Vivienne Eliot's Biography
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Carole Seymour-Jones’s biography of T S Eliot’s first wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood, has been highly acclaimed. It draws on a wide range of documentation, some of it unpublished and accessible only in library archives in Britain and the USA. The unpublished material includes the incomplete collection of Vivienne’s personal papers, fiction and verse held in the Bodleian Library, Oxford; parts of the Eliots’ correspondence with their many friends – Pound, Lady Ottoline Morrell, St John and Mary Hutchinson and numerous others; the diaries and personal memoirs of friends and acquaintances. Access to some of the unpublished material is restricted by the Eliot estate, leading to Seymour-Jones’s complaints of a conspiracy of silence imposed on Eliot’s relationship with his first wife. As yet, only the first volume of Eliot’s correspondence has been published, covering the years 1898-1922. The rest is in preparation and not yet available to scholars. The letters from John Hayward to Eliot held at Kings College, Cambridge, are restricted. So are Eliot’s letters to Emily Hale at Harvard and Princeton. While Ms Seymour-Jones was given permission to consult Vivienne’s papers in the Bodleian, she was only allowed to quote from them after representation by Queens Counsel. A sense of unacceptable censorship by the Eliot estate is shared by most reviewers of Painted Shadow. Seymour-Jones has been widely commended for putting together a biography under adverse conditions.

Moreover, the story is a compelling one. Eliot married Vivienne in 1915 after the briefest acquaintance. The marriage was a difficult one, troubled by mutual ill-health and nervous illness. Vivienne emerges as a bright, flighty, coquettish and confident figure at the beginning of the relationship. Persistent malaise, aggravated by her clearly manipulative hypochondria, further compounded by dubious cures, over-stringent diets and destructive drugs, and the added financial burdens of expensive nursing, rented country cottages and trips to sanatoria all imposed grave strains on the marriage. And yet Vivienne’s only diary relating to their life together, for 1919, is a happy one. (Vivienne’s sole surviving diaries cover 1914, 1919, 1933-6). There is a busy, fulfilled period in 1925 when she was working with Eliot and writing for The Criterion. The final chapters of the biography, detailing Vivienne’s drug-accelerated mental breakdown, from the late 1920s onwards, are terrible and fascinating. Virginia Woolf presents the most memorable, much quoted image of Vivienne in 1930:

But oh Vivienne! Was there ever such torture since life began! to bear her on one’s shoulders, biting, wriggling, raving, scratching, unwholesome, powdered, insane, yet sane to the point of insanity, reading his letters This bag of ferrets is what Tom wears round his neck.

In a rare moment of imaginative insight, Seymour-Jones makes sense of Vivienne’s erratic paranoid responses on this occasion. Woolf offered her honey from their hives, asking politely, ‘Have you any bees?’ a question which must have seemed ridiculous to a woman living in a north London flat, Seymour-Jones adds, before giving what she reads as Vivienne’s ironic reply: ‘Not bees. Hornets. But where? Under the bed.’ In his biography Ackroyd quoted this as mere lunacy. Clearly it had a painful metaphoric truth. As Woolf observed, Vivienne, like Lear, was sane to the point of insanity. There were moments of lucid pathos. She refused to recognise Edith Sitwell, who met her in Oxford Street in the summer of 1932, saying sadly, ‘No, no: you don’t know me. You have mistaken me again for that woman who is so like me She is always getting me into trouble.’

There are numerous first-hand accounts of Vivienne in her rapid decline – reeking of ether, barely able to eat, sleep, or walk; carried fainting from Epsom race course; her wild, frightened, angry eyes, and an over-intensity over nothing, as Hope Mirrlees later recalled:

She gave the impression, you see, of absolute terror. Of a person who’d seen a hideous ghost; a goblin ghost, and was always seeing a ghost in front of her Suppose you were to say to her: Will you have more cake? shed say (in a wild voice): What’s that, what’s that, what do you mean, what did you say that for? She was terrifying. At the end of an hour, when she came to see me, I was absolutely exhausted, sucked dry; and I felt to myself, poor Tom, this is enough.

‘She wild as Ophelia alas no Hamlet would love her, with her powdered spots -’, Woolf records of the Eliots’ last joint visit to Rodmell in early September 1932. ‘Tom, poor man, all battened down as usual, prim, grey, making his kind jokes with her’ (the last phrase cut by Seymour-Jones). ‘Then her chops and changes trailing about the garden never settling seizing the wheel of the car suddenly telling Tom to drive all of which Tom bears with great patience: feeling perhaps that his 7 months of freedom draw near.’

A fortnight later, Eliot left for the USA to lecture at Harvard. On his return in July 1933, he went into hiding and tried never to see Vivienne again. ‘He is 10 years younger’, Woolf noted privately, with memorable malice. ‘Hard, spry enjoying himself very much. He is tight & shiny as a woodlouse (I am not writing for publication)’.

Vivienne’s last years are mad and sad. She redecorated the flat in preparation for Eliot’s return. She refused to recognise that his absence was volitional. He was a prisoner, the victim of vague plots. She set aside a room as a shrine to him. She laid siege to Faber & Faber, and advertised in The Times for his return. Her flat was raided by bailiffs twice to repossess some of Eliots property. Once she was visited by two of her doctors, who refused to certify her after a rational interview. She attended numerous performances of The Rock, Sweeney Agonistes, and Murder in the Cathedral, vainly hoping to meet him. Some mutual friends, like Lady Ottoline Morrell, refused her further contact. She joined the British Union of Fascists and, in full uniform, made what she called her route marches through London searching for Eliot. At the same time, she took up music at the Royal College of Music, with some success, ordered herself not one but two grand pianos on hire purchase, and continued to fluctuate between insanity and sense. Fobbed off by the polite secretaries at Faber & Faber, Vivienne wrote in her diary:

We did not see Tom. They said that he was not there and that he is very erratic. Tom was never erratic. He was the most regular of men a most sweet and homely man. It is not right of Tom to refuse to come home.

Finally, on November 18, 1935, she confronted Eliot at The Sunday Times Book Fair. She had gone in full Fascist rig, her dog Polly in her arms.

“I turned a face to him of such joy that no-one in that great crowd could have had one moments doubt. I just said, Oh Tom, and he seized my hand & said how do you do, in quite a loud voice. He walked straight to the platform then & gave a most remarkably clever, well thought out lecture.”

She held the excited dog up high in her arms all through the lecture, and kept nodding my head at him & making encouraging signs. Poor Eliot, grimly performing with Banquo shaking his gory locks in the audience! Poor Vivienne! observing with proprietorial concern, ‘he looked a little older .. not well or robust or rumbustious at all. No sign of a woman’s care about him. No cosy evenings with dogs and gramophones I should say.’

She ran into him in the street only once again. In 1937 her diary gives out. In July 1938, while Eliot was away on holiday, Vivienne was found wandering before dawn, and taken to Marylebone Police Station. Her chemists, who had been supplying her with medication daily, said she appeared to be in a deplorable condition, her brother Maurice wrote to Eliot. ‘V had apparently been wandering about for two nights, afraid to go anywhere. She is full of the most fantastic suspicions. She asked me if it was true that you had been beheaded.’ A month later she was certified. Eliot refused to sign the committal order. She spent the next nine years at a private asylum and died there in 1947. Eliot and she had been married for thirty-two years. Seventeen were spent together.

Given this painful history, Eliot’s consistent concern for his wife may come as a surprise. There is not a single unkind reference to her in the published letters of 1915-22. More to the point perhaps, there is only one negative reference in all Eliot’s unpublished letters cited in this biography, for the entire period of Vivienne’s life. This single exception is a much-scored out letter Eliot wrote to Ottoline Morrell from America on 14 March 1933, now held at Texas, in which he says with characteristic obliqueness – that it is difficult for a man to live with a woman he finds ‘morally unpleasant’. It is hard to know precisely what else was said in this letter since Seymour-Jones makes no other direct quotation from it, and, moreover, does not identify the letter by date. Seymour-Jones paints an intensely negative portrait of the relationship from its very beginnings. Much of her own material conveys a very different impression.

‘I owe her everything,’ Eliot wrote to his father on his marriage, and, to his brother, ‘I feel more alive than I ever have before’. On a winter holiday in Torquay with Vivienne in 1916, he wrote to Bertrand Russell, ‘I have felt happier, these few days, than ever in my life’ (not quoted by Seymour-Jones). There are touching glimpses – for instance of Eliot lifting Vivienne high above the crowd to see Woodrow Wilson and the King drive through the streets in 1918. In the end, the relationship was mutually destructive, but it began in mutual care. When Eliot was worn out in 1918, Vivienne made him sign a contract promising to limit his reading and take a walk every day. Vivienne frequently writes ‘Tom is wonderful’, for instance when he helped her through her father’s illness in 1921. (At this point the cracks in the Eliot marriage were becoming chasms, Seymour-Jones comments.) When Vivienne had to spend eight weeks in bed in 1921, Eliot suffered very anxious moments – ‘I feel very sorry for her’, he wrote to their friend Mary Hutchinson. In 1922 he wrote to his brother in praise of her ‘infinite tenacity of purpose… persistence and courage’ while pursuing an exiguous diet. The year before, in October 1921, during his own nervous breakdown, he asked Vivienne to accompany him to Margate, in contravention of the doctors orders: ‘I could [not] bear the idea of starting this treatment quite alone in a strange place.’ Given Vivienne’s posthumous reputation, this is unexpected.

This was the breakdown lying behind The Waste Land. (‘In the original manuscript of The Waste Land he portrayed her as a reproachful gorgon, whose hysterical complaints follow him night and day,’ Seymour-Jones observes.) He took her on with him to Paris before leaving for the sanatorium in Lausanne. ‘Vivienne has had to do so much thinking for me,’ he wrote to his brother from Lausanne in December 1921. This is evident from his hesitations over The Fire Sermon that November – ‘I do not know whether it will do and must wait for Vivien’s opinion as to whether it is printable’ – as well as the negotiations over The Criterion earlier in the summer. Vivienne, he told Ottoline Morrell, was ‘invaluable’ in negotiations that required exceptional tact. He encouraged her to write, telling Richard Aldington in 1924, ‘She is very diffident but she has an original mind, and I consider not at all a feminine one; and in my opinion a great deal of what she writes is quite good enough for the Criterion. She is a very clever and original writer, with a mathematical and abstract mind which ought to be trained and I intend that it shall’, he repeated to Ottoline Morrell in 1925. In the same year he wrote to Russell, ‘I need the help of someone who understands her I find her still perpetually baffling and deceptive. She seems to me like a child of 6 with an immensely clever and precocious mind. She writes extremely well And I can never escape from the spell of her persuasive (even coercive) argument.’

First-hand descriptions of the couple, though not without shading, are also surprisingly positive. After her visit to England in 1921, Eliot’s mother observed acutely to his brother, ‘I think the poor boy misses the affection that makes no demands from him, but longs to help him. Vivien loves Tom, and he her, although I think he is afraid of her.’ Eliot’s first cousin, Abigail, wrote in 1965 that she knew the couple well in the 1920s and ‘never doubted Tom’s love for her and hers for him. In the beginning he lived through her. Her hand was all over his work.’

He was protective of her, too. In 1926, when the Sitwells failed to help her in a personal crisis, he made his displeasure very clear. This is all the more remarkable, considering that Seymour-Jones believes Vivienne had left Eliot to join a lover in Rome. Osbert recalled Vivienne writing incoherently from Rome, asking what she should do – if the Sitwells advised her to return to Eliot, she would, although the scandal in which she was involved would bring disgrace on him. Edith and Osbert did not reply, believing that Tom might prefer her to lose her. Quite the contrary. Vivienne returned to Eliot, who found her yet more psychiatric help, and treated the Sitwells with chilling coldness for some months.

Seymour-Jones finds it paradoxical that when the relationship with Vivienne was deteriorating in 1927, Eliot converted to the Anglican Church, which made divorce from her impossible. This is the coarse response of a pragmatic opportunist. Seymour-Jones has little understanding of the moral imperatives dominating Eliot’s life, and tends to dismiss them as mere hypocrisy. His deep sense of sin is frequently interpreted as a sign of actual guilt. Yet it is clear that up till his departure for America in 1932, Eliot was determined to go through with his marriage honourably and not to complain about it to anyone either. Even after his return, when he was avoiding all personal contact with Vivienne, he was still concerned about her, and saw to it that mutual friends continued to visit her. On his arrival in the States, he asked Mary Hutchinson to call on her from time to time, adding ‘It would be a kindness to me too’. After his return Vivienne was invited to dinner by Geoffrey and Enid Faber. She was visited by one of Eliot’s relatives, Elizabeth Wentworth, on a trip to England. She turned down tea with Harriet Shaw Weaver. All these contacts must have been made at Eliot’s instigation. Seymour-Jones alleges that the Eliot’s old manservant, William Janes, was in Eliot’s pay to spy on Vivienne. This puts a malicious spin on the fact that Eliot continued to pay Janes’s wages after he left. Vivienne needed domestic help and looked on Janes as a friend. It also meant Eliot could hear how she was surviving. Eliot clearly cared, and saw to it that others helped. Vivienne was visited by Enid Faber at Northumberland House, her private asylum, all through the war. When London was under attack from German doodle-bugs, he tried to get her moved into the country, without success. He was profoundly distressed when he heard of her death, according to John Hayward, who broke the news. Eliot himself was taken aback by the strength of his feelings, confiding to his friend, Mary Trevelyan, that it was ‘a particular shock and left me more disintegrated than I could have imagined.’

Why should the reviewer retail these documented facts? There would have been no need, had the biography had been less tendentious. Seymour-Jones has a clear and not entirely honourable agenda. It is set out in an acceptable form in her epigraph, taken from Vivienne’s letter to Ottoline Morrell describing the bequest of her papers to the Bodleian. ‘The truth will all come out, if not in our life – then after it.’ There is every reason for a fair and truthful biography of Vivienne to be written. The questionable corollary is insidiously implied in the biography’s last sentence.

[Eliot] died at the age of seventy-six, on 4 January 1965, comforted by the impregnability of his reputation; Vivienne, meanwhile, lay forgotten in the Pinner cemetery.

This is where the debate must lie. Seymour-Jones has set Vivienne up to put Eliot down. Her secondary task has been to destroy Eliot’s pregnable reputation. The critics have welcomed it. The final irony is that Vivienne, in all probability, would have been appalled.

The major accusations levelled against Eliot in this biography are: that from the first weeks of their marriage he pimped Vivienne to Bertrand Russell, colluding with their affair for his own financial, social and literary gain. That he had adulterous affairs in the early years of his marriage with Mary Hutchinson and Brigit Patmore. That he was a closet homosexual, falling in love with Jean Verdenal, the dedicatee of Prufrock and Other Observations, and subsequently having affairs with numerous other figures, including Massine of the Ballet Russe, a German house-guest called Jack, the Hon. Philip Ritchie (a beautiful and gay young man), C H B Kitchin (the homosexual novelist), and unnamed sailors. That he kept what two reviewers have elegantly termed a ‘fuck-flat’ for these illicit liaisons. Vaguer aspersions are cast on his relationships with his bisexual friend Geoffrey Faber, the young Brother George Every (a male muse for Eliot), and the sexually ambiguous Ezra Pound. Equally suspect are his relations with the hosts who took him in after he left Vivienne, including Kitchin and his two gay flatmates, and the not altogether masculine Father Cheetham (‘who spent his spare time dress-making’ – a shocking revelation indeed). Eliot’s King Bolo poems – mediocre comic scatological verses exchanged over many years with Conrad Aiken and Pound – are taken as direct evidence of his violent, repressed homosexual needs.

Other minor allegations are floated throughout. Take, for instance, Fete Galante, Vivienne’s pseudonymous sketch published by Eliot in The Criterion in July 1925, which satirized prominent social figures like Lady Diana Cooper and the Sitwells. It caused much offence. Seymour-Jones suggests that Eliot had grown jealous of Vivienne’s rising success and that, by publishing her squib, his darker motive was to eradicate her from the literary scene: ‘In engineering Vivienne’s fall Tom cleared the decks for the future. He grew to hate her as she cuckolded him and attempted to usurp his role as a writer, so he asserted male hegemony and ended her writing career.’

The idea that Eliot jealously destroyed Vivienne, that literary giant, to preserve his own literary status, is palpably absurd. Not all the accusations are so silly. It is more instructive to examine Seymour-Jones’s methods than to rebut the accusations one by one. Her techniques do not change in this course of this 700-page biography, and can be reduced to a few simple ploys by which evidence is consistently manipulated.

First, gravest, and most persistent, is the disruption of chronology. Take a paragraph on pp.356-7. Seymour-Jones is describing a visit of Eliot’s to lecture to Oxford undergraduates at Ottoline Morrell’s invitation on 17 June 1923. This meagre, unsensational fact is supplemented and garnished by unrelated material taken from well before and well after the 17 June 1923. There is an account of the young, often homosexual young men Ottoline habitually gathered round herself in Garsington, like Lord Sackville-West, who, Virginia Woolf says in a letter of 4 June 1923, admires Eliot’s work. A longer quotation from Woolf describes a visit from Sackville-West, his make-up and effeminacy. It is taken from a letter of 24 January 1925 – a date not acknowledged in the text. On this occasion, Seymour-Jones continues, ‘Virginia had travelled to Garsington with Lytton Strachey, but was dismayed to find Ottoline had invited a “bunch of men no bigger than asparagus”’. This occasion refers to Woolf’s visit to Garsington on 2 June 1923. But since the date is not given in the text, we are invited to assume that this occasion was 17 June 1923 – the day of the lecture. After this long muck-raking detour, Seymour-Jones concludes, ‘It was on this particular visit to Garsington on 17 June 1923 that Eliot had a medical conversation with Ottoline about Vivienne’. The reader who does not trouble to check the hidden dates for the quotations in this paragraph will be pardoned for thinking that they all refer to the same occasion: this occasion, this particular visit. The intention is to build up a picture of Eliot basking in the attentions of Ottoline’s asparagus-bunches of gay young men.

In reality, none of the gay material quoted in this paragraph has anything to do with Eliot’s visit to Oxford on 17 June 1923. Biography, or the art of innuendo?

As a result of this particular tendency, a fine haze of uncertainty blurs the entire narrative. One is constantly turning to the notes to check the dates of citations, and finding extreme chronological disjunctions. Pp 39-40 discuss Eliot’s early verse, composed in 1907-10, including a new poem, ‘Mr Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service’, written in 1919, ‘Cousin Nancy’ and ‘Miss Helen Slingsby’ [sic: actually ‘Aunt Helen’], both written in 1915.

On p 220, Vivienne’s use of Henry James’s Daisy Miller as an alter ego in 1936 is used to explain her postulated sense of social inferiority in 1918.

On p 432, it is suggested that the lover for whom Vivienne fled to Rome in 1926 may have proved fickle – a speculation supported by a fictional fickle lover from a story Vivienne wrote in 1924.

On p 260, Ottoline Morrell’s friendship with Vivienne in 1920 is contrasted with the negative response Ottoline ‘still’ suffered from other ungrateful Garsington guests – with a supporting quotation from Clive Bell in 1917.

On p 282, a letter of Vivienne’s from Paris is dated 16 November 1921. The Eliots only left for Paris on 18 November. The letter is more plausibly dated 20? December 1921 in Valerie Eliot’s edition of the Letters, but Seymour-Jones has conflated it with another, unpublished letter predating the Paris visit and attributed both to Vivienne’s days in Paris after Eliot left for Lausanne.

On p 373, Eliot writes to Woolf on 4 February 1925, longing for a country hovel of our own, and, adds Seymour-Jones, Vivien chimed in with identical demands – in a letter of 1923.

On p 410, Woolf’s diary complains about Eliot on 14 September 1925. In reply, says Seymour-Jones, Eliot agreed smoothly with her in a letter dated 5 September.

On p 472, the narrative deals with the events of 1931. Seymour-Jones states: Eliot grew nervous of blackmail; such was his reputation that the writer E W F Tomlin felt it necessary to state that his friendship with the poet was devoid of sexual feeling. Tomlin made his statement in 1988, 23 years after Eliot’s death – a date not disclosed in Seymour-Jones’s main text.

On p 540, a diary entry of Vivienne’s dated 11 November 1935 is taken to refer to her last conversation with Eliot, whereas she saw him at The Sunday Times Book Fair on 18 November.

And so on, and on. At the very least, such errors cast serious doubts on Seymour-Jones’s technical competence. Readers sympathetic to her will dismiss them as venial, as slips. Many appear to be prompted by more than mere carelessness, however.

Her authority as a biographer is more fundamentally undermined by her recurrent manipulation of facts to further her own agenda. Supposition hardens into fact; facts provide grounds for further suppositions. Bertrand Russell’s relationship to the Eliots is a case in point. Russell had known Eliot at Harvard. He was invited to dinner by the couple a fortnight after their marriage, in July 1915, and quickly became intimately involved in attempting to help the marriage. Eliot welcomed his interest and for the next decade his rare letters to Russell are uniquely confidential about the marriage. In July 1915, Eliot left for a month’s visit to his parents. In September Russell loaned the Eliots one of the two rooms in his Bury Street Chambers, where they stayed till December. In January 1916, Russell took Vivienne to Torquay for five days holiday, before being replaced by Eliot. In their early impoverished years he helped them financially, transferring to Eliot debentures in an engineering firm making munitions for the war, which he could not, in conscience, profit from. He got Eliot work reviewing and lecturing.

There is ample evidence from Russell’s unpublished letters to Ottoline Morrell and Constance Malleson, both mistresses of his, that the relationship with Vivienne Eliot was close. Both women suspected a physical liaison with Vivienne, but Russell repeatedly denied it until 25 October 1917. At this point, Russell visited Vivienne in the country while Eliot was working in London. He wrote to Constance Malleson:

She was very glad I had come back & very kind, & wanting much more than friendship. I thought I could manage it – I led her to expect more if we could get a cottage – at last I spent a night with her. It was utter hell. There was a quality of loathsomeness about it which I can’t describe…

‘At last I spent a night with her’ sounds like the first time. Seymour-Jones, however, suspects that the affair started two years earlier, within weeks of the Eliot’s marriage. The possibility is canvassed on pp 108-9: ‘It is of course possible that the relationship which developed between Vivien and Bertie was as innocent as Eliot apparently assumed or that Eliot was a cuckold. On the other hand, the triple menage could in fact have been a far more complicated bargain, by which Eliot, for his own reasons, permitted Bertie to enjoy Vivien’s sexual favours.’ Thereafter ‘could in fact’ is treated as fact. In Russell’s flat, one tiny room held Vivienne’s cot-bed. Eliot slept in the hall on a deckchair. ‘In such circumstances conjugal relations were well-nigh impossible’ – but there was ample space for adultery, it seems. ‘Now [Russell] could climb into Vivienne’s little bed’ (pp 116-7). ‘Mr Apollinax’, she argues, is about Eliot’s response to Bertie’s intimacy with his wife in the months following July 1915 (p 101). It is even suggested that Russell hoped Vivien should bear him a child. Russell wanted children and ‘saw the Eliots’ difficulties as an opportunity to ingratiate himself with Vivien, suspecting that [Eliot] was unlikely to father a child by his wife’ (p 100). ‘It is almost impossible to believe that Tom was unaware that Russell and Vivien were having a sexual relationship’ (p 121).

All these comments refer to the first six months of the marriage, before the trip to Torquay in January 1916.

If there are some uncertainties about this trip – ‘It is possible that for once Russell was telling the truth when he emphasised the innocence of his relations with Vivien at Torquay to Ottoline’ (p 126) – they are quickly surmounted. ‘Russell’s revealing phrase, “Eliot replaced me” suggests that he had, in some sense, fulfilled the role of husband’ (p 128). Thereafter we settle back into certainty. Vivienne is Russell’s ‘new mistress’ (p 132); ‘his mistress’ (p 149). Vivien was ‘deeply in love with the man who featured in their letters only as a respected friend, rather than Vivien’s lover’ (p 143): so much for the awkward discrepancies between the letters and Seymour-Jones’s ‘facts’.

All these statements – and many others – relate to the period preceding the documented coupling of October 1917. Eliot’s willing collusion and its mercenary nature are never even debated. Why question them? Both are presented as self-evident: there is ‘a hint of blackmail in Eliot’s asking Russell to get him lecturing work’ (p 149). Within a page the hint hardens into a threat. ‘Vivien’s “allowance” must continue if Bertie wished to enjoy her favours’ (p 150). ‘There was an element of homosexuality by proxy in the way in which Eliot offered Vivien to Russell’ (p 193). Russell ‘served his purpose in Eliots ascent of the literary ladder’ (p 226). One of Seymour-Jones’s whimsical idees fixes is that Eliot could achieve nothing on his own. Another is her confident intimacy with the unknowable depths of Eliot’s mind. ‘Eliot’s conscience tormented him. He could not repress the knowledge that… Vivien’s affair with Russell… had in fact been one in which he had knowingly colluded in order to further his career, relieve himself of conjugal responsibilities, and to gain financial advantage’(p 366).

It is shocking to find a biographer indulging in unrestrained fantasy, presented as fact, to such an extent. A comparable farrago of nonsense bolsters Eliot’s alleged liaison with Mary Hutchinson. It is based on two documented facts. On 4 March 1919 Eliot wrote:

Dear Mary,
Vivien says she is lunching with you on Thursday. Won’t you come on later (at 5.45) and dance at a place near Baker Street. They teach the new dances and steps, which I don’t know and want to learn. I hope you won’t mind my being rather out of date. It is over by half past seven, and we could dine afterwards. I think it would be rather fun, and the people ought to be a source of amusement. Do come.

The second documented fact is that Mary invited Eliot, without Vivienne, to spend Whitsun at Wittering, her place by the sea, and Eliot accepted in a letter of 16 May. In 1919 Whitsunday fell on 8 June. A subsequent letter of thanks is dated 15 June, and the occasion is referred to in a letter to Eliot’s friend Eleanor Hinkley, dated 17 June 1919. Vivienne knew about the invitation and refers to it in an unpublished letter to Mary, which Seymour-Jones embellishes with a meaningful flourish – ‘ “So Tom is coming to you at Whitsun!” Vivien remarked with surprise’ (p 243). In fact, the invitation was originally made on Vivienne’s suggestion in a letter to Mary on 10 May 1919 (Letters, p 292) – a detail Seymour-Jones fails to mention.

Seymour-Jones confidently sets the scene for a flirtation and seduction in numerous statements comparable to the Russell allegations above: ‘In this new threesome Vivien was to be the dupe’ (p 227). She runs them in tandem with other allegations of a liaison with Brigit Patmore: ‘Perhaps Vivien was unaware that Tom was himself writing to Brigit, arranging discreet dinners with her while Vivien was at Marlow’ (p 241). (Eliot had one dinner with Brigit. Two years later he couldn’t even remember how to spell her name.) ‘While it amused Tom to flirt with Brigit, Mary was the bigger prize In part it was revenge on Vivien for her liaison with Russell… Part of the excitement of these illicit encounters lay also in deceiving his wife’ (p 242).

As usual, chronological shuffling supports these fantasies. The last sentence continues: ‘Mary was a willing partner in the game of love. Soon she began inviting Eliot to parties alone.’ This is illustrated by one invitation – undated in the text – of 4 June 1917, two years previously. The unacknowledged time-lag allows Seymour-Jones to escalate her allegations: ‘Vivienne was unaware of the number of secret meetings which took place between her husband and Mary’ (p 243). After the Whitsun weekend 8 June 1919, ‘rumours about Tom and Mary were now flying around Bloomsbury’, says Seymour-Jones (p 245) – an assertion supported by a quotation from Virginia Woolf’s diary in which she and Ottoline Morrell, in Woolf’s words, ‘investigated the case of Mary Hutch & Eliot’. However, Woolf’s diary-entry is dated, in Seymour-Jones’s text, 19 May 1919, three weeks before Whitsun weekend. The entry was actually made on 16 May, the date on which Eliot was accepted Mary’s invitation. It can hardly refer to the supposed seduction of 8 June.

In the end, even Seymour-Jones has to admit rather limply that ‘whether the anticipated seduction took place is not known’. She concedes that Eliot’s bread-and-butter letter does not sound ‘like the message of a lover’ (p 244). This does not restrain her from returning to the seduction as a dog to its vomit. ‘In this Bloomsbury triangle Mary may have wanted Tom… in fact it was Mary whose attention both Tom and Vivien individually craved’(p 248). Seymour-Jones persists: Wittering, Vivienne believed, ‘had been the scene of Mary’s seduction of Tom’ (p 266). False paraphrase supports the illusion. Woolf’s diary entry on ‘the case of Mary Hutch & Tom’ makes a new appearance as Virginia and Ottoline ‘gossiping over Mary’s relationship with Tom’ (p 260). Clive Bell is said by Seymour-Jones to be ‘more green-eyed than ever when he heard that Eliot had spent the weekend with his girlfriend Mary, and Roger Fry’ (p 245). This derives from Eliot’s letter to Eleanor Hinkley, in which he dissects Bloomsbury backbiting. In a complex analysis, Eliot refers to the repercussions of his Whitsun weekend: ‘I believe that [Clive] is spreading the report that I am very conceited, he being annoyed at my having been asked for a weekend at [Mary’s], where I bathed in the sea and played with the children, and talked about aesthetics with [Roger Fry].’ (Not quoted by Seymour-Jones.) It doesn’t sound much like an illicit weekend. There is no evidence that Mary’s husband was not there, with the children, on the Saturday night, along with Roger Fry, who arrived on Sunday. Eliot’s motive for his original invitation to Mary to come dancing is equally transparent. In her diary two days before, on 2 March, Vivienne, a good dancer, wrote, ‘Picked up by three Canadian flying-men, all exquisite dancers -Danced as I never have since the war.’ Poor, old-fashioned Eliot was not good enough for her. So he found another partner to learn the new steps. There is nothing in his letter to Mary to suggest that Vivienne would not be there also.

It would be tedious – but not difficult – to unpick all Seymour-Jones’s fabrications in comparable detail. They are marked by persistent chronological distortion, manipulative paraphrase, and self-contradiction. Allegations are made, withdrawn, and continue to reappear. Inconvenient information is obscured in footnotes and contradicted in the text. Guilt, particularly in a homosexual context, is suggested by association and innuendo. Speculation is unrestrained and rated above documented fact. Eliot’s specific denial of a homosexual reading of ‘The Waste Land’ is quoted and dismissed. He would have been guilty either way. Unknown and unknowable thoughts are detailed with novelistic assurance. Literary texts are consistently misread as direct transcriptions of experience. Eliot is Prufrock. Emily Hale is ‘La Figlia che Piange’. Vivienne is the woman in ‘Hysteria’ – and the gorgon (which gorgon?) in ‘The Waste Land’. Verdenal is Phlebas and the hyacinth girl. Maybe Eliot himself is the hyacinth girl. Speculative readings masquerade as biographical data. This is barely justifiable vis-a-vis Vivienne’s unsophisticated fiction. It is an unpardonable strategy for Eliot’s oeuvre, where personal experience is one of many germinating sources for an infinitely more complex whole. This biography has qualities reminiscent of a modernist text. All time is synchronous, eternally present and unredeemable. All poems are one poem and that poem is Vivienne and Eliot’s biography.

The text is littered with substantive errors, minor misprints, and misnumbered footnotes. Ben Johnson, San Sodoma (the well-known Renaissance artist), The Ordeal of Gilbert Penfold, Sophocles’s Philoctes, the murder of Hieronymo’s children… Perhaps they are forgivable in such a long book. The labour that has gone into it is vast. It is radically undermined by authorial bias and its concomitant strategies. The entire task remains to be done again.

* * * *

’Painted Shadow’ has been welcomed by critics. They have accepted Seymour-Jones’s allegations largely without question. Their enthusiasm is directly proportionate to their liking of Eliot. Jonathan Bate, who has written against Eliot in the past, chose the biography as his Book of the Year for The Sunday Times because it is ‘scrupulously documented and reveals what Eliot had to hide’. Other reviewers write with less restraint. Peter Conrad relishes the ‘fuck flat’, where Eliot entertained ‘a succession of ephebes in sailor suits’, and his habitual use of rouge, lipstick and eyeshadow. He misquotes Eliot as saying of his marriage that it was like a Dostoevsky novel (‘written by Middleton Murry’ is the telling omitted addendum).

Tom Paulin goes further. ‘The Eliots were snobbish right-wing fascists’ (Seymour-Jones herself tells us that Eliot warned Pound against Mosley – but Paulin isn’t listening). Not only did Eliot use Vivienne ‘as bait to further his career’. ‘He had a pathological hatred of women and wasn’t simply a misogynist but a potential murderer who wanted to do his wife in.’ Paulin follows Seymour-Jones in confusing fact and fiction – in The Family Reunion, he says, ‘Vivienne [a new character, evidently] is described as “a restless shivering painted shadow”.’ The book is ‘brilliant, deeply researched, utterly compelling.’

Humphrey Carpenter believes Seymour-Jones argues ‘pretty conclusively’ that Eliot was ‘fundamentally gay’, and that Russell’s liaison with Vivienne is ‘familiar to anyone who remembers Ackroyd’s book’ (which denies a sexual liaison, as Seymour-Jones herself admits). It is a ‘remarkable book.’

Ray Monk calls it ‘a superbly well-researched biography’.

The gullible carelessness of the reviewers is dismaying. Many pick up and repeat the supposed diagnosis of Vivienne’s pre-marital instability as ‘moral insanity’. ‘Moral insanity’ is a term Seymour-Jones borrows from Sir George Savage – who treated Virginia Woolf, – and then applies it to Vivienne without any justification: ‘Rosa [her mother] believed that Vivienne suffered from “moral insanity”.’ Many accept the idea that the marriage was an escape from two domineering mothers. Seymour-Jones has an inexplicably violent hatred of mothers, almost worthy of the shoddy psychoanalysis she continually draws on. Her presentation of both Rosa Haigh-Wood and Charlotte Eliot is painfully unpleasant. Yet Eliot’s feelings for his mother are steady and profound (he signs one letter in 1929, ‘with infinite love. You are much in my thoughts’). Rosa, who is supposed to have forbidden Vivienne’s first engagement to Charles Buckle, did nothing of the sort. She agreed when Buckle’s mother stopped the liaison, and made no objection when it was resumed.

Everyone accepts Eliot’s homosexuality. In Seymour-Jones’s handling it is based on a long, sentimental recreation of Eliot’s relationship with Jean Verdenal, his ‘loved one’, his ‘lost love’, with whom he had a ‘predominantly homosexual… gay relationship’, an ‘obsession’ which caused ‘intense anguish’ at his early death. Anyone reading the letters from Verdenal to Eliot, which are all given in the first volume of the Letters, will be surprised to find something very different from Seymour-Jones’s Mills and Boonish selective paraphrase. They are typical letters for young adolescent friends sharing intellectual interests – alert, wide-ranging, a little impersonal (‘Cher ami, je vous serre la main’). Eliot’s alleged distress at his loved one’s death is slightly diminished by the only letter referring to it: ‘The news is that I am to be at Highgate School .. that I am rewriting my thesis, that my wife has been very ill, that I have been taken up with worries of finance and Vivien’s health, that my friend Jean Verdenal has been killed, that nothing has been seen of Armstrong…’ List and sentence end in a stanza of very unfunereal Bolo doggerel. All the other specifically raised homosexual liaisons – Massine, German Jack, Ritchie, the unnamed sailors – have no documentary foundation.

Hermione Lee is the only reviewer to note minor factual errors, but they are trivial. To her credit, she alone attempts to present both cases, for and against Eliot, and deals well with the canard that Eliot had an affair with Massine. Other allegations pass without question. And yet the flat in which Eliot is supposed to have entertained his gay young ephebes was visited by Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, the Sitwells, St John and Mary Hutchinson and Roger Fry. Vivienne herself used to go and write there. The much-trumpeted green make up was, according to Valerie Eliot, treatment for a skin complaint. Eliot’s horror of the hearty female stench and consequent impotence (frequently canvassed by Seymour-Jones and widely accepted) is contradicted by Eliot’s own poem, ‘Dedication to My Wife’, Valerie, which celebrates ‘The breathing in unison / Of lovers whose bodies smell of each other.’

The Eliots’ life together, and its reception, are riddled with ironies. Vivienne – who was no virgin when she married, who ran off to a lover in Rome, who flirted with their mutual friend Scofield Thayer before her marriage, and again while Eliot was in America in 1915, and tried to see him while Eliot was ill in Lausanne – escapes censure. Eliot, who left Vivienne to live in monastically ascetic, cell-like rooms, who could make nothing more of his long-standing friendships with Eleanor Hinkley and Emily Hale, and who finally married ten years after Vivienne’s death and seven before his own, is roundly condemned for every conceivable sexual irregularity. Valerie Eliot, who persuaded her husband, against his will, to allow the publication of his letters, and who has worked indefatigably to collect them and prepare them for publication, is condemned for a conspiracy of silence. Her caution and Eliot’s reserve are understandable, when we see what can be done by a maliciously misrepresentative biography.

Carole Seymour-Jones: Painted Shadow: A Life of Vivienne Eliot. Constable. ISBN 0-094-79279-4. 682pp 20

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