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The Fall of a Sparrow: Vivien Eliot’s life and writings, by Ann Pasternak Slater

by
09 April 2021

Vivien Eliot’s writings uncover the tragedy, says Richard Harries

IN 1914, T. S. Eliot confessed his love to Emily Hale. This did not seem to be reciprocated, and the next year, when he came to England to pursue his graduate studies, he married Vivien Haigh-Wood.

The marriage quickly turned into a hell for both of them. In 1933, to save his own sanity, Eliot separated from his wife, having no contact with her except through solicitors. She was sectioned and placed in a mental institution in 1938, where she remained until her death in 1947.

Now, with this book by Ann Pasternak Slater, we are able to see the marriage through Vivien’s eyes in the most minute detail; for all her writings, the diaries for some years, her letters, and her fragmentary stories, published and unpublished, were presented to the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

Pasternak Slater has carried out the most meticulous research over many years to provide as fair-minded a picture of this tragedy as she can, based on primary sources. On the way, she has to do a great deal of correcting of another book on Vivien Eliot, by Carole Seymour-Jones, which she describes as “often highly speculative, wilfully inaccurate and loyally tendentious”.

This is not a cheerful read. There is page after page of Vivien Eliot’s illnesses and her husband’s corresponding exhaustion in looking after her. There is the huge expense of her many stays in expensive nursing homes on the continent, for which he had to earn the money.

It would appear that Vivien Eliot suffered from what used to be called Munchausen’s syndrome. In addition, she was addicted to chloral and other drugs, which led to hallucinations and bizarre acts of split personality. She habitually made scenes and, the author argues, wrote letters in her husband’s name which alienated his friends. At the end, she had two or three flats at secret addresses but lived in a hotel.

Pasternak Slater shows that the wild claims made about Eliot’s having other relationships, including homosexual ones, are unfounded. He was committed to celibacy. The damage done by such fabrications is not just that they are untrue, but that they stop people seeing a fundamental pain at the heart of their marriage. This was the fact that, in order to cope at all, Eliot had to make himself emotionally dead.

Everyone noticed how he was, apart from the occasional spurt of indignation, unfailingly solicitous of his wife and her health, almost saint-like. This was a genuine part of him, a product of the strong sense of duty instilled into him by his Boston upbringing. But it was also partly a role. This was spotted by his brother Henry, who wrote to him: “You have cultivated . . what I consider in itself harmless and charming, but in her case a very harmful habit — that of polite and interested solicitude. The habit in you is now fixed, automatic and unalterable.”

In the light of this, it is clear that many of Vivien’s illnesses and scenes were attempts to get some emotional response from her husband. But, of course, they had the opposite effect. Eliot remained shut up, but also racked by what had gone wrong and his part in it. So in “Little Gidding” II, when the compound ghost poet reveals the gifts reserved for age, the last and worst is:
 

. . . the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
Of things ill done and done to others’ harm
Which once you took for exercise of virtue.

 

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford, and an Hon. Professor of Theology at King’s College, London.

 

The Fall of a Sparrow: Vivien Eliot’s life and writings
Ann Pasternak Slater
Faber & Faber £35
(978-0-571-33403-2)
Church Times Bookshop £31.50

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