It seems fair to say Martha Gellhorn would have hated Hemingway & Gellhorn, the HBO series broadcast last year, about her life and marriage to Ernest Hemingway – even down to the fact that his name comes first on the billing. Among the products of the Hemingway industry is the (possibly mythological) fact that Gellhorn declared she “had no intention of being a footnote in someone else’s life”, and refused to discuss Hemingway during interviews. Yet here she is, billed primarily as the wife of the famous writer.

The criticism that Gellhorn has been reduced to a footnote is not entirely fair: she is still renowned in her own right as one of the most important war correspondents of the twentieth century, her reportage from the Spanish Civil War to Vietnam still some of the most widely read journalism from the period. And much as we can self-righteously insist on the importance of the work above the figure of the author, the emphasis on her life over her work feels partly forgivable, because – well, what a life. From her days as a young journalist in Paris, to working with Robert Capa in the Spanish Civil War, to a period (“intolerable”, according to Caroline Moorehead’s biography) with Hemingway in Cuba, to her struggles with motherhood after she adopted an Italian child and her suicide at the age of eighty-nine, Gellhorn’s life hurtled in an archetypal, movie-montage sort of way. But what has been reduced to a footnote – even, largely, by those who seek to reclaim Gellhorn from demotion to Hemingway Wife Number Three – is that Gellhorn saw herself primarily as a writer rather than a journalist, and wanted to be known for her fiction. Moorehead’s biography (2003) draws a picture of a writer who was desolate when fiction-writing failed her. Yet, for all her efforts, Gellhorn’s fiction is hardly read now.

Gellhorn saw herself primarily as a writer rather than a journalist, and wanted to be known for her fiction

Is it perhaps that, the more symbolic she became, more “Martha Gellhorn” just as Hemingway became more and more “Hemingway”, she became more difficult to take in as a writer, without the figure of “Martha Gellhorn” getting in the way? Or is it perhaps because many of the stories read effortlessly as period pieces or sketches, as Gellhorn blurred the boundaries between her reportage and her fiction? In A Stricken Field (1940), her first full-length novel, she drew on her experience as a war reporter to conjure the desperate atmosphere of Prague under Nazi occupation in 1938. It’s a poignant, tightly wound story of a week the journalist Mary Douglas spends in Prague, failing – and berating herself for failing – to help the Jews and dissidents at the mercy of the new regime. But what is perhaps most curious about the novel is how, while using her journalistic experience both to conjure Mary’s experiences and to provide vivid snapshots of desperate war scenes – a huddled mass of refugees; a hounded pamphleteer on the next street – Gellhorn’s weaving in of a love story feels necessary, in the sense of necessary to the heart of the book – it doesn’t read like a plot device, but a tangled dynamic reminiscent of The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen (1949). Reading the book now feels like a direct line to the burning frustration of a city’s trapped inhabitants – as Gellhorn wrote in an afterword in 1985: “I wrote out the accumulated rage and grief of the past two years in this one story, one small aspect of the ignoble history of our time”. Yet if the inner monologues of Mary Douglas – clawingly frustrated at her own journalistic role as bystander – are close to autobiography in the way they reflect Gellhorn’s own experience, her rendering of the inner world of Rita, the desperate Czech refugee, reveals a developed literary imagination.

While Gellhorn’s first novel focused on “one small aspect” of the Second World War, Point of No Return (1948) placed the narrative in the eye of the moral storm: a Jewish American GI discovering the horrors of Dachau. Like the young Jewish journalist in A. M. Klein’s The Second Scroll, who is forced to question his diaspora identity in the face of the suffering of his European uncle, Point of No Return allows American optimism to disintegrate inexorably in the face of European darkness. As Jacob Levy, a soldier from St Louis, decides to see Dachau for himself after overhearing a conversation between other American soldiers, he reassures himself – all American victor’s optimism – that he has “a right to be curious”. Gellhorn masterfully draws out the sense of how unprepared his American soldier’s mental world is for what he is about to see, as he passes through the surreal Walt Disney greenery of the village outside the concentration camp.

In a later afterword to Point of No Return, Gellhorn wrote:

“I realise that Dachau has been my own lifelong point of no return. Between the moment when I walked through the gate of that prison, with its infamous motto, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” and when I walked out at the end of a day that had no ordinary scale of hours, I was changed, and how I looked at the human condition, the world we live in, changed . . . . Years of war had taught me a great deal, but war was nothing like Dachau. Compared to Dachau, war was clean.”

As another much admired and harrowed war correspondent, Lee Miller, commented, on (what must have been) her post-war, post-traumatic stress disorder – that she “could never get the smell of Dachau out of [her] nostrils”. Point of No Return holds in a frozen moment the psychological nadir of the world in which the Holocaust happened, and the post-war conscience caught in a kind of Munch scream. Jacob too goes through Gellhorn’s irreversible change.

Yet in terms of its structure, at least, it’s not Point of No Return but Liana that seems to me to be Gellhorn’s most determinedly literary work – the novel a novelist would try to write. For all its faults, Liana never strikes a journalistic note. On the French Caribbean island of Saint Boniface, the spectre of infidelity and the corrosive toxin of local gossip eat at the unsteady marriage of wealthy Marc Royer and his young Saint Bonifacean wife, Liana, who is left alone for “tutorials” with a newly arrived Frenchman. The stifling atmosphere lends itself to paranoia and, Wide Sargasso Sea-like, a tragic ending is required to release the accumulated tension. Whether Liana really works as a novel is disputable – the central character herself feels obliterated by the forces acting on her, the handling of race has dated badly, and the hostile island atmosphere feels overblown and pastiched – but the work at least stands as a testament to Gellhorn’s imagination and desire to explore human relationships at a level removed from newstand-speak. The poisonous gossip in Liana feels like an indictment of the cheapening effect of reckless words, but what it offers as an alternative is unclear.

The short story seemed to suit Gellhorn better – the influence of Hemingway? the product of her contradictory need for immediacy, much as she longed to be a novelist? – and this was the form most of her later fiction took. The long span of her short story writing, from the 1930s to the 70s, provides another thread with which to trace the arc of the development of the short story as an art form throughout the twentieth century. The Honeyed Peace, her collection of stories from the 1950s, covers the universes of war and post-war, the during and the after – focusing largely on the impossibility of making the transition back. The title story is set in Paris immediately after the war, as a female friend visits from Berlin – “a fine city, bombed flat and full of soldiers”. The consequences of collaboration seep into the deceptive lightness of the women’s friendships, while they buoy themselves up with excitement at the sudden freedom of movement – to be able to travel so easily from Paris to Berlin, fine cities full of soldiers – lest they falter on a headcount of those among their friends who are dead or have disappeared. Their depictions laced with what we would now consider Hemingway pastiche – cities full of soldiers where “heroes rarely looked like heroes” – the stories of The Honeyed Peace are at the very least commendable for the general absence of the national stereotypes of the era. They might be hurriedly sketched in other ways, but Gellhorn’s characters are rarely totems for their passports, as they often are in the period works of Ian Fleming, Graham Greene and – more often than not – Hemingway himself. As Anne says in “The Honeyed Peace”, “if anything bores me, it’s Americans are moral and Frenchmen lecherous, and Englishmen empire builders . . .”.

Yet Gellhorn does zoom out to capture a national mood, the various great post-war hangovers: in “Week End at Grimsby”, England emerges out of a provincial railway station, “a smeared grey sky closed down over a smeared brown land”. Here a woman meets a friend she had known in the war – his tan from Egypt faded to post-war weak tea. In the dreary present the past, and the war, grow “perfect and admirable”.

As “The Honeyed Peace” covers the same times and places as did writers such as George Orwell and Hemingway, and their works have since entered the canon on twentieth-century war, how Gellhorn treats the subject of women in war is obviously interesting – to the extent that it is dangerously tempting to lower the bar when appraising her war fiction, in simple gratitude for the fact that it’s there at all. One of her better descriptive skills lies in capturing the elbowing-each-other, toxic bickering that occurs in lulls in conflict, the pettinesses and failures of that famous Spanish Civil War solidarity during the hungry boredom of pauses between fighting, and the mood between men and women in these deflated moments. In “About Shorty”, Gellhorn writes in the first person as a woman witnessing the arrival of another female journalist, whom she renames “Shorty”, through cynical eyes: “I thought I was prettier than Shorty but less successful. I would not have been able to giggle so enthusiastically at such mediocre jokes. The men were showing off. I disliked Shorty, for a lot of instant virtuous reasons, because I was jealous”.

For all this absence of female solidarity, the sense of everyone hating everyone else just to pass the time, when the men later turn on Shorty en masse in some sham act of policing sexual propriety, the female narrator rises to Shorty’s defence – but only after acknowledging that the men favour her again: “Now that Shorty had displeased them, I was again the apple of their eyes, by default, due to lack of competition”. The narrator, tired of these war games of sexual politics, acknowledges “I found this free use of the Scarlet Letter tiresome and dishonest” and forms a half-friendship with Shorty, seemingly also to pass the time. These portraits provide perspectives on the experience of war that are largely absent from the male-dominated Spanish Civil War and Second World War anglophone literary canon. But they are interesting to read not so much as historical remnants but because they’re funny, and real, awkward and cruel, in a way that feels true to life.

Anyone pleading the case for the difficulty of being an attractive woman rarely gets listened to with a straight face, which may be why so little literature, with the notable exception of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, handles the inner experience of being beautiful with any grown-up complexity. Yet in works such as “About Shorty” and A Stricken Field, Gellhorn goes some way to untangling the complications of dealing with the horrors of the world when you’re seen as beautiful – the kind of face that the world invites you to trade on, for access or for advantage. In the self-berating inner monologues of Mary Douglas in A Stricken Field – who gets told: “you’re wasting yourself in this business. If I were a woman, and looked like you, I’d marry for money. It’s only sensible” – and her stories of the interactions of attractive women during conflict, Gellhorn reveals that, like Lee Miller with her self-portraits, her beauty is on the table, like it or not, so needs to be addressed.

Gellhorn reveals that, like Lee Miller with her self-portraits, her beauty is on the table, like it or not, so needs to be addressed

What recurs in these encounters is the experience of being on the receiving end of a kind of moral contempt for attractiveness, especially if, as Gellhorn does, the woman honestly acknowledges its advantages; the implication from the prevailing reaction seems to be that a beautiful woman moving in this world must be a morally vacuous prima donna. It recalls the criticism levelled at In the Land of Blood and Honey (2011), Angelina Jolie’s film – her directorial debut – about the Bosnian war: a beautiful woman is exploiting war for her own, vain ends, to keep the focus on herself. In writing honestly about being beautiful and its advantages (knowing she would hardly win any points for self-righteousness), Gellhorn exposes the peculiarly Victorian moral aesthetics of this sentiment – the absurdity, when you think about it, of the idea that the plain have a monopoly on sincerity. Which is not to say that Gellhorn could not be egotistically self-involved or self-promoting, but just to note how gendered these accusations of insincerity are. There is a misogynist sting to them, an implication of the silly woman playing at grown-up men’s games.

In Gellhorn’s early works, ugliness – both physical ugliness, and the corruption of the heart – comes out in her short stories based in the American depression; The Trouble I’ve Seen, a collection of stories from 1936 (reissued last year by Eland, £12.99), draws on the extensive notes Gellhorn made early in her career as a journalist, as part of her task to present human stories behind the Depression statistics directly to Roosevelt’s administration. The stories read like vivid case histories of families shattered by the Depression, people of all generations scrambling for breadcrumbs and deadened relationships, a textual version of the stark, broken photographic portraits of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. In the collection’s most shocking story, Ruby, a young girl, is ominously paid to “sit on a porch”; while her struggling mother tries to deny to herself where Ruby spends her days, the girl is darkly compliant in her own eventual prostitution. This is the collection I would recommend to anyone who believed that Gellhorn was only interested in moral (or physical) glamour, in the emotional shock and awe of the century’s historical alpha moments – the portraits, the sense of a hopeless, tumbleweedy town build slowly, the writer’s eyes trained on the specks of dust in the light. For a woman always caricatured as living fast, hurtling through successes, marriages, wars, the stories are eerily, unexpectedly slow, and I think this must have been a pace that it was hard for Gellhorn to accommodate herself to.

The shift in tone in her later short stories is gradual but definite; it’s hard to tell if the thickening lassitude that seeps in is genuine Weltschmerz or a desire to play up to a kind of cynical world-weariness: “unimpressable Gellhorn”. Pretty Tales for Tired People, her collection from 1965, is probably the closest she comes to self-parody. Though “The Clever One” weaves a story of personal transformation against the complex structure of British class differences, stories such as “A Promising Career”, which depicts the hollow machinations of a couple rising in Oxbridge circles, fall flat and the characters are not so much interesting studies of resigned banality as, well, banal to read about. Her earlier collection, Two by Two, from 1958, sits halfway between this tone of resignation and brief moments of literary spark as Gellhorn shifts her attention to the dynamics of the marital relationship: the stories’ titles take the reader through the two-by-two steps of stilted or unworkable relationship patterns: “For Better for Worse”, “For Richer for Poorer”, “In Sickness and in Health”, “Til Death Us Do Part”.

Then, as late as 1978, Gellhorn brought out the fireworks again – The Weather in Africa, her final collection, shows characters humbled by the natural world, the environment placed centre stage: the stories descend through “On the Mountain” and “In the Highlands” to “By the Sea” as the cruelties of race and age ravage relationships. If Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” was about failure in the face of the physical landscape, Harry’s struggle in the face of death and his failure actually to write, The Weather in Africa, the final work of Gellhorn’s long career, feels more like a testament to what lasts – the strength of the natural world rather than the weakness of people.

Surveying Gellhorn’s writing like this – reading and appraising her, as she claimed she wanted to be read, primarily for her fiction – it’s hard to understand why these works are now virtually unread, while Hemingway’s remain popular with readers and – some of them – critically acclaimed. It is tempting to leap to a simple feminist conclusion – Gellhorn becomes the symbol, Hemingway the one who gets to tell the story – but this is not the whole picture either, not only because Gellhorn participated in making herself into a symbol (the iconic war correspondent), but also because she is widely read and renowned for her journalism, as the prestige of the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism attests. Is it that, now she is known as one of the last century’s most significant reporters, we don’t like to think of her making things up, inventing stories? Though it was Gellhorn herself who insisted that journalistic objectivity was “nonsense”. Whatever the reason, the power of Gellhorn’s journalism has a strong match in her fiction, which provides ample support for her wish to be remembered, above all, as a writer.

Heather McRobie is a DPhil candidate at the University of Oxford. Her first novel, Psalm 119, was published in 2008 and she is completing a second. Her non-fiction book on literary freedom, The Cultural Right to Literature, is due to be published later this year and she is a contributing editor to openDemocracy

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