The Novellas of Martha Gellhorn Analysis
As a reporter, and perhaps as a woman, Gellhorn has been especially attuned to the way in which her characters dress and carry themselves. In “Mrs. Maddison, ” one of four novellas about her Depression-era work, she evokes not merely a character but a way of life and an age in painstaking and lively detail. Mrs. Maddison stands before her mirror trying on her hat, tilting it toward her right eye, then toward her left. Her face appears confused in the cracked mirror. This cheap, white straw hat shaped like a pot has been trimmed by Mrs. Maddison herself with a “noisily pink starchy rose, in the centre front, like a miner’s lamp.” When she walks outside, the flower (pinned to her hat) nods as she walks, bows before she does, and sometimes blows “from side to side, petulantly.” This is her best hat, the one she wears when she goes to pick up her relief check. It is important to Mrs. Maddison that no one should suppose that she needs things. She will get what is coming to her, but no one is going to think that she should be pitied.
Without commentary, the author conveys Mrs. Maddison’s dignity, her effort to achieve balance in her life by setting her hat on her head just so. Mrs. Maddison has a sense of style. Accepting relief is a blow to her pride, but she will find an honorable way to deal with it. Only a writer who had lived with someone such as Mrs. Maddison could describe her most characteristic features in such precise and evocative prose, or would think to include the detail about the safety pin in the hat that rubs against her forehead. The enormous care that the character takes with her own person is paralleled by the author’s concern to find exactly the right words to describe her.
By contrast, “For Richer for Poorer,” one of the four novellas in Two by Two, portrays an entirely different culture and class of people and reveals other strengths in Gellhorn’s fiction. Rose Answell, an ambitious woman, schemes to make her pliable husband, Ian, a Cabinet minister. She has a great love of position and no love for Ian after he realizes that his marriage and family life have been a sham. She abandons him as soon as she sees that he is serious about retiring to farming. Much of the story’s interest comes from observing Rose’s maneuvers in England’s high social and political life and in her dealing with ladies whose “beauty was a public service.” They are “elegant, serene . . . able and sportingly willing to please,” and they find Rose’s conniving progress to the top beyond what their conventions will allow. Gellhorn conveys their feelings through the tone of their dialogue—as she does with Rose, whose cold-heartedness needs no explanation after this cutting exchange with Ian:“I thought Chloe was looking a treat,” Ian said. “Oh, did you? I thought she seemed rather haggard. And she never varies, does she? I find that tiddly talk quite exasperating in the long run.” Sensible and funny and generous, Ian thought, what more could anyone be? But there was something more, and better, and he did not know exactly what it was. “She’s a very good friend.” “Oh, Ian, what a pointless thing to say.”
Gellhorn avoids melodrama in her depiction of Rose by showing how Ian and other men have allowed themselves to be manipulated by her. When Ian realizes that Rose is all ambition, he leaves her, and she easily switches to another man whose credentials for the Cabinet she can brighten.
“For Richer for Poorer” is set in a highly polished world of surfaces that Gellhorn knows well from having lived for more than forty years in England and been acquainted with prominent women such as Lady Diana Cooper. The story begins with Lady Harriet Adderford frowning at “the exquisite curve of her mouth” in a mirror. She is unhappy about her lipstick. The seemingly trivial detail is precisely the point of Gellhorn’s art. Ladies and gentlemen in this society build their reputations by attention to aesthetic details, to form and fashion. Rose Answell irritates Lady Harriet primarily because of her style, which reflects aspirations that threaten to upset polite society.
Gellhorn’s reach from people on relief to English drawing rooms to the geography of Africa, where characters both lose and find themselves is extraordinary. The changes of setting reflect a restlessness in the characters and their creator; both are constantly looking for ways of refreshing their sense of humanity.