Liana by Martha Gellhorn (1944)

Liana by Martha Gellhorn

Martha Gellhorn was married to Ernest Hemingway when Liana, her fifth novel, was published in 1944. She had already made quite a name for herself as a war correspondent by that point and it rankled her to be described as “Mrs. Ernest Hemingway” in reviews of her books.

Though her fiction varied in its quality and critical acclaim, her book of linked stories titled The Trouble I’ve Seen (1936), based on her actual observations as a journalist during the Depression, earned her a great deal of respect.

Her brief marriage to Hemingway was already in jeopardy the year that Liana appeared. In her capacity as a war correspondent, Gellhorn wanted to cover the action, wherever it happened to be.

In June of 1944 she sought to cover the landing of the Allied troops at Normandy, and was sabotaged from getting official press credentials by Hemingway, who resented her long absences. Undaunted, she forged ahead, employing her characteristic daring and subterfuge. She was the only female journalist at Normandy on D-Day.

When the novel was released early in 1944, World War II was coming to a peak and its author was otherwise preoccupied. It may not have received the kind of notice it might have, had it been published after the war.

An inauspicious marriage

The New York Times review of Liana from January 16, 1944 begins:

“With this new novel, Martha Gellhorn (Mrs. Ernest Hemingway) establishes herself as an honest and intelligent writer who has something to say and knows how to say it well. Liana has certain agreeable qualities of maturity and emotional understanding which are not always to be found in even the best modern art, still a predominantly male affair.

The story centers on Liana, who is described as a mulatto, or what we now call mixed-race. She marries Marc Royer, a wealthy white man on a fictional French Caribbean island called Saint Boniface.

For his part, he marries her mainly to spite another woman, and so, Liana is marked by a kind of tragedy in this sense, becoming a prisoner in his home, and a partner to a man who doesn’t fully love her.

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The trouble I've seen Martha Gellhorn

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An odd love triangle

As a way to mold her into a “white wife,” Marc engages a French intellectual named Pierre to tutor her. Predictably, Liana and Pierre fall in love, but Gellhorn is too skilled a writer to let the story devolve into love triangle cliché.

Marc, in fact, seems more sympathetic to Pierre than to his wife, but seen through Liana’s perspective, neither are to be completely trusted. She sees two white men conspiring against her.

Things take a complicated turn when Pierre wants to join the war effort, comforted by the notion that in his absence Marc will care for her. Marc’s wealth makes him impervious to reproach, but in tying her fortunes to his, Liana has alienated herself from the black race that’s part of her heritage.


Puncturing  a masculine trope

To quote again from the New York Times review:

“Pierre, the intellectual, is an old friend; you will find him, better drawn perhaps but recognizable, in a dozen modern novels. He is The Moral Man of E.M. Forester, The Natural Man of D.H. Lawrence … he is even, in some ways, Hemingway’s Man of Courage.

If you are as tired of seeing this character defended, extolled, and exalted in all his aggressively masculine virtue, you will appreciate Miss Gellhorn’s attempt to show what he looks like to a woman.”

The quibble that this review has with the book is that Gellhorn writes too much from the mind and too little from the heart, and that as an artist, she should have done a more thorough job of capturing “the mysteries of personality.”

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Martha Gellhorn, war correspondent

Learn more about Martha Gellhorn

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Another 1944 review

Here’s another contemporaneous review of Liana:

From the original review by Pearl Allred of Liana by Martha Gellhorn in The Ogden Standard-Examiner, February 27, 1944: Martha Gellhorn has managed to avoid stereotype in this tale concerning the two men and a woman on the little French island of Saint Boniface in the Caribbean.

The fact that the woman — Liana — is a Mulatto complicates the situation, but does not, certainly, give it any special degree of freshness.

Writers long before the period of Madame Butterfly and beyond the time of Wingless Victory have been preoccupied with the plight of the beautiful woman of color who, through no fault of her own, becomes the victim of a society to which she feels she doesn’t belong.

She is obligated to learn painfully not merely the fact that this is a man’s world, but that it is a white man’s world.

Liana, as the wife of Marc, the richest man on the island, is not happy, even though she has escaped from the existence she would have known among her own people. It is only when Pierre, the young French intellectual who has been engaged by Marc to tutor his wife, comes into her life that she knows what happiness can mean.

Pierre and Liana, as might be expected, fall in love, but the climax is not the usual and predicable  one in a triangle which involves lovers and jealous husbands. The author has brought to her story an understanding of character and an emotional maturity which keeps the reader from feeling he has read the same thing not merely once, but many times before.

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Liana, like Gellhorn’s first novel What Mad Pursuit (1934), is hard to come by. It would be fascinating to analyze whether a contemporary reading would feel racist or sexist.

Though knowing Gellhorn and her strong feelings about humanity and women’s equality, it would be hard to imagine that she’d knowingly or disingenuously write a book with a biased slant. Copies of Liana are hard to come by. Check your library system, or the library of a college or university.

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The Face of War by Martha Gellhorn

Martha Gellhorn page on Amazon

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