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The Perils of Mrs. Eliot

1.

For my dearest Vivienne, this book, which no one else will quite understand.” Thus Eliot inscribed a copy of his Poems, 1909–1925. One of his biographers asserts that

without knowledge of Eliot’s first, tragic marriage, a complete appreciation of his poems is impossible. No matter what Flaubert, Valéry, and Eliot may have said about the objective impersonality of art, the full heartrending meaning of The Waste Land and “Ash-Wednesday” depends on it.

Carole Seymour-Jones’s biography of Eliot’s first wife adds further notes toward the definition of her mysterious spouse, and explores a fresh cache of bisexual Bloomsbury gossip that amplifies the portrait of him. “Viv” predeceased “Tom” by eighteen years, a creatively fallow period also covered by the book but in less detail. Painted Shadow has been denigrated as part of a “campaign against Eliot,” but the campaign it exposes is the one to ignore his first wife, presented here as his troublesome muse. The new book disagrees on several points with Lyndall Gordon’s semi-authorized life of the poet,1 in which Vivienne has only half the index space given to Emily Hale, Eliot’s Bostonian friend whose in-person connection with him was immeasurably less than that of the tenacious Englishwoman with whom he managed to live for most of the time between their wedding in 1915 and separation in 1932. Vivienne, of course, does not really have a biography apart from Eliot. What the book offers instead is a surprisingly unexplored close-up perspective based in large part on Vivienne’s correspondence, contributions to The Criterion, writings still in manuscript, and unpublished diaries, of which only 1919 is complete for her married years.

Vivienne Haigh-Wood was born in 1888, four months before Eliot, in the Lancashire cotton mill town of Bury, to which her parents had journeyed from London for a one-man exhibition of her father’s paintings. He had studied at the Royal Academy School in London and become an Academician himself, and, born into a prosperous family, was not dependent on his art for his livelihood. His Anglo-Irish wife also had financial expectations, which must be said because Vivienne’s material position was superior to Tom’s, a calculated factor perhaps in their impulsive and clandestine marriage, which Eliot’s family opposed, as they did his choice of a possible career as a writer in England over that of a philosophy professor in America, for which he had been educated at Harvard. The nascent poet was obliged to accept support from, among others and most generously, his Harvard mentor and intellectual sponsor, Bertrand Russell, whom he had reencountered on a street in Oxford in October 1914.

The sexual and temperamental incompatibility of Vivienne and Tom is an overworked subject, but the book provides new material on this as well as on her background and childhood. As a young girl, Vivienne was subject to a variety of disorders, including tuberculosis of the bone, for which, apparently more than once, she underwent surgery. A more disruptive affliction was that of her too frequent, unpredictable, and painfully protracted menstrual periods, accompanied by abdominal cramps and severe mood swings. It is now thought that she suffered from a hormonal imbalance, curable today by the contraceptive pill, but whatever the cause, menstruation, the subject itself taboo at the time, was a torment for her, bringing on crying fits and disabling attacks of nerves. The drugs prescribed seemed to exacerbate her maladies, which in later years included colitis—“Tom,” Virginia Woolf thought, “was inclined to particularize the state of Vivienne’s bowels too closely”—neuralgia, migraines, and hallucinations of demons who emitted “groans, shrieks, and imprecations.” (Some of Vivienne’s best writing is in her descriptions of illness.) A victim of insomnia as well, she was dosed with bromides, chloral, and other addictive remedies.

That Vivienne was also intelligent and physically attractive is evident from her long love affair with Bertrand Russell. Though not educated to the highest levels, she had attended exclusive schools, was taken by her parents to France and Switzerland, and learned to speak fluent French. She met Eliot at an Oxford social function through a mutual American school friend and her current suitor, Scofield Thayer. Vivienne soon fell in love with the complex, shy, and silent Eliot, and he with her, but ambiguously. As all the world knows, the marriage, possibly never consummated,2was a disaster.

One of Seymour-Jones’s theses is that sexual and marital dysfunctions notwithstanding, Vivienne became both the source and the subject of some of Eliot’s greatest poetry, stimulating if not inspiring his creativity. As late as 1936, four years after the separation of the Eliots, Virginia Woolf, the first to perceive that part of The Waste Land is the autobiography of the marriage, admitted to Clive Bell that Vivienne was “the true inspiration of Tom”; but Virginia could also write cruelly about her: “Was there ever such torture since life began!—to bear her on one’s shoulders, biting, wriggling, raving, scratching…. This bag of ferrets is what Tom wears round his neck.” Bertrand Russell also realized this, observing that the couple were perfectly matched. As a prime source of succor to the Eliots through a long patch of their troubles, he came to the conclusion that “their troubles were what they most enjoyed.”

The book’s account of Vivienne’s collaborative assistance to Eliot in The Waste Land and her contributions, under aliases, to The Criterion holds some surprises. Eliot’s remark to his friend Sydney Schiff, in November 1921, on finishing a first draft of “The Fire Sermon” (The Waste Land) acknowledges the first part of this: “I do not know if it will do, and I must wait for Vivienne’s opinion.” This letter, sent from a clinic in Lausanne, also testifies that Dr. Vittoz, the psychiatrist and guru noted for his talent in achieving “transference” between therapist and patient,3 was succeeding in Eliot’s case. Vivienne, meanwhile, lived with the Pounds in Paris, where Ezra took her three times to visit Joyce, whom she described as “cantankerous, and wearing a long coat and tennis shoes.”

Vivienne either wrote the following lines from The Waste Land or is being quoted verbatim:

My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me.

Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.

In view of them, her demand that Eliot delete the line “The ivory men made company between us,” as too revealing of their lack of communication, seems inconsistent.4 Though Pound cut most of Vivienne’s contributions to the poem, he retained her improvements to the Cockneyisms in the Lil/Albert scene, as well as the line, in her hand in the manuscript, “What you get married for if you don’t want children?” Vivienne is as central to The Waste Land as is the illusory Jean Verdenal (Phlébas le Phénicien), Eliot’s lost love.

Vivienne’s writings in The Criterion of 1924–1925 are a focal subject of the book. She chose the (arrogant) title of the magazine, helped to edit its contents, and to prepare each issue with her husband in their own home. Eliot wrote to Sydney Schiff, on February 24, 1924: “We have both been working at top pitch for the last five weeks to get out the Criterion.” She reviewed books, and published her poems, stories, and diaries, always under an alias, of which her favorite was “Fanny Marlow,” the surname being the residence that Russell had put at the Eliots’ disposal, the first name that of an anatomical feature of hers that enticed the great logician. To judge from the quotations in Painted Shadow, her best writing did not appear in The Criterion, but in the unpublished “Diary of the Rive Gauche,” an original and perceptive piece about an American in Paris. (Eliot’s own observations on Americans abroad—almost always “very immature”—are supercilious, as in a remark on seeing his old friend Conrad Aiken in London: “stupider than I remember him; in fact, stupid.”)

Vivienne’s verse is talented, but affected and tending to imitate her husband’s: “One’s soul stirs stiffly out of the dead embers of winter—but toward what spring?” Eliot’s defense of her work to The Criterion‘s assistant editor Richard Aldington is convincing: “She is very diffident and very aware that her mind is untrained but she has an original mind. In my opinion a great deal of what she writes is quite good enough for The Criterion.”5 At this date (1924) she was an asset to him, not only by filling up columns of short reviews, but also, in Seymour-Jones’s words, by “sparkling at literary gatherings, where her spontaneity provided a refreshing contrast to the thrusts and parries of the literary-minded guests.” What disturbs us are the revelations that Vivienne ghost-wrote “On the Eve,” which appeared in the January 1925 Criterion under her husband’s name, and her confession in a 1924 letter to Pound that she had written “nearly the whole of the last Criterion.”6

Vivienne’s symptoms of growing mental instability began to increase at the beginning of the 1930s, together with a penchant for humiliating Eliot in public. W.H. Auden used to tell a story of arriving at the Eliots for dinner in 1932, and being received by Vivienne, saying “We are very pleased to be here, Mrs. Eliot,” and of her response: “Tom’s not pleased.” At one dinner party, according to Seymour-Jones, “both Eliots directed streams of hatred at each other throughout the meal,” until embarrassed guests began to depart. “‘There is no such thing as pure intellect,’ Eliot declared. Vivienne interrupted angrily: ‘What do you mean? You know perfectly well that every night you tell me that there is such a thing: and what’s more that you have it, and that nobody else has it.’” Eliot fought back with “You don’t know what you’re saying.” Conrad Aiken, who was present, later reported that “Vivienne did not appear mad to me.”

The final chapter of Vivienne’s life is both the climax of the book and a complete blank: her nine-year incarceration in an insane asylum. In July 1938, the police found her wandering in a London street at five in the morning and in a state of considerable mental confusion, saying that she was hiding from mysterious people and had heard that “Tom had been beheaded.” Her brother, Maurice Haigh-Wood, came to fetch her and to obtain a magistrate’s warrant for her commitment to Northumberland House Insane Asylum. Maurice informed Eliot, who, not so coincidentally, perhaps, was vacationing with Emily Hale in Gloucestershire, but he refused to come to London or to share the responsibilities. Maurice recounted the full proceedings to Michael Hastings, author of the play Tom and Viv, on several occasions in 1980. The following excerpt calls Eliot’s involvement into question:

It was only when I saw Vivie in the asylum for the last time I realized I had done something very wrong. She was as sane as I was. I did what I hadn’t done in years. I sat in front of Vivie and actually burst into tears…. What Tom and I did was wrong…. I did everything Tom told me to….

  1. 1

    T.S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life (Norton, 1999).

  2. 2

    Logan Pearsall Smith maintained that “Eliot had compromised Miss Haigh-Wood and then felt obliged as an American gentleman, the New England mode being stricter than ours, to propose to her.”

  3. 3

    This was the opinion of Julian Huxley, who had been a patient of his the year before.

  4. 4

    Eliot restored it from memory in 1960.

  5. 5

    Aldington, almost alone, recognized Eliot’s The Sacred Wood (1920) as “the most original contribution to our critical literature during the last decade.”

  6. 6

    Vivienne’s papers were deposited at the Bodleian Library in 1947 by her brother, but the black notebook containing the drafts of her stories, often edited in T.S. Eliot’s hand, has been missing since 1990.

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