The long list of male alcoholic authors is well known, but what about their literary sisters? Olivia Laing looks back on the great female writers who sought refuge in the bottle and salvation on the page
Marguerite Duras in France, c1955. Photograph: Robert Doisneau/Gett
If you write a book about alcohol and male writers, as I did, the one question you’ll be asked more than any other is: what about the women? Are there any alcoholic female writers? And are their stories the same, or different? The answer to the first question is easy. Yes, of course there are, among them such brilliant, restless figures as Jean Rhys, Jean Stafford, Marguerite Duras, Patricia Highsmith, Elizabeth Bishop, Jane Bowles, Anne Sexton, Carson McCullers, Dorothy Parker and Shirley Jackson. Alcoholism is more prevalent in men than women (in 2013, the NHS calculated that 9% of men and 4% of women were alcohol-dependent). Still, there is no shortage of female drinkers; no lack of falling-down afternoons and binges that stretch sweatily into days. Female writers haven’t been immune to the lure of the bottle, nor to getting into the kinds of trouble – the fights and arrests, the humiliating escapades, the slow poisoning of friendships and familial relations – that have dogged their male colleagues. Jean Rhys was briefly in Holloway prison for assault; Elizabeth Bishop more than once drank eau de cologne, having exhausted the possibilities of the liquor cabinet. But are their reasons for drinking different? And how about society’s responses, particularly in the lubricated, tipsy 20th century; the golden age, if one can call it that, of alcohol and the writer?
The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking: Why Writers Drink
by Olivia Laing
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In her 1987 book Practicalities, the French novelist and film-maker Marguerite Duras says many shocking things about what it means to be a woman and a writer. One of her most striking statements is about the difference between male and female drinking – or rather the difference in how the two are perceived. “When a woman drinks,” she writes, “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.” Ruefully, she adds a personal coda: “I realised the scandal I was creating around me.”
She’d been an alcoholic, she figured, from the moment of her first drink. Sometimes she managed to stop for years at a time, but during her bingeing periods she’d go all-out: start as soon as she woke up, pausing to vomit the first two glasses, then polishing off as many as eight litres of Bordeaux before passing out in a stupor. “I drank because I was an alcoholic,” she told the New York Times in 1991. “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.”
Dorothy Parker at work in Pennsylvania, with her husband, the screenwriter Alan Campbell in the background, 1937. Photograph: Jacob Lofman/Getty
What is also astonishing is how much she managed to write, and how fine most of it is, rising coolly above the sometimes dire conditions of production. Duras wrote dozens of novels, among them The Sea Wall, Moderato Cantabile and The Ravishing of Lol Stein. Her work is elegant, experimental, impassioned, incantatory and visually striking – almost hallucinatory in its appeal to the senses, its rhythmic force. A forerunner of the nouveau roman, she dispensed with the conventions of character and plot, the heavy furniture of the realist novel, at the same time retaining an almost classical austerity – a clarity of style that resulted from obsessive redrafting.
Duras’s childhood was marked by fear, violence and shame: a common enough concatenation in the early life of the addict. She was born Marguerite Donnadieu (Duras is a pen name) in 1914 in what was then Saigon to French parents, both of whom were teachers. When she was seven, her father died, leaving the family in abject poverty. Her mother saved for years to buy a farm, but was cheated on the price, buying land that was regularly inundated by the sea. Both Marguerite’s mother and her elder brother beat her. She remembered hunting for birds in the jungle to cook and eat, and swimming in a river that would fill with the corpses of miscellaneous creatures that had drowned upstream. At school, she had a sexual relationship – seemingly encouraged by her family for financial reasons – with a much older Chinese man. Later, in France, she married, had a son with someone else, made films, and lived and wrote with a singleminded intensity. Her drinking worsened as the decades passed, stopping and starting, gaining traction, until at the age of 68 she was diagnosed with cirrhosis and forced to dry out – a terrifying experience – at the American hospital in Paris.
Not many writers manage to get sober and those who do often suffer a decline in output: testament not so much to the power of alcohol as a creative stimulant as to its role in destroying brain function, obliterating memory and playing havoc with the ability to formulate and express thought in former alcoholics. But Duras wrote one of her best and certainly most famous novels two years after she stopped drinking. The Lover tells the story of a 15-year-old French girl in Indochina who has an erotic relationship with – yes – a much older Chinese man. Much of the book was drawn from the violence and degradation from which Duras had emerged.
As later published versions make clear, she was capable of returning again and again to this primal scene of childhood, redrawing it in an almost infinite variety of colours: sometimes erotic and romantic, sometimes brutal and grotesque. Retelling the same stories; going back repeatedly to the substance that she knew was destroying her: these repetitive acts, some generative and some profoundly destructive, made the critic Edmund White wonder if Duras was not in the grips of what Freud had called the repetition compulsion. “I’m acquainted with it, the desire to be killed. I know it exists,” she once told an interviewer, and it is this intensity, this absolute and uncompromising vision, that sets her work apart. At the same time, this statement seems to shine a light on how she used alcohol: as a way of giving in to her own masochism, her suicidal ideation, while simultaneously anaesthetising herself from the savagery she saw at work everywhere, filling the world.
Duras’s nightmarish childhood raises the question of origins, of what causes alcohol addiction and whether it is different for men and women. Alcoholism is roughly 50% hereditable, a matter of genetic predisposition, which is to say that environmental factors such as early life experience and societal pressure play a considerable role. Picking through the biographies of alcoholic female writers, one finds again and again the same dismal family histories that are present in the lives of their male counterparts, from Ernest Hemingway to F Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams to John Cheever.
Elizabeth Bishop is a good example. Many members of her family were alcoholics, including her father, who died when she was a baby. Bishop’s life was additionally marred by the kind of loss and physical insecurity often present in the family histories of addicts. When she was five her mother was institutionalised. They never saw each other again. Instead, Bishop was parcelled between aunts, an anxious child who, as a student at the liberal women-only Smith College, in Massachusetts, gratefully discovered the use of alcohol as a social lubricant, not realising until too late that it was also a potent source of shame, isolating in its own right.
In the poem “A Drunkard”, Bishop uses incidents from her own life to create an ironic portrait of an alcoholic, keen to explain their abnormal thirst. “I had begun / to drink, & drink – I can’t get enough”, the narrator confesses, a line that recalls John Berryman’s frank “Dream Song” statement: “Hunger was constitutional with him, / wine, cigarettes, liquor, need need need”.
Shame was one of the central drivers in Bishop’s drinking: first, the internalised shame she carried from her childhood and, later, the shame that followed her own appalling binges. Then, too, there was the matter of sexual identity. A lesbian in a period in which homosexuality was not sanctioned or accepted, Bishop found her greatest freedom in Brazil, where she lived with her female partner, the architect Lota de Macedo Soares. She spent her most peaceful and productive years there, though even they were interleaved with drunkenness, followed by the inevitable fights and confusions, and the frightening decline in physical health.
Shame is also a factor in the life of Patricia Highsmith, who was born Mary Patricia Plangman in 1921, her surname an unwelcome memento of the man her mother had divorced nine days before she was born. She wasn’t exactly welcome herself. Her mother had drunk turpentine at four months, hoping to abort the baby. “It’s funny you adore the smell of turpentine, Pat,” she later said. This grim joke recalls Cheever, whose parents also used to kid about having tried to abort him. Like Cheever, Highsmith had complex feelings about her mother, and like Cheever she had a pervasive sense of being fraudulent, empty, somehow a fake. Unlike Cheever, however, she was courageous in facing up to the direction of her sexual desires, though she did have a sometimes pleasurable, sometimes troubling sense of deviance, of running counter to society’s grain.
Patricia Highsmith at home in Locarno, Switzerland, in 1987. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty
She was an anxious, guilty, tearful child – lugubrious, in her own words. By eight, she was fantasising about murdering her stepfather Stanley and at 12 she was disturbed by violent rows between him and her mother. That autumn, Patricia’s mother took her to Texas, saying that she was going to get divorced and live in the south with Pat and her grandmother. But after a few weeks of this all-female utopia, Mrs Highsmith returned to New York, abandoning her daughter without explanation. Left high and dry for a whole miserable year, Patricia never got over the sense of betrayal, the belief that she had been personally rejected.
Her drinking began as a student at New York’s Barnard College. In a diary entry in the 1940s, she wrote of her belief that drink was essential for the artist because it made her “see the truth, the simplicity, and the primitive emotions once more”. Ten years on, she was describing days in which she went to bed at four in the afternoon with a bottle of gin before putting away seven Martinis and two glasses of wine. By the 1960s, she needed booze to keep going and as an eye-opener in the morning, lied about her drinking and lied too about all kinds of large and small details – about what a good cook and gardener she was, though her garden at the time was dried-up grass and she often lived off cereal and fried eggs.
Much of how she felt and behaved went into her work, passing fluidly into her most famous character. Tom Ripley is not always a heavy drinker but he shares with the full-blown alcoholic his paranoia, his guilt and self-hatred; his need to obliterate or escape his painfully empty, flimsy self. He is forever splitting or slithering into other, more comfortable, identities, though this in itself is shameful and often serves as the impetus for his casual and dreadful murders. In fact, Ripley’s entire career as a killer mimics alcoholism in that it is driven by a need to constantly repeat an activity in order to snuff out the trouble the activity has caused. Then too there’s the atmosphere of the books, the looming sense of anxiety and doom, instantly familiar from any number of alcoholic works. Consider this passage from The Talented Mr Ripley, in which Tom is in Rome, trying to convince himself he won’t be caught for Dickie’s murder:
Jane Bowles in 1967. Photograph: Terrence Spencer/Getty
Tom did not know who would attack him, if he were attacked. He did not imagine police, necessarily. He was afraid of nameless, formless things that haunted his brain like the Furies. He could go through San Spiridione comfortably only when a few cocktails had knocked out his fear. Then he walked through swaggering and whistling.
Cut the name, and it could be lifted directly from Charles Jackson’s The Lost Weekend or almost any page of Tennessee Williams’s drink-besotted diaries.
There is no doubt that personal unhappiness is part of why both men and women develop the habit of drinking, but these intimate stories leave out something larger, something less easy for any individual to challenge or address. What lives were like for women in the west for the majority of the 20th century is ably and angrily summed up by Elizabeth Young in her introduction to Plain Pleasures, the collected stories of Jane Bowles. “Up until the 1970s women were discounted and despised,” she writes. “They were, en masse, classed with children in terms of capability but, unlike children, were the butt of virtually every joke in the comedian’s repertoire. They were considered trite, gossipy, vain, slow and useless. Older women were hags, battle-axes, mother-in-laws, spinsters. Women were visible in the real world, the world of men, only while they were sexually desirable. Afterwards they vanished completely, buried alive by the creepy combination of contempt, disgust and sentimentality with which they were regarded.”
By way of illustration, she tells a story about the writer who Truman Capote, William Burroughs and Gore Vidal considered among the greatest of her age: a giant of modernism, despite her tiny output. After having an alcohol-induced stroke in middle age, Jane Bowles was sent to see a British neurologist, who patronisingly told her: “You’re not coping, my dear Mrs Bowles. Go back to your pots and pans and try to cope.”
This intense disregard for women, this inability to comprehend their talents or inner lives, was typical. Similar scenarios can be found in the lives of almost any 20th-century woman writer of note. Take Jean Stafford, who these days is more likely to be remembered for her marriage to Robert Lowell than for her Pulitzer prize-winning stories or her extraordinary, savage novel The Mountain Lion. This latter work was published in 1947, while she was drying out at Payne Whitney, a mental hospital in upstate New York. There, her psychiatrist was less interested in her reviews than in insisting she improve her grooming, switching her habitual baggy sweater and slacks for a blouse and skirt, with pearls for dinner, like, Stafford said wryly, “a Smith College girl”.
I can think of no writer who better expresses these pressures and hypocrisies than the novelist Jean Rhys, who can hardly be described as a feminist and yet who wrote so bitterly and so bleakly about the lot of women that her work is disturbing even now. Rhys was born Gwen Williams on the island of Dominica in 1890, to a British father and Creole mother. Like F Scott Fitzgerald, she was a replacement child, conceived nine months after the death of her sister. Like Fitzgerald, she had a pervasive sense of standing outside, of not being quite real or legitimately lovable. She came to London at 16, a pretty and hopelessly ignorant girl. Her expectations of a new and glamorous life were dashed by the puddingy greyness, the bitter cold, and the competent, casually cruel people. Her father died while she was at drama school, but instead of going home she slipped away, becoming a chorus girl and changing her name to Ella Gray.
Ella Gray, Ella Lenglet, Jean Rhys, Mrs Hamer: whatever name she was travelling under, Rhys was always on the verge of drowning, always frantic to find a man who would scoop her up and lift her into the kind of safe, luxurious world she craved. Unused to love, she picked badly or perhaps was just unlucky, choosing men who left her or who were somehow incapable of providing the sort of financial and emotional security she needed. She had an abortion, married, had a baby who died and a daughter, Maryvonne (who spent most of her childhood being cared for not only by someone else but in a different country from her mother), married for a second and then a third time, and was throughout these misadventures always at the brink of destitution, the very outer edge.
Alcohol quickly became a way of dealing with this trouble and confusion, of blotting out the darker elements, temporarily filling an unbearable black hole of need. As her biographer Carole Angier puts it: “Her past tormented her so that she had to write about it, and then writing tormented her: she had to drink to write, and she had to drink to live.”
But what emerged from the muddle and mess was a series of miraculously lucid novels: strange, slippery marvels of modernism, about alienated, rootless women adrift among the demi-monde of London and Paris. These books – Quartet, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, Voyage in the Dark and Good Morning, Midnight – show the world as it appears from the vantage of the dispossessed. They are about depression and loneliness, yes, but they’re also about money: money and class and snobbery and what it means if you can’t afford to eat or your shoes are wearing out and you can no longer keep up the little genteel illusions, the ways of getting by, of being accepted in society. Rhys is brutal in her depiction of a world in which there is no safety net for a woman alone and getting older, running short of the only reliable currency she has.
In the magnificently unstable Good Morning, Midnight she shows precisely why such a woman might turn to drink, given limited options for work or love. At the same time, and like her near-contemporary Fitzgerald, she uses drunkenness as a technique of modernism. The novel is written in a wonderfully flexible first person, slip-sliding through Sasha’s shifting moods. “I’ve had enough of these streets that sweat a cold, yellow slime, of hostile people, of crying myself to sleep every night. I’ve had enough of thinking, enough of remembering. Now whisky, rum, gin, sherry, vermouth, wine with the bottles labelled ‘Dum vivimus, vivamus … ‘ Drink, drink, drink … As soon as I sober up I start again. I have to force it down sometimes. You’d think I’d get delirium tremens or something.”
During the war, Rhys vanished yet again from public view, re-emerging in 1956 after the BBC ran an advert looking for information on the author believed to be dead. She spent the 1960s shipwrecked in the aptly named Landboat Bungalows in Devon, living with her third husband, the nervy Max Hamer, who had been in prison for fraud and was now invalided after a stroke. In this dismal period, Rhys was tormented by extremes of poverty and depression and also by her neighbours, who believed she was a witch. She was briefly put in a mental hospital after attacking one of them with a pair of scissors. The drinking continued unabated, worse than before. All the same, she was working away on a new novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, a prequel to Jane Eyre that drew on her childhood in the Caribbean, her feelings of being an outsider, left out in the cold by the icy, inscrutable English.
“No one,” Diana Athill writes in Stet, “who has read Jean Rhys’s first four novels can suppose that she was very good at life; but no one who never met her could know how very bad at it she was.” Athill became Rhys’s editor around this time, befriending her as did Sonia Orwell and Francis Wyndham, who were the protectors and guardians of her renaissance, the success that came too late and after too much hardship to make a real difference to Rhys’s ravaged internal world.
In her writing about Rhys, Athill puzzles over what might be the central question of the alcoholic writer, which is how someone so very bad at living, so incapable of facing up to trouble and taking responsibility for their own mess might be so very good at writing about it, at peering directly into what are otherwise total blind spots. “Her creed – so simple to state, so difficult to follow – was that she must tell the truth: must get things down as they really were … this fierce endeavour enabled her to write her way through to understanding her own damaged nature.”
This fierceness is everywhere in Rhys’s work, converting self-pity into a pitiless critique. She shows how power works and how cruel people can be to those who are beneath them, revealing, too, how poverty and social mores pinion women, limiting their options until a Holloway cell and a Parisian hotel room come to seem pretty much indistinguishable. It’s not by any means a triumphant kind of feminism, an assertion of independence and equality, but rather a savage, haunted account of stacked cards and loaded dice that might drive even the sanest woman to drink and drink and drink.
• Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking is out now in paperback (Canongate, £10.99).