The Perils of Mrs. Eliot


“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based in large part on Vivienne’s correspondence, contributions to The Criterion, writings still in manuscript, and unpublished diaries, of which only 1919 is complete for her married years.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…

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