- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 16, 2002

Consider the following lines from T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" : "'My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me. Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak. What are you thinking of? What thinking? What? I never know what you are thinking. Think.'"
This is the voice of T.S. Eliot's unhappy first wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood Eliot, who ended her days alone and abandoned in an insane asylum in 1947. Hovering for decades thereafter in the shadows of her husband's brilliant reputation, she came into the spotlight once again in Michael Hasting's 1984 play "Tom and Viv," which was also made into a film. Mr. Eliot would not have been pleased.
As a number of aspiring biographers of T. S. Eliot discovered, both the esteemed poet-critic and his pertinacious second wife, Valerie, did everything possible to make it well-nigh impossible for anyone to write the story of his life. "Suppress everything suppressible," was Eliot's directive to literary executors. The influential critic who made such a strong case for the "impersonal" in poetry was a man who had or felt he had a lot to hide: homosexual inclinations (deeds too, most likely), mental instability, fierce ambition, and what his own conscience must surely have told him was unkind and cowardly behavior in his abandonment of his first wife.
Even apart from such specific sins, Eliot was a man who felt uncomfortable in his own skin. As he labored mightily to build his reputation, to scale the heights and conquer literary London, he was beset by the nagging fear that people might catch a glimpse of the gauche young American behind his meticulously polished facade. Fortunately for Carole Seymour-Jones, biographer of the immensely formidable, distinctly un-shadowy Beatrice Webb, Vivienne Eliot's papers, which she left to the Bodleian, were still extant, despite the attempts of the second Mrs. Eliot to claim copyright over them.
Certainly, this biographer's subtitle speaks (volumes) for itself. In the rather tendentious mode of such revisionist biographers as Nancy Milford, who attempted to rehabilitate the tarnished image of F. Scott Fitzgerald's wife, Zelda, and Brenda Maddox, who tried to establish the literary significance of James Joyce's mate, Nora Barnacle, the author here in "Painted Shadow" mounts a massive defense of the high-strung woman whom many other Eliot biographers have portrayed as the bane of her patient, long-suffering husband's existence.
This biographer not only argues that Vivienne was a major influence on her husband's work, but also makes extravagant claims for the merits of Vivienne's own literary endeavors.
If these verses by her, addressed to the dome of the coliseum near the Eliots' Burleigh Mansions flat, are anything to go by, Tom did not have to fear competition from his wife in the poetry department:

"But my sparkling glittering swift-turning dome
You're the first thing I look for when late I come home,
And if you're still whirling and shining and gay
Then something's come right at the end of the day."


The biographer does, however, point out that Vivienne (like Ezra Pound) made some valuable emendations to Eliot's poems: She had an ear for the slangy and colloquial. And many readers, myself included, would agree with her contention that the themes and atmosphere of "The Waste Land," that sonorous amalgam of sterility, ennui, neurosis, sexual disgust, and misogyny, are reflections of the Eliots' deeply unhappy marriage.
But it's not quite clear if this biographer means thereby to argue that contributing to a writer's misery qualifies a person for honorific muse status. (That would be rather like giving credit to Death for inspiring Tennyson's "In Memoriam.") And although Vivienne may have had a hand in naming and running her husband's literary magazine "The Criterion," the reviews she wrote for it are strident and mean-spirited. She was caught up in the polemical spirit of the Modernist movement, but could not summon up the lofty tone or the erudition of her spouse's magisterial critical voice.
If there has been a serious imbalance that needs to be redressed, the problem would not seem to be that critics have grossly underestimated the first Mrs. Eliot's contribution to literature, but rather that this hapless woman has been unfairly maligned as a human being. Most of Eliot's friends and biographers have viewed Vivienne as a dangerously hysterical, difficult woman who made the poet's life sheer hell.
Eliot, according to the "authorized" version that he labored hard to create, was beleaguered husband of an unbalanced wife, desperately needing to find a way out of his disastrous marriage, but was too loyal, decent, and Anglo-Catholic to divorce his impossible wife. Instead, reaching the end of his tether, he simply left one day for a job in America without telling her it was his intention never to return to her. And, when she continued to pursue him and insist that she was his wife, he finally arranged to have her committed to an asylum by her own brother.
The biographer quotes Vivienne's brother, years later, shortly before his own death in 1980, remorsefully admitting to playwright Mr. Hastings that he had been wrong: "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 … What Tom and I did was wrong. I did everything Tom told me to. Not ashamed to say so…"
Perhaps because she believes the deck has been stacked so overwhelming in favor of Tom and against Vivienne, the biographer tends to go a bit overboard in the other direction, downplaying Vivienne's erratic behavior and pouncing hungrily upon any evidence against Tom. While the overall thrust of her case against him seems more or less correct (the man Vivienne married was deeply insecure, repelled by women's bodies, secretly homosexual, riddled with Puritan guilt, and psychologically dominated by his formidable mother), the relentlessness of her desire to expose him is often counterproductive, as when we're told, for the umpteenth time, that he wore greenish face-powder.
At the outset, the Eliots' marriage was a case of mutual mistaken identities. In his eagerness to join himself to upper echelons of British society, Eliot seems to have overestimated both the social class and financial resources of Vivienne's family. And Vivienne, for her part, seems to have imagined that the tall, good-looking young poet was the kind of red-blooded American straight out of his country's Wild West. Tom may also have hoped marriage to a sprightly, attractive young woman would put an end to his homoerotic feelings. But, alas, poor Vivienne, beset by messy menstrual and digestive problems, was probably the last woman who might have alleviated his fears of the female body.
Neither Eliot held a monopoly on mental health. Both were also prone to physical illnesses that may sometimes have had psychosomatic elements. But when Tom suffered his breakdowns, this biographer reminds us, Vivienne's instinct was to protect him, whereas her husband's instinct was to protect himself from her.
"Many letters bear witness to the dance of disease the Eliots shared, taking it in turns to be ill, as one led and the other followed in a flight into hysterical illness which served a particular purpose for each partner …" the biographer suggests. "For Tom, illness was an escape from the demands of marriage, for his breakdowns in 1921 and 1922 were not simply due to the pressures of work. Vivien's own illnesses were in part an unconscious attempt hold on to the husband she idolised, even if she could not live with him in harmony, in the face of her escalating fear that he would abandon her."
The biographer also provides an enlightening account of the Eliots' finances, and it is not a very attractive picture.
Through a judicious blend of reticence and plaintiveness, the poet managed to convince friends and supporters (some of whom, like Bertrand Russell, were better off than he, but others of whom, like Ezra Pound, were not) of the need to help him out financially. In fact, in addition to the salary he eventually earned from his bank job, he also had a substantial number of shares from his family in America.
Another fascinating sidelight that the biographer includes is the link between Eliot's poetry and the (intensely) religious poetry penned by his Unitarian mother. It, too, was filled with images of waste, corruption, sin.
The chief problem with this biography is that its author, having immersed herself in a veritable sea of material, never really manages to shape it into a cogent story with the sense of progression and narrative drive that are vital to a compelling life story.
All too often, we feel we are going around and around in circles, as Carole Seymour-Jones doggedly pursues the multiple threads of ailments, bizarre treatments of ailments, coterie quarrels, literary rivalries and enmities, and on-again-off-again friendships and liaisons. And to compound the problem, she lards her work with unnecessary references to dubious or irrelevant authorities, such as Michel Foucault and Jean-Paul Sartre. And finally, one must ask: Do we really need a 700-page biography of Vivienne Eliot?

Merle Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.


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