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Film review: T. S. Eliot: The Search for Happiness

09 April 2021

Stephen Brown views a documentary on DVD

Valerie Eliot/Clare Reihill

T. S. Eliot in his happier years, in a photo used in the film

T. S. Eliot in his happier years, in a photo used in the film

THE DVD documentary T.S. Eliot: The Search for Happiness (an advisory E classification) attributes the poet’s despondency to being closed to human love while desperately wanting it. Hence rushing into marriage only four months after meeting Vivien(ne) Haigh-Wood. She was everything that he was not — lively, extrovert, outspoken, somewhat unconventional. It would never be a match made in heaven, compounded by her decline in mental health.

Adrian Munsey and Vance Goodwin, who produced and directed this film, state unequivocally that Vivienne had an affair with Eliot’s friend and teacher Bertrand Russell. This remains an unproven speculation, which may undermine confidence in the rest of the documentary’s reliability.

Eliot’s breakthrough poem The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock (1915) did “dare to disturb the universe” despite his self-doubting. The Waste Land (1922) sealed his reputation. Various scholars in the film describe it as portraying a people spiritually dead, physically maimed by the First World War. Eliot himself attributed the poem’s emergence to his state of mind over the failing marriage.

Despite, or perhaps because of, a general sense of angst, Eliot became an Anglican in 1927. The film gives little insight into what led to this, though we do know that his religious affiliation had an abiding shape on his future literary work. Vivienne was eventually committed to a mental institution. Formally separated, the guilt-ridden Eliot never visited. She remained there till dying in 1947. Although Tom engaged in deep friendships with Emily Hale in America and Mary Trevelyan in London, he couldn’t countenance marriage, or even love. In 1948, his work was awarded the Nobel Prize. Yet the search for happiness remained.

The current film never plumbs the religious depths of Eliot’s output. Attention is given to Four Quartets, his masterpiece, only briefly acknowledging it as the summation of the spiritual journey dominating his life. Just one of the academics in the film draws out how Eliot links it to salvation: we may be forced to live in time while having glimpsed eternity. This is only halfway through the documentary, after which there are the scantiest of references to his writings; his literary criticism and seven plays are barely mentioned. Likewise, anti-Semitic allegations are skirted over in the rush to declare the search for happiness fulfilled.

This is attained through marrying Valerie Fletcher, his long-time secretary at Faber & Faber. The rest of the film examines their relationship. Their many interests included cinema, not least enjoying Groucho Marx, a fan of The Waste Land, who later quipped that it was the history of American television. Tom and Valerie also loved musicals, which probably facilitated Andrew Lloyd Webber’s receiving permission to stage Cats from the estate. It is the documentary’s cue to burst into song and dance, providing relief from talking heads.

Movie endings can be tricky to execute satisfactorily, not least this one. By failing to acknowledge that Eliot’s finding of happiness was linked to his belief that those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them, the film ends “Not with a bang but a whimper”.

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