Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Although Martha Gellhorn is better known for her superb journalism, this collection demonstrates her formidable skills as an observer of social manners and cultural differences in settings that range from the United States to England to Italy and to Africa. The Novellas of Martha Gellhorn represents some of her best fiction ranging from her Depression-era work, the four novellas of The Trouble I’ve Seen (1936), to the three novellas of The Weather in Africa (1978). The fiction is a product of Gellhorn’s mania for travel, her urge to see how other people live. The novellas in The Trouble I’ve Seen are firsthand accounts of the people she met while working for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Federal Emergency Relief Administration. The way in which these people thought and dressed are noted with exquisite detail and sympathy but with remarkably little of the sentimentality that often mars the proletarian fiction of the 1930’s. The stories still seem fresh.

Gellhorn’s later fiction often focuses on the subject of marriage; indeed her second book of novellas, Two by Two (1958), takes the titles of its four stories from the marriage service: “For Better for Worse,” “For Richer for Poorer,” “In Sickness and in Health,” and “Till Death Us Do Part.” Here she shows a wonderful ear for dialogue, revealing the joys and tensions of courtship and marriage through the exchanges of lovers who often misunderstand the import of each other’s words. She continues this interest in the vagaries of marriage in the...

(The entire section is 645 words.)

The Novellas of Martha Gellhorn Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Gellhorn’s major impact has been as a journalist. Her superb war reportage, reprinted in The Face of War (1988), and her articles on social and political issues, reprinted in The View from the Ground (1988), have won her considerable acclaim. Her nonfiction has appeared at regular intervals both in book form and in mass circulation magazines. Her body of fiction, on the other hand, is small and has appeared irregularly. She has said she finds fiction difficult to write, even though she has often preferred it to her journalism, which she writes rapidly and without much revision. Moreover, her brand of fiction, a kind of novel-of-manners approach, has seemed unremarkable when juxtaposed against the experimental and innovative fiction of the twentieth century. She has been classed as a minor writer of fiction, continuing the tradition established by Henry James and Edith Wharton.

Nevertheless, interest in Gellhorn’s fiction has steadily increased. The Novellas of Martha Gellhorn is only one effort by publishers to reprint her best work. Virago Press, which specializes in reviving important work that deals directly with women’s issues, has issued paperback editions of A Stricken Field (1940) and Liana (1944), two novels that center on women striving to survive in male-dominated societies. The women in these novels are victimized by men, though the female reporter in A Stricken Field has an unquenchable ambition that makes her more than a match for the male journalists who admire her but cannot resist the temptation also to belittle her.

Gellhorn has never been a programmatic writer. Her values derive from her precise observations of people and events. She can be as hard on her female as on her male characters. She has spent little time decrying the unfairness of male privilege, instead preferring to fight for her place in traditionally male preserves. As her novellas reveal, Gellhorn’s passion is social justice. If human beings are treated decently, she implies, such issues as the relationship between the sexes and women’s rights will receive their fair share of attention.

The Novellas of Martha Gellhorn Bibliography

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Gellhorn, Martha. “The Real Thing.” Interview by Victoria Glendinning. Vogue 178 (April, 1988): 358-359, 398. One of Gellhorn’s rare interviews, conducted by a distinguished biographer.

Kert, Bernice. The Hemingway Women. New York: W. W. Norton, 1983. Contains a long, revealing chapter on Gellhorn, based on an interview with the subject.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Hemingway: A Biography. New York: Harper & Row, 1985. Contains the fullest account of Gellhorn’s years with Ernest Hemingway. Includes some discussion of Gellhorn’s fiction.

Rollyson, Carl. Nothing Ever Happens to the Brave: The Story of Martha Gellhorn. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. The first full-length biography of Gellhorn, exploring both her work and her life. With extensive notes, a chronology of Gellhorn’s writing, and an index.