BOOK REVIEW / Impersonating a poet's wife: 'Caitlin: The Life of Caitlin Thomas' - Paul Ferris: Hutchinson, 20 pounds

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The Independent Culture
PHILIP LARKIN, writing to Kingsley Amis in 1985, complained about the letters Dylan Thomas wrote to his wife Caitlin: 'What struck me most was that he might never have met her before . . . no friendliness, nothing to suggest that they had a life they shared and enjoyed . . . All snivelling and grovelling and adoring and so very impersonal.'

The work and life of Dylan Thomas and his Irish wife hold special charm for the excited but inexperienced. For those not yet simultaneously touched and tired out by life, the juice and sound of Thomas's poetry can be all hortative sap and vowelling declaration. Larkin's 'impersonal' is right; perhaps what caused this tone in the letters was the continual pressure under which Thomas felt himself to behave and express himself like a poet. He found it useful, at first; it brought him women, patrons and cash. Drafts remain of wretched poems that are just worked-up begging letters. By impersonating a poet, he harmed, and was intelligent enough to see he was harming, the gift he had.

A certain romance continues to cling to the Dylan / Caitlin marriage. They were physically both soft, rosy, curly-headed, babylike, boozy Celts. Their story has been told in several biographies of Thomas and in Caitlin's own frightening, score-settling book Leftover Life to Live, which can only have poured salt into the wounds that already exist within the Thomas family and her own family of broke Irish grandees, the Macnamaras. Caitlin's sister, Nicolette Devas, took out libel insurance when Two Flamboyant Fathers, her own absorbing version of life in their parents' circle, came out.

The account Paul Ferris offers of this messy, self-indulgent life is as frank as Caitlin's own, but is much less ready to forgive. Her progress from a prematurely deflowered Bohemian sexpot to a solipsistic old woman obsessed with money and the body's grossness took a predictable route through gallons of drink and repeatedly unrewarding couplings, often with working men (better value physically and not so prone as arty types to require talk afterwards) whom she used like whores. They did not provide lasting satisfaction. Her letters alternate between throbbingly adjectival pastiche of her husband's style, and the simple pique of a woman cheated and bored by a life that offered what she thought she wanted (marriage with a poet), and left her with his three children and the substantial earnings of his estate. Nothing is enough. Perhaps all along she confused spiritual hunger with bodily thirst. However that might be, the cunning but open girl who was good at seeing and catching life wore herself out in grudges.

The crapulous tone of this life is underlined by Caitlin's own acknowledgement, in middle age, of her alcoholism, and by her childlike, cowardly attempts to blame on it all her emotional and financial bad faith. The childhood of her children by Thomas (one of whom would not have anything to do with this book) makes horrible reading. There is a fourth child, by her Sicilian companion, a son named Francesco Thomas. She has devoted herself to fighting for him to receive a share of the royalties of the man she named him for. He contributes a filial afterword of touching Mediterranean piety. It is the happiest thing about this trite cautionary tale of golden life ignorantly squandered.

Caitlin Thomas sacrificed the personal in the pursuit of the selfish. Paul Ferris tells the damaged story in a workmanlike way that manages also to suggest the qualities that made people let her use and harm them. (She once broke her arm beating a maidservant.) The best accounts of the whole mess are still to be found in John Malcolm Brinnin's essays and in the light, sharp memoirs of Theodora Fitzgibbon.