Rating 2.5 stars
The full title of this autobiography is My Life with Dylan Thomas: Double Drink Story. It is Caitlin Thomas’s memoir of her life as Dylan Thomas’s wife. I bought it on a whim at the Dylan Thomas Boathouse on the last day of my holiday in Laugharne. Earlier in the week, I’d read Aeronwy Thomas’s memoir, which didn’t put Caitlin or Dylan in a particularly good light. I was interested to know Caitlin’s take on things.
The book is split into three sections: Drink, Childhood and Dylan. Caitlin uses the first section to set the scene of who she and Dylan were in relation to each other and to drink, the second to describe how she came to be the person she was, and the third to life as Mrs Dylan Thomas. It makes a slight lie of the title, in that only roughly half of the book could be described as her life with Dylan. A good third of it is about her childhood. It’s not uninteresting, it’s just not what the book claims to be. I suppose that she knew that Caitlin Thomas: My Life wouldn’t have sold.
It’s no secret that both Dylan and Caitlin Thomas were alcoholics together, co-dependent to one extent, reacting to each other to a different extent. In her introduction to Double Drink Story, Caitlin admits the part alcohol played in inflating her own sense of talent, her desire to be a writer, and her frustration at living in the shadow of, as she puts it, “a genuinely great writer”. Also in her introduction, she admits that sobriety has removed her burning ambition to be seen as a writer, that she misses its burn and that she needs “to feel some other purpose in life beyond being simply sober.” Her prayers, she tells us, all boil down to a yearning for more in her life than what she already has, that her life has not all been for nothing. I wonder what her three children with Dylan Thomas and her fourth child with her Italian partner Giuseppe Fazio thought when they read that. Perhaps they didn’t read it. I know from Aeronwy’s memoir that Llewellyn was estranged from his mother following Dylan’s death, that Aeronwy was cared for by her aunt Nicolette, and that only Colm went to Italy with Caitlin.
From the off in this memoir, it’s clear that Caitlin was jealous of Dylan. She has a compulsion to place herself higher than him in ways that don’t directly challenge his writing talent, because as she admits, that was one place where she couldn’t beat him.
Should there be any scepticism about my allegiance to Dylan’s gift, I can but add that not only did I devoutly believe in it, but I would not have even considered accepting to live with him without it. Because, in my honest estimation, without his gift he would not have been worthy of me. It must be remembered that Dylan, in his bodily exterior, was not exactly a glamour boy. Without the excuse of the poetry inside him, it would have been a disgrace to my vanity to go around with or cohabit with such a short (he was hardly an inch taller than me), comical figure.
The poetry was the only reason she was with him, she tells us, even though she was not interested in the poetry. In her bitterness at not having the life she imagined would follow from marrying the coming man of poetry, she gives the impression that she never liked her husband, that she despised him and wanted nothing more from him than a drinking companion, sex and the reflected glory from his poetic talents.
It’s also clear that she was angry with him for dying and leaving her to fend for herself. This is an aspect where she seems confused about who she is supposed to be presenting herself as – on the one hand she claims that he didn’t deserve someone like her and she didn’t need him, but on the other she says that his death left her “to stew in the wicked juices of his perfectly unnecessary sacrifice – in the name of that confounded poetry.”
This was only the first chapter, and already I was starting to dislike Caitlin. I try not to judge my fellow women too hard, out of a sense of solidarity with our common struggle against the patriarchy, no matter where we are in patriarchy’s chronology, but some women are hard to warm to because their flaws as humans override their social position as women. With Caitlin, I could understand her frustration with her husband and her own lack of recognition, but I also thought that she knew what she was getting into when she married him. For all her claims that she never actually knew Dylan the person, she certainly knew the type of man he was and must have realised what that would mean for a life spent bound by marriage and parenthood to such a type.
We are supposed to believe that Caitlin was a free spirit, a rebel, an unconventional woman. She moved in artistic circles. She could have left. She could have hitched onto another rising star. She could have followed her own dream. From all of her protestations about whether Dylan deserved her, or whether they knew each other, the overriding impression is one of a woman who loved a man who didn’t love her back in the right way (whatever that right way was for her), who remained hurt by that years after his death. She is simultaneously a pathetic and a despicable character.
I understand as well that alcoholism is an illness, and that those who are in its grip don’t always act rationally. Even when sober, the illness doesn’t go away, and it struck me that whatever it was that Caitlin disliked about herself that led her to drink and to project her dislike onto her husband, while at the same time building herself up in her own mind as someone different, it didn’t leave her when she was sober. I had the sense that there was something deeper going on with her, that had paralysed her emotional development in childhood.
She is candid about how immature she was, admitting that she and Dylan were known as The Two Terrible Children. Childish petulance comes through constantly in the way she describes their relationship, her sexual jealousy, her vengeful affairs in retaliation for his. She must have been psychologically damage by her upbringing. Her own parents were hardly going to win any accolades. Her father abandoned the family, believing himself to be a poet, a free thinker, and someone who should be free to love as the moment dictated. Her mother didn’t believe in education and raised her three daughters, Caitlin tells us, as Barbarians.
I did feel sorry for her. She was young at the wrong time for someone so exuberant and self-confident in her abilities. She certainly came across in this memoir as being hemmed in by the expectations 1940s and ’50s society placed on married women to be the homemaker and the helpmeet. She describes herself as Dylan’s milkmaid, placed in that role by him, she says, because of his fear of intellectual women. She believes that he would have been ashamed of her, had she been more creative herself, a success in her own right. The woman she believed herself to be, in that case, was married to the wrong man.
Caitlin reminded me of the people who go on TV talent shows, convinced that they are the next big thing, when the reality is that they feel joy when performing but lack the necessary something to transform that personal joy into star quality. Caitlin seemed to me to do a similar thing in relation to her love for dancing. She conflated the joy and liberation she felt when expressing herself through movement to music with being the next Isadora Duncan. She writes self deprecatingly about her drunken dancing at the end of an evening in the pub, but it’s not enough to cloud her conviction that she could have been somebody. It made me wonder where the line is between exuberant exhibitionism and genuine talent. I like to sing and dance, but not in front of others. I like to express how I’m feeling with a good singalong or cutting some rug in the privacy of my own front room. Expressing yourself and enjoying that self expression is a fine thing, but it doesn’t make you a talent. Perhaps the line is drawn by other people, those who observe your self-expression. I wonder if it’s down to whether that self-expression moves someone else, that they connect with it. Because it’s one thing to be entertained or diverted by another person’s self-expression, it’s another thing entirely to become so lost in it that it feels as though you’re a part of it, too.
She seems to want to burst the legend that exists around Dylan Thomas, to diminish him as a man because she is furious that his talent is his epitaph and she is only ever seen in his shadow. From what I have read about him, the criticisms she levels at him seem to be true. He does seem to have been a weak willed, mild mannered, meek person who hid in drink and had this immense talent that he also worked at to hone and make something of it for his dad to feel proud. But Caitlin imbues his weakness with malevolence, which doesn’t ring true because of the hyperbole she uses when accusing him of ruining her life. She comes across as the proverbial woman scorned and, really, she was no better than him. I have more sympathy for Dylan out of the pair of them, but most of my sympathy lies with their children. And it is unfair that great talents are forgiven their human flaws more readily because of the gift their talent is to the world, but life is unfair. You would drown in bitterness if you did nothing but dwell on the injustice of life. Caitlin is exhibit A in the case I bring today, your honours.
Having said that, when she isn’t wallowing in bitterness and spitting vitriol, she has interesting things to say about life as the wife of Dylan Thomas. She naturally has a different perspective to that of the academic fanboys who have written the legend of Dylan, and to her daughter Aeronwy. People who never met Dylan Thomas in life can only know him through the descriptions of others, from pieced together stories, or from his poems. For all its flaws, of which the prime fault is the author’s unreliability, this memoir adds to that body of knowledge. As much as I didn’t like her, I enjoyed reading the book.
Her memories of childhood are entertaining. Her father disappeared early on, pursuing his life as a libertine, leaving her disinterested mother to bring up three girls on her own. Caitlin’s elder brother John was away being educated and then away being in the Navy. When Caitlin makes the claim that she and her sisters were neglected, it made me think of the neglect at Caitlin’s hands that is evident in Aeronwy Thomas’s memoir. Patterns form early for some, it seems. Other passages seem chosen to provide, without comment, reasons for Caitlin’s choices as an adult. So we have her disgust when she discovers that the handsome, flashy kingfisher lives a life of squalor inside his riverbank residence, and we have her thrill at riding a racehorse, wishing that she could go faster and faster and never stop, both suggestive of the lifestyle she would adopt as an adult.
Those early patterns continue into adulthood, and her recounting of marital life and motherhood focuses on the first flush headiness of love bordering on infatuation, before moving on to the disappointment of how that first flush cannot be sustained, that romantic love burns out quickly. For two such children as Caitlin and Dylan, infidelity and drink are the answers to the boredom that sets in. Caitlin says that Dylan should never have married, but it seemed to me as I read her part in their union that she should never have married either.
One interesting thing that she says about Dylan is that he always got what he wanted, that he had a plan for his life as a poet, and that his drinking was part of that plan.
He knew who he was, what he wanted, and he went straight for it and he got it. It may not have looked as though Dylan knew where he was going, but he had it all worked out somewhere in the recesses of his head, right up until death. Although it proved inordinately tough to polish off that “frail” constitution of his in romantic time, he continued to hammer at it with blows of asphyxiating neat spirits, and they slowly and reluctantly did the job. He had told his body to stop before he was forty years old, but his body was unwilling to stop and he only just made it.”
That’s quite a thing to think about, that disorganised, dishevelled Dylan had a plan all along, and the plan was to die before he was forty.
She also says something interesting about America being the death of Dylan as a poet even before it was the death of him as a person.
Every creator has this rising fear of losing his sacred sap. Had Dylan been able to go on quietly and anonymously, as at the beginning, I believe that he would surely have produced more and even better stuff. But after his castration as a poet in America, it was not possible for him to turn back the clock and start again from scratch. He had produced enough to make his personality felt and his name heard to the ends of the earth. He was both a writing poet and a living poet, but he spent more time being a living poet acting out his personal legend.
Dylan needed to be alone in America to have full unrestricted scope; to have enough rope to do all that he needed to do, all the good and the bad things a great poet has got to do, in order to make his legend live in his lifetime. He had an unfailing sense of dramatic timing: had he not died just when he did, on his last visit to America alone, his great poet’s legend would not have been half so dramatic.
Overall, I found this memoir to be a simultaneously mundane and tragic story. The difference between it and Aeronwy’s memoir is that I didn’t feel true sympathy with the author, only a vague pity and a more definite dislike. There was much about her that I ought to have liked – her childlike joie-de-vivre growing up, her inner conviction that women are equal to men in everything and that the patriarchy is a construct to be despised, and her unflinching honesty. Her equally unflinching selfishness was too much, though. Although only a short book, it was too long a stretch to be in her company. Especially as it was Dylan that I was looking for.
The memoir is bookended by apologists for Caitlin’s cause. At the beginning, her editor puts in a plea for understanding of this damaged individual by setting out in unemotional terms the facts of her life, almost in preparation for the extremely emotional and unobjective memoir that follows. At the end, her Italian son Francesco sets her alcoholism against her sobriety, and makes the point that it is easy to judge an alcoholic for their behaviour. He describes reading her memories of life with Dylan Thomas as a nightmare.
I still feel that alcohol wasn’t the entirety of the problem with either of them, though, and that their selfish immaturity was equal cause for the tragedy of their life together.