Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Looking at Agatha Christie's 1920s Novels via Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises"

Hemingway's Writing Studio
Hemingway was born in Oak Park, Illinois, in 1899, just a few years after the World’s Columbian Exhibition in 1893. One of the by-products of the Exhibition was that young people from rural areas were exposed to the Big City and all of the tantalizing advances of the American Industrial Revolution. Among those drawn to Chicago were writers such as Carl Sandburg, Theodore Dreiser, and Edgar Lee Masters. The years between 1912 and 1925 are characterized as the Chicago Literary Renaissance and Hemingway was coming of age during that time.

Sherwood Anderson, who wrote the stories in the book Winesburg, Ohio, was also part of this Chicago literary society. He met Hemingway in 1920 and became a sort of mentor to the younger man. By this time, Hemingway had already recovered from the wounds he received as an ambulance driver during World War I and had been writing for the Toronto Star Weekly.

Also during this time, Hemingway met and married Hadley Richardson. Barely existing on her small trust fund and his freelancing for the Toronto Star Weekly, Anderson suggested the young couple move to Paris where the post-war economy was more affordable and there was an exciting expat creative community. He even provided letters of introduction to his friends Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound.
Paris during the 1920s must have been amazing! Stein would hold gatherings that included Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, Sinclair Lewis and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and many other creative types. Hemingway moved in this circle as well and even asked Stein to be his son’s godmother.

In June of 1925, Hemingway returned to Pamplona, Spain for the Festival of San Fermin, which he had fallen in love with a few years before. He started writing The Sun Also Rises in July, finishing the first draft in just a couple months. Following revisions and edits, the novel was published in October of 1926. A second printing was ordered in just a couple of months.

People loved the book. Or hated the book. They found it realistic. Or a flight of fancy. Regardless, it remained in print for decades and spurred new analyses over the years. The character of Lady Brett Ashley has often been dissected and discussed. Was she a poor little rich girl starved for love or a spoiled slut without a heart? Since Hemingway wrote an awful lot about manliness and was married four times, one has to wonder how much he really understood about women.

Lady Brett was based on a real woman of Hemingway’s acquaintance, Mary Duff, Lady Twysden. She was in her twenties during WWI. While proof is elusive, it’s probable that she served in some capacity during the war as so many did, either working men’s jobs while they were overseas or nursing. That war time experience no doubt impacted women in many ways and influenced a lot of “flapper” behavior.

Yes, there was that new taste of independence in which a girl could work – often in trousers! – and make her own money. But war is a grim business and few families were untouched by that grimness. Many lost fathers and brothers and sons or brought them home maimed and broken. Girls who worked in hospitals experienced horrors daily such as amputations, chemical burns, and other disfiguring wounds. It’s no wonder fictional Lady Bretts and their real-life counterparts adopted a “devil take tomorrow” attitude.

Rereading Agatha Christie’s 1920s novels after contemplating The Sun Also Rises is an interesting exercise. Did mild-mannered Arthur Hastings suffer battle flashbacks? Were the outwardly self-possessed women screaming inside? “Keep Calm and Carry On” didn’t become a slogan until the next war, but seems to have been born during The Lost Generation years.