair so that they will look alike. Then she tries to
bring another young woman, Marita (who will be played by Murino, pictured
below), into the relationship. Catherine becomes increasingly open about
her desire to explore her feelings for women.

When it was first published, the book became a controversial bestseller. Part of the controversy stemmed from
the way in which it altered Hemingway’s perceived public image. Up
till then, he had been seen as a determinedly macho and homophobic author,
reviled by feminists for writing female characters who seemed merely
to be echoes of their menfolk. With the character of David Bourne —
a Hemingwayesque writer who allows his wife to take on the character
of a boy, and to refer to him as her “girl” in bed — it became apparent
that Hemingway identified more strongly with both his female and his
sexually ambivalent characters than had previously been supposed.

Since then, critics have looked at
his life and work differently. They have considered his friendship with
the lesbian writer Gertrude Stein
(pictured below), whom Hemingway met as a young man in Paris in
the 1920s. Stein was godmother to Hemingway’s first son, Jack. In
a Salon interview with literary critic Leslie Fiedler in 2003,
Fiedler even claims to have heard that Hemingway “almost married Stein,
but Alice B. Toklas

finally grasped her away.” Since Hemingway was already married when
he met Stein — and since she was twice his age — this seems unlikely,
but it does cast an interesting light on some of the male-female-female
love triangles in his fiction, including the one in The Garden of
Eden
.

Looking back in retrospect from
The Garden of Eden
, it is possible to see a recurring strand in
Hemingway’s work of women who have androgynous characteristics or
overtly ambiguous sexuality. In The Sun Also Rises
(1926), Lady Brett Ashley has short hair “brushed back like a boy’s”
and wears “a man’s felt hat.” In A Farewell to Arms

(1929), when Catherine Barkley is wishing to be like her lover Frederic
Henry, she says, “I wish I’d stayed with all your girls so I
could make fun of them to you.” She talks of cutting her hair short
to look like him, and says, “Oh, darling, I want you so much I want
to be you too.”

Then there is Pilar in For Whom
the Bell Tolls
(1940), a massive, courageous Spanish peasant woman,
whom some critics have seen as partly modelled on Gertrude Stein. Pilar
is married to a man – but she admits to jealousy when her young protégée,
Maria, falls in love with the book’s main protagonist, Robert Jordan.
At first she denies that her jealousy has a sexual component, saying, “I am no tortillera [dyke] but a woman made for men.”
But a moment later she is having a mischievous exchange with Robert
Jordan (who admires her):

“Now
if I could take [Maria] from thee and take thee from [Maria].”

“You
could not.”

“I
know it,” Pilar said and smiled again. “Nor would I wish to. But
when I was young I could have.”

“I
believe it.”

The short story “Mrs. and Mrs.
Elliot” (published in the collection In Our Time in 1925) deals
with a married couple who are on honeymoon. They are joined by a female
friend of Mrs. Elliot’s who eventually comes to share the bed with
her while Mr. Elliot sleeps next door. The short story “The Sea Change”
(published in the collection Winner Take Nothing in 1933) deals
with a girl telling her male lover that she is leaving him for a woman.

Finally, with the fullest exploration
of these themes, there is The Garden of Eden. Since the manuscript
was unfinished — Hemingway apparently left two possible endings, both
of which are different from the one in the published book — it is difficult
to say what exactly he wanted to happen to Catherine, but it’s probably
fair to say that a happy lesbian ending wasn’t on the horizon.

Nevertheless, the book offers a fascinating
opportunity for readers to see one of the 20th century’s greatest
writers dealing in depth with homosexuality and transgenderism. Many
lesbian readers will empathize with Catherine’s mingled excitement
and anguish as she begins to acknowledge her attraction to women: her
insistence after her first experience with Marita that “It was what
I wanted to do all my life and now I’ve done it and I loved it,”
combined with her hurt as David and Marita seem to begin to band together
to condemn her.

It remains to be seen whether
the movie will do justice to Catherine’s experience — as well as
to her husband’s ambiguous sexuality — or if it will just focus
on the titillation factor of Mena Suvari and Caterina Murino in bed
together. At best, however, this has the potential to be a really interesting
project. And if it ends up falling into the usual clichés, Ernest Hemingway
will still have made one memorable contribution to the lesbian movie
genre: His granddaughter, Mariel Hemingway, did star in Personal
Best
, after all.

 
 

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