Wednesday 21 February 2018

Literary ladies: do all great minds drink alike?

Deirdre Conroy looks at celebrated women writers who were serious drinkers and queries whether addiction is the sine qua non of the creative impulse

Talk of the Town: Writer Maeve Brennan about 1948, photographed by Karl Bissinger in the New York apartment of the theatre critic Thomas Quinn Curtiss.
Talk of the Town: Writer Maeve Brennan about 1948, photographed by Karl Bissinger in the New York apartment of the theatre critic Thomas Quinn Curtiss.

In her recently published book, The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, Olivia Laing explores the link between alcohol and writing in the lives of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Cheever, Carver and Williams. But what of their female counterparts - literary ladies of the 20th century were unlikely to hang out alone in bars knocking back whiskey; their private drinking was habit-forming, their party drinking condoned.

I like to have a Martini,

Two at the very most.

After three I'm under the table,

After four I'm under my host.

Dorothy Parker's paean to the Martini is typical of her sharp wit and self-deprecation, concealing layers of restless sadness. She dares to express sexuality and a proclivity to drink when the feminist movement was hardly a blip on the horizon. A Martini or four at the Algonquin Round Table, where Parker reigned, was the sophisticated lubricant for wit and satire. But when the bottle beats the tortured soul in private, the battle lacks sophistication. Even though her career was highly successful, her marriages and affairs were less so, one affair culminated in depression following an abortion and her first suicide attempt. The legacy of loss lingered in her poetry, her later life was dogged by alcohol dependency.

Parker was on the founding board of The New Yorker where eventually Dublin-born Maeve Brennan would make her name with the Talk of the Town column. Brennan married The New Yorker's managing editor, St Clair McKelway who had a history of alcoholism, womanizing and manic depression. The marriage brought no solace to the witty and stylish Brennan, who also succumbed to mental illness. Though her work was well known in New York, Brennan only received posthumous acclaim in Ireland, and was the subject of a play by Emma Donoghue. She died a homeless alcoholic in New York.

British literary circles proved no less safe for the American poet, Sylvia Plath, who met Ted Hughes at a Cambridge party. She was 23 years old and so numb from whiskey that she did not feel the wounds when she got stuck climbing over the railings to get back to her room. In The Bell Jar, she wrote: "I began to think vodka was my drink at last. It didn't taste like anything, but it went straight down into my stomach like a sword swallower's sword and made me feel powerful and godlike." It was Hughes' infidelity that she could not bear, and she took her life at 30.

Childhood neglect has spawned acutely observant fiction and intellectual curiousity. Nuala O'Faolain's candid memoir Are You Somebody revealed her mother's alcoholism, her social-diarist father's abandonment, the loveless childhood that propelled her into promiscuity and drink. Many alcoholics are born to alcoholics, genetic inheritance, suffering and talent - which O'Faolain had in abundance - resulted in the honest and moving account of her life from Ranelagh to New York, a road she shared with Maeve Brennan. O'Faolain tried to combat alcoholism and died angry at the cancer that cut her life short.

The French novelist and film-maker Marguerite Duras' childhood was defined by abject poverty, fear and violence. She was beaten by her mother and brother, and suffered such sexual exploitation that it is unsurprising she sought to anaesthetise her memory. The nightmare childhood impelled her to write with an uncompromising intensity and elegance that sets her work apart. In her 1987 book Practicalities she writes, "when a woman drinks, it's as if an animal were drinking, or a child. Alcoholism is scandalous in a woman, and a female alcoholic is rare, a serious matter. It's a slur on the divine in our nature."

Even though she managed to stop drinking for years at a time, her binge periods commenced as soon as she awoke, pausing to vomit the first two glasses of wine. She told the New York Times in 1991, "I drank because I was an alcoholic, I was a real one - like a writer. I'm a real writer, I was a real alcoholic. I drank red wine to fall asleep. Afterwards Cognac in the night. Every hour a glass of wine and in the morning Cognac after coffee, and afterwards I wrote. What is astonishing when I look back is how I managed to write."

Patricia Highsmith, author of over twenty novels, including The Talented Mr Ripley, suffered from alcoholism before she was even born. Her mother had drunk turpentine when four months pregnant and her parents divorced before her birth. The misanthropy permeated an early life characterised by abandonment and betrayal. While at Barnard College her drinking began in earnest and she wrote in her diary that she believed drink was essential for the artist because it made her "see the truth, the simplicity, and the primitive emotions once more." In 1950 she described going to bed at four in the afternoon with a bottle of gin before putting away seven Martinis and two glasses of wine. Her most famous creation, Tom Ripley, shares with her a sense of shame and self-loathing. Her success meant she could live for long spells in England and Switzerland, though she was not well liked and considered mean. Some might say she was misunderstood, in contrast to how she depicted the heart of darkness in man, which she understood well.

Author of Wide Sargasso Sea, half-Creole Jean Rhys moved to London from the Caribbean to study drama at 16. She found the city inhospitable and the people cruel. When her British father died, she craved the safety that might come with a good man and marriage. But she picked men badly, with three marriages, an abortion and an estranged child; she lived on the brink of destitution. Alcohol became her way of dealing with the mess. Rhys' biographer wrote that her past tormented her, her writing tormented her and "she had to drink to write and she had to drink to live."

The torment of writing can open raw wounds that fail to heal; that fester and gape and no amount of Martinis will seal.

Themes of domesticity, loneliness, cruelty, violence and infidelity found expression in the writing of these women; their legacy has given women writing today greater choice and voice. The challenge remains to write with vivacity, beauty, authenticity and stay sane.

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