Not crazy after all these years

October 26, 2001

Why did T. S. Eliot have wife Vivienne committed? She was definitely not mad, argues Carole Seymour-Jones

On her death in January 1947, Vivienne Eliot left her papers to the Bodleian Library, Oxford, in order to preserve the record of her tempestuous 17-year marriage to the poet T. S. Eliot. She wrote in her diary that she longed for people to know the "true history" of her relationship with her husband. In a letter to her friend Lady Ottoline Morrell, she claimed that, "the truth will all come out, if not in our life, then after it".

Vivienne had become a phantom-like figure on the fringe of Eliot's life. She was written out of his biography and literary history. After he deserted her in 1933, he did all he could to avoid her. But Vivienne found separation impossible to accept. She became a lonely, neurotic figure, ostracised by the Bloomsbury Group, rebuffed when she called at Faber and Faber, where Eliot was a director, and hissed at by the audience when she attended her husband's plays wearing her British Union of Fascists uniform.

Although Vivienne attempted to rebuild her life, studying at the Royal Academy of Music, her "perpetual anxiety", as she told her bank manager, was to shadow Tom. From his point of view, she had become a stalker. On November 18 1935, the public confrontation that Eliot had sought so long to avoid took place at The Sunday Times Book Fair. Once again Vivienne chose to wear her Fascist uniform, a black beret and a large black mackintosh cape. A small fierce dramatic figure, she strode in, holding her dog, Polly, and some books she had brought him to sign. As Eliot finished speaking, she mounted the platform and approached him. "I said quietly, 'Will you come back with me?'", she recalled in her diary. "I cannot talk to you now," Eliot replied.

In June 1935, the first attempt to commit Vivienne to a mental institution was made, but she answered her doctors' questions lucidly, and they declined to sign the order. She adopted a false name, Daisy Miller, from Henry James's eponymous story, in an attempt to hide from Tom, as he had done so successfully from her on his return from the United States in 1933. She too, she wrote, would live two lives, like the Theban seer Tiresias. But Vivienne was no match for Macavity. In July 1938, the doctors returned. This time they were strangers and Vivienne was committed to Northumberland House, Finsbury Park.

When Vivienne's brother Maurice Haigh-Wood, who had colluded in her committal, visited her, he burst into tears. "It was only when I saw Vivie in the asylum for the last time I realised I had done something very wrong," he told Michael Hastings, author of Tom and Viv, in 1980. "She was as sane as I was. What Tom and I did was wrong. I did everything Tom told me to."

Despite having financial motives for committing his sister, Haigh-Wood blamed Tom. Tom blamed himself, too. But guilt did not stop him taking his revenge upon Vivienne. In his 1938 play, The Family Reunion, he describes a wife who is "a restless shivering painted shadow". Virginia Woolf's verdict was equally hostile - "This bag of ferrets is what Tom wears round his neck" - damning Vivienne as T. S. Eliot's own Mrs Rochester, the madwoman in the attic.

The poet's revenge extended even beyond death. The Bodleian Library understood that it owned the copyright on Vivienne's papers, but this was claimed in 1984 by Valerie Eliot, the poet's widow and literary executor, following the production of Tom and Viv. She was acting in accordance with Eliot's wishes, expressed in February 1938 to his previous literary executor, John Hayward, to "suppress everything suppressible". Legal opinion remains divided on the question of copyright, but in effect the second wife was thenceforth able to silence the first.

In Vivienne's archive I encountered a gifted, energetic woman very different from the crazy stereotype. Not only was I touched by Vivienne's poignant love for Tom, but impressed by the couple's close literary partnership - and intrigued by the secrets of his double life. To give Vivienne a voice became my goal.

From the earliest days of their marriage, at Hampstead Register Office on June 26 1915, Vivienne, vivacious daughter of a Royal Academician from Bury, Lancashire, and Tom, brilliant son of a brick manufacturer from St Louis, Missouri, proved physically and temperamentally incompatible.

Yet Vivienne was central to Eliot's life and art. In 1915, she fought to keep him in England, against his parents' wish that he return to teach philosophy at Harvard. Eliot wrote: "She has everything to give that I want, and she gives it. I owe her everything." Vivienne's belief in Tom was unwavering. In 1916, she told his brother Henry: "I look upon Tom's poetry as real genius. I think he is meant to be a great writer - a poet."

Nevertheless, the Eliots were hard-up. Tom's father had cut off his allowance. They accepted an offer from Bertrand Russell, then leader of the peace movement, to move into his flat, and set up a menage a trois.

Although Eliot colluded in Vivienne's seduction by Russell, which provided him with financial and literary benefits, as well as relieving him of conjugal duties, he began to view his wife as a "succuba", a female demon or, in 17th-century slang, a "strumpet" or whore. Brooding in the garden of the house they had rented with Bertie in Marlow, Eliot composed a sardonic poem, which he later suppressed, "Ode on Independence Day, July 4th 1918", in which he expressed his resentment at the entrapment of marriage. A cancelled line refers to "the sullen succuba suspired", Vivienne sighing after the departed Russell, who had just entered Brixton prison. "Mr Apollinax" and "Whispers of Immortality" were also influenced by Vivienne's affair with the satanic Bertie.

The Eliots' marriage continued to be both source and subject of his poetry and drama. The neurotic, co-dependent relationship they shared was the deepest and strongest of the "tentacular roots" of Eliot's work. Although Vivienne had a predisposition to instability, Eliot contributed to that instability by withholding love, and it was this unhappy combination of "Tom and Vivienne", this crucible of dysfunction, that, rather than hindering the poet's creativity, provoked it.

For Vivienne was Tom's muse, the woman he needed in order to transmute life into art. Theresa Eliot, Vivienne's sister-in-law, understood this when she wrote: "Vivienne ruined Tom as a man, but she made him as a poet."

The connection between art and biography is, perhaps, most evident in The Waste Land, completed in 1921 after Tom's breakdown, in a Lausanne psychiatric clinic. "This is Tom's autobiography," exclaimed his friend Mary Hutchinson, although the personal element of the poem had been sacrificed by Ezra Pound in order to make it the justification for the modern movement.

In Switzerland, Eliot remembered with longing his relationship with the young Frenchman he had loved, Jean Verdenal, who once brought him lilacs in the Luxembourg Gardens, and had died in the Dardanelles campaign of April 1915 ("the cruellest month"). Painfully the poet asks his readers to consider Phlebas, the drowned sailor, "who was once handsome and tall as you".

The homosexual interpretation of The Waste Land, advanced in 1952 by critic John Peter and identifying Phlebas with Verdenal, is a convincing one.

By contrast, in "Death of a Duchess", a section of the original 1,000-line manuscript influenced by John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi, the poet expresses his deep misogyny. Like Webster's duchess, who has also made a misalliance, Vivienne cries reproachfully that her husband has cause to love her. "I did enter you in my heart / Before ever you vouchsafed to ask for the key."

The duchess pleads for her life. In Webster's version she is strangled; in Eliot's she is murdered as she turns to "interrogate the silence" behind her.

Cut by Pound, these truncated lines became "A Game of Chess" in The Waste Land, but still mirrored Vivienne's misery. "My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me." "Photography" wrote an admiring Pound against the text. Vivienne too wrote "Wonderful", although she asked Tom to delete the line, "The ivory men make company between us," so revealing of marital incompatibility. She added two lines of her own; the first, "What you get married for if you don't want to have children," underlining the Eliots "acute desire for progeny", which Tom later confessed to Hayward.

On one level, Vivienne became no longer Muse but Medusa, the "injur'd bride" in Eliot's unpublished "Elegy", about whose head scorpions hissed: the stuff of his nightmares. But it was this same Vivienne who filled the columns of The Criterion with her journalism, using four different pen names, until her sketch satirising the Bloomsbury Group, "Fete Galante", led to her downfall in 1925.

Sad, eccentric, drug dependent, anorexic: Vivienne became all of these - but none of them was the reason for her incarceration.

Carole Seymour-Jones was awarded the Paul Mellon visiting fellowship by the University of Texas at Austin in 1999-2000 to research Vivienne Eliot's life at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center. She is author of Painted Shadow, published this week by Constable & Robinson, £20.00.

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Reader's comments (1)

Does the diary remain suppressed.