Ruthven Todd is very clear about it.

In The Ghost of Dylan Thomas, he sums it up: ‘Honesty had to declare that Dylan died of Dylan.’ Not whisky. Not the doctor who administered the drugs that probably finished him off. Dylan lived and died the myth. He was certain he wouldn’t see 40. His life proceeded towards the destruction he anticipated.

But on the back cover of Paul Ferris’s biography of Thomas’s wife Caitlin, another culprit is identified. “Here, for the first time, we are shown the extent of his dependence on her, and how, as their marriage collapsed, her despairing behaviour helped to destroy him.” So Caitlin turns out to have been an accomplice.

Several weighty biographies of Dylan Thomas have been written. The combination of the poetry and dramatic/tragic life style made him a marvellous subject.

But Caitlin rarely emerges as a sympathetic figure and there is a significant gender issue, I think, in the way she has been treated. She behaved very like her husband, but without the redeeming quality of ‘genius’. She also lacked the advantage of being a man.

Paul Ferris, who wrote biographies of both Dylan and Caitlin, didn’t like her much (a lot of people didn’t like her much). Brenda Maddox suggests that “Ferris’s toughest target was Caitlin Thomas, Dylan’s wife, his slave (according to her) and, in later life, his greedy, drunken widow. Ferris admits ”Mrs. Thomas wasn’t my cup of tea; nor was I hers.” When Caitlin: The Life of Caitlin Thomas, in which she collaborated (for a fee), was published, one of her sons asked him the dreaded question: ”But did you like my mother?” All Ferris could do, he says, was lie.’ http://www.nytimes.com/books/99/05/09/bookend/bookend.html

‘Greedy, drunken widow’! What a stereotype! Kathryn Hughes, in reviewing one of the films about the doomed Thomases, creates a truer snapshot: ‘. . .while Dylan’s early life was pinched and stable, Caitlin’s was disturbingly free. She lived in gentrified chaos in a tatty house in the New Forest with her sisters and brother. While Dylan started his sex life among the local high-school girls, including possibly Vera Phillips, later Vera Killick, Caitlin was brutally initiated by her father’s friend Augustus John, who considered sleeping with teenagers one of the perks of artistic genius.’

Paul Ferris mentions the rumour that Augustus John was thought by some to have been Caitlin’s father. He thinks it unlikely. However, the ‘great’ painter did have sex with her mother and her sister. He had casual sex with innumerable partners, just as Caitlin did later. But promiscuity in a male artist causes little damage to the reputation: it may even enhance it.

In Glyn Jones’s obituary of Caitlin, in The Independent, (2 August, 1994), he says she was ‘seduced by John himself when she started to model for him’.

Seduced? According to her own account, she was raped. He was a close family friend, almost a father figure. She was nursing a crush on his son Caspar, but she got the father instead. Here is what she says, in Caitlin, Life with Dylan Thomas:

One day Augustus said, ‘Come over to the studio. I want to paint you.’ So I did. It seemed quite an honour, although I didn’t think of it like that because I had known him since my earliest childhood.’

    Augustus was then at the height of his fame; in fact, his reputation had become somewhat inflated because of his notorious lifestyle. As an artist, I thought he had great talent, especially with his drawings and some of his portraits.

    [. . .]

   The first time I went to sit for him he didn’t speak to me or say anything to put me at my ease: he just glared most ferociously, without the trace of a smile, with his long black hair and long black beard accentuating his fierceness. He usually offered his models £1, but he didn’t pay me a penny, and then right at the end of the session he suddenly leapt on me, pulling up my dress and tearing off my pants, and made love to me, although you could hardly call it love. It was totally unexpected and I was still a virgin. He didn’t ask for my consent or even try to woo me; he just pounced and I couldn’t fight because he was an enormous, strong, bestial man. I was cowed and too frightened to resist. What drove me nearly crazy was that I had wanted Caspar and now I had his hairy animal of a father on top of me instead.

     I was petrified. When he had finished (and it didn’t take long) Augustus just got up, adjusted his clothes, and left the room. He didn’t say anything to me, not even ‘sorry’. I didn’t burst out crying. I just got dressed myself, thinking how disgusting he was. I suppose it was rape, but that thought didn’t enter my mind; he was a very old friend of my father’s.

    [. . .]

    I went and posed for Augustus again the next day – I had to, the painting wasn’t finished – and the same thing happened.

   Augustus did have a reputation for behaving like that, but nobody had warned me in advance. In the end I was more disgusted than frightened. Every time I did a sitting I knew what was coming at the end – the big leap. I just waited for it, thinking, ‘Oh my God. If only I could escape.’ He could see that I was miserable because he would ask me sometimes, ‘What are you so sad about?’ But I couldn’t tell him. Sometimes, I tried to push him away but I didn’t want to offend him, and eventually I think he became quite fond of me. He painted several portraits of me in oils: one is well-known, but I don’t know what happened to the others. He also did many drawings, which I hated sitting for because he did most of those nude. I used to die a thousand deaths because he would sit me down on a divan and tear my legs apart until I was in the position he wanted.

    Augustus made me very anti-sex: you couldn’t call his man-handling making love; there was no tenderness at all. It was horrible, with his great hairy face: I don’t know why I didn’t fight it; why I just let him get on with it when I certainly had no pleasure myself – it was like being attacked by a goat. The saddest thing is that my whole sexual development happened the wrong way round. It was a catastrophe from which I have never quite recovered.

    [ . . .] I never became fond of Augustus, although he did start taking me around a bit. He took me out to lunch and dinner, introducing me to people as Francis’s daughter. Afterwards we used to stay the night at his flat in Fitzroy Square: I didn’t enjoy the love-making part, but I liked going out with him because he would take me off to the Eiffel Tower and other restaurants where the food was good, and I came to look upon the sexual side of it as a necessary sacrifice.’

Poor Caitlin. Her early experience of sex – she was only in her teens – was abusive. What did she learn from it? That sex was a necessary price to pay, that ‘proper’ men were dominating, that she ‘didn’t want to offend him’.

No wonder she settled with Thomas, a wimp of a man who liked to be treated like a baby and even have his pullover put on for him by his wife. It was the opposite kind of sexual relationship (though equally frustrating).

Ferris seems to conclude that Caitlin’s later promiscuity was simply a character feature: he assumes she liked sex and wanted lots of it, like her father. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that promiscuity is often an adult feature where sexual abuse occurs earlier, and that in such cases, the promiscuous person often drinks heavily. It’s a sign of damage, not of moral ‘badness’.

So Augustus John used Caitlin and later she used him. She was a survivor. But she was not a courtesan. Until he raped her, she was almost certainly a normal young girl, full of life and spirit, and ambition to be a dancer. He interfered, and she wasn’t his only victim.

But look what happens to her in retrospect. Paul Ferris’s biography of Caitlin includes a plate of Augustus John’s painting of her – and the text below picture reads: ‘Augustus John’s painting of a radiant but predatory Caitlin, not long before she married Dylan Thomas in 1937.’ Predatory? It is clear which of the two, painter or model, was the predator.

Even more disturbingly, earlier in the biography he discusses a photograph of Caitlin with her two sisters. The girls are on holiday in France, and they seem to have been swimming. They are naked, anyway, with towels slung round them. Caitlin was eight, pre-pubescent. ‘Brought up, as were all the Johns and the Macnamaras, to be relaxed about showing off their bodies, Caitlin was soon making the most of hers.’ [She was EIGHT].

He goes on to say: ‘A snapshot of Us 3 at Cannes, 1922, during a visit to the Majoliers, shows the sisters draped in bathing towels. Brigit, aged ten, is covered up. The towel around Nicolette, aged eleven, has fallen open, conceivably by accident. In Caitlin’s case she is clearly parting the towel for maximum effect, her right foot bent back to touch the ground with her toes, eyes closed and a ‘look at me being naughty’ smile on her face. She was eight, already posing and arranging her limbs.’

Considering the recent furore about a UK barrister calling a 13-year old girl ‘predatory’, we may think we have made some advances since Ferris’s biography. But the book was first printed in 1992, updated 1995. That’s only twenty years ago.

Caitlin’s early experience of sex – abusive and disturbing – was likely to have been a key factor in her later alcoholism and promiscuity. You don’t have to be a psychoanalyst to see that. She struggled hard with her demons, and so did Dylan, but they were probably, in the modern sense, ‘co-dependent’ in terms of alcohol. It was terribly sad.

Paul Ferris talks about Caitlin’s ‘campaign to prove she had been an alcoholic’, as if drink was never a problem. He talks about her dismissal of sex in old age as the brushing aside of ‘what was once a natural taste for it’. Natural? So Augustus John’s use and abuse of her was catering to a ‘natural taste’? He comments on her violent nature (she was prone to battering Dylan with her fists) and suggests that ‘more than once she was on the receiving end of violence from men, without much protest’. So she enjoyed it then? He refers to her as Augustus John’s ‘lover’. He talks about her story of unhappiness at school and says that ‘like many of Caitlin’s’, it ‘manufactures despair.’

We go through our lives trying to make sense of them. We manufacture our stories. We make the best we can of what we have.

It is best not to become the partner of a dysfunctional artist, in whose biographies you will inevitably become a character. If he dies young and tragically, you will never ever escape him. It is not just Dylan Thomas who becomes more myth than man. Poor Caitlin. Poor Caitlin.



10 thoughts on “WHO KILLED DYLAN THOMAS?”

  1. That’s all very interesting. I don’t know if I would have liked Caitlin either (how can I know?) but she has certainly been given the gendered treatment. The talk of “promiscuity” reminds me once again of Sylvia Plath, whose sex-life before meeting Hughes is habitually presented in biographies, articles, etc as a[i] problem[/i]. She certainly did have mental health issues, but is having several sexual partners and a healthy sexual appetite indicative of mental health issues? No-one has (as far as I know) seen fit to refer to [i]Ted Hughes[/i]’ sex-life and sexual appetite prior to meeting his wife as problematic; he had quite a few girlfriends and one-night stands, this is what men do, that’s the clear message. (But not women, oddly. Not sane women anyway.) That such double-standards are trotted out so unthinkingly by intelligent people is an indication of how deep-rooted they still are.

  2. I think we sometimes just don’t realise the double standard we’re applying. It creeps up on us. Some aspects of the Paul Ferris biography, which has taken me twenty years to read, are carefully balanced and interesting. I’m glad he wrote it. But I think certain aspects, like the comments on the photographs I raised, would be picked up by reviewers now, or by an editor before the book saw the light of day. He was uncomfortable about the fact that he didn’t like her, I think, but not fully aware of the implications of some of his comments.

    Caitlin reminds me of a friend of mine. She was a difficult friend, and offended most people, but she [i]was[/i] a friend. Like Caitlin, she had been raped in her youth, and later behaved like a ‘loose woman’: sex and drink, drink and sex. It was a way of self harming. The cycle can be incredibly hard to break out of, even for self-aware, highly intelligent people.

    Ferris mentions Caitlin’s suicide attempts but dismisses them as ‘half-hearted’ as though that, too, was a sign of hypocrisy. My friend made a number of half-hearted suicide attempts too. She was regarded by many as attention-seeking. And then she made the attempt that wasn’t half-hearted. You only have to succeed once….

  3. And, as well, if one is suicidal and doesn’t know how to find the words to explain the internal landscape, isn’t “attention seeking” what is, in fact, required?

    For all the lip service paid to the horrors of (especially childhood) sexual abuse, people are woefully ignorant and judgmental about how those who have gone through it tend to later interact with themselves, and the world, and why.

    I’m sorry we people are, to such a great extent, so harsh to one another. And I’m sorry for your loss.

  4. I agree, Leigh. As Philip Larkin has it in ‘The Mower’ (though the poem cherishes an ideal he didn’t always exemplify), ‘We should be careful// of each other, we should be kind /
    while there is still time.’ My friend died a long time ago now, but I haven’t forgotten her.

  5. Great post, Nell.

    PS: I met Ruthven Todd once in the Chelsea Arts Club in my youth.
    PPS: Not quite the same, but I wonder if anyone has ever written a novel from Mrs Joe Gargery’s standpoint?

  6. Describing someone as “attention-seeking” is usually just another way of dismissing them. And I feel this is gendered too, a way of not taking women’s distress in particular seriously. I personally have rarely heard men or boys described as “attention-seeking.”

    You’re right, Nell, someone only has to succeed once. And suicide without a long and painful backstory is rare.

  7. It’s shocking to read this. My mother went to stay with the Johns one summer; they were family friends and her mother was a working single mother. She had to sit for Augustus John and she too was abused by him. When the summer ended and she went back to boarding school she couldn’t bring herself to write them a thank you letter, no matter how angry her mother got about it. I had always hoped that it was not full blown intercourse but these descriptions of what he did to Caitlin are graphic, and I’m sure my mother, who was a young and very beautiful teenager, would have been subjected to the same treatment.
    Paul Ferris’s descriptions are also shocking and quite appalling. I agree, times have changed now – thank God.

  8. I’m so very sorry about your mother, Sarita — how terribly terribly sad. But brilliant that the rebel in her refused to write the thank you letter. That’s something to be proud of.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.