HILLY JANES The Three Lives of Dylan Thomas. Reviewed by Peter Corris
This book commemorates the 100th anniversary of Thomas’s birth and offers new insights into his life.
We ‘did’ Dylan Thomas in the fourth year of the Honours course in English at Melbourne University and I bought his Collected Poems second-hand at the university book exchange. In those days impecunious students could trade in the books they’d had for the previous year on the purchase of those they needed next. I doubt I had a new textbook for the whole four years.
The Dent edition I had, and still have, was published in 1952 – the year before Thomas’s death. My copy, bought in 1963, was the 13th impression. Over that 11 years the book had been reprinted every year and twice in some years. Thomas had obviously been a very popular poet.
As a person he was popular with some and loathed by others. Edith Sitwell said, ‘He loved humanity and had contempt only for the cruel, the unkind … and the mean,’ while historian AJP Taylor wrote:
I disliked Dylan Thomas intensely. He was cruel and a sponger, even when he had money of his own. He went out of his way to hurt people who helped him.
In a way, this book attempts to reconcile these two reactions but is not entirely successful. Hilly Janes is the daughter of Welsh artist Fred Janes, who was a lifelong friend of Dylan Thomas. That, given Thomas’s capacity to offend people, niggle them and ignore their hardships while stressing his own, was no mean feat. The book’s title relates to the three portraits of Thomas produced over the years by Fred Janes.
However, with the author’s access to letters between Thomas and her father and to the memories of those who knew the poet, the book offers new insights. It paints a convincing picture of a lost world, the frustrations and successes of a circle of arty friends – poets, painters, musicians – in the unpromising milieu of Swansea in the 1930s. Drinking ersatz coffee, smoking Woodbines and roll-ups and nursing pints of watery beer, they discussed everything and influenced each other’s work.
At various times these men, whom Thomas called ‘the Swansea bohemians in exile’, were in London, living in squalor. Thomas said that ‘they were going to ring the bells of London and paint it like a tart’. They didn’t.
In tracing Thomas’s erratic path through the late 1930s and the war years – the success of early volumes of verse, script-writing for propaganda documentaries and BBC broadcasts – Hilly Janes traverses familiar ground. Thomas had the ability and nous to be polite and charming when it suited him. His warmth and sheer entertainment value won him an audience in the pub until the drink took hold, when he became obstreperous and violent. He mostly pulled himself together for his performances, but with booze as his prop, Dylan Thomas was a functioning alcoholic from his late teens.
Almost everyone who had anything to do with Thomas wrote or spoke about him at one time or another and the real value of Janes’s book is to tease out these comments. One, in particular, from musician Dan Jones, offers as good an assessment of Thomas’s approach to writing verse as I know:
Every letter of the alphabet was to him a performance, it began, it developed and it drew to a close; it had pitch, volume and duration: it also had shape; even alone it had meaning, words were sustained pieces, full of form and cadence. Lines and sentences offered a thousand possibilities of structure, imagery and association. The particular music in Dylan’s poetry springs spontaneously and directly from his acute sense of the reality of words as ‘things’ quite apart from their meaning.
Whatever you might think of that as a poetic method, it meant a lot of work. Some of the poems required more than 100 worksheets, pages covered with rhyming words, synonyms and alternatives. The result was ‘Fern Hill’, ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’, ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’ and, to my mind, a substantial number of fine poems we would not want to go without, along with much dross.
To be honest, the book is a bit of a hotch-potch with its shifts in focus from Thomas to Fred Janes, Vernon Watkins, Dan Jones and others. It’s impossible not to feel sympathy for them as they were plagued for years after Thomas’s death by journalists, academics and literary tourists, including many Americans, who had no interest in their own work and only wanted to talk about him.
Thomas achieved what would now be termed rock-star status in the US and earned thousands of dollars, which he spent as if there were no tomorrow as, indeed, there was not, for him. Back home his family was struggling as usual:
The coal, essential for heating and hot water, had been cut off, the milk delivery was about to follow and there were other outstanding debts to pay. Cheques had been bounced at the Savage Club and demands came from publishers who had paid advances but had not received what they had commissioned.
Janes has written a well-informed and researched account of the unedifying story of squabbles over Thomas’s estate. It was valued at a mere £100 at his death but over the years his copyrights generated hundreds of thousands of pounds, administered by a UK trust and one in the US. Thomas’s wife Caitlin was a frequent litigant. As volatile a creature as Dylan himself, she had it right when she said ‘What had his way of life to do with the merit of his writing?’
Nevertheless, it was the way of life that sustained interest in Thomas, as demonstrated by the 2008 film The Edge of Love about an incident in his turbulent career. This book, despite its faults, commemorates the 100th anniversary of Thomas’s birth, and will attract readers still gripped by ‘Fern Hill’ and Under Milk Wood. It is safe to say, with the millions of words written about the poet, that we now know all we need to know about Dylan Thomas.
Hilly Janes The Three Lives of Dylan Thomas The Robson Press 2014 HB 382pp $36.50
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