The wife has her say



John Haffenden reflects on his edition of the Letters of T. S. Eliot, Volume 7: 1934-1935, which is to be published by Faber & Faber on 1 June.


Perhaps the most newsworthy aspect of volume 7 of the Letters of T. S. Eliot – which covers the years 1934 and 1935 – is that at long last we get the fullest available representation of both sides of the frightful, agonising personal struggle between Eliot and the wife whom he had left in 1933.


Eliot wished to treat Vivien with distant dignity, respecting her rights and interests. But he was resolute on two matters: he wanted (i) to secure a proper agreement for a legal separation; (ii) to retrieve his personal papers, books and family heirlooms which had been left at Vivien’s flat since his departure for an academic year in the USA, 1932–33.


The situation became more strained and ugly as the months passed, and Eliot took the advice from his solicitors that the only way he would ever properly recover his possessions – since Vivien shunned the advice even of her own lawyer – was to get a court writ for a sheriff to enter her premises and retrieve his belongings. Reluctantly, Eliot authorised this step, and the bailiffs duly made entry to Vivien’s flat in December 1934. She cried out to whoever might listen that such a shocking incursion was illegal and outrageous, and had damaged both the flat and her own delicate state of being. She told her bank, ‘It was only by Brute Force that his things were snatched from me.’ But her lawyers – and other members of her family – would not heed her complaints, since they too had been urging her to respect the inevitable. Due process had been served.


This volume gives in the fullest possible detail – for the first time – Vivien’s side of the story, by way of her letters to legal advisers and to family and friends. The collection also quotes extensively from Vivien’s diaries. Her painfully detailed, worrying, vagarious, vortical, angst-ridden diaries for each of the years 1934 and 1935 – which she took pains to bequeath to the Bodleian Library at Oxford – provide her account of her activities and reflections and erratic mental state through the span of this volume of the Eliot letters. (Her letters and diaries from other years do not survive to anything like this extent.)


Eliot’s widow Valerie, who died in 2012 having spent over forty years researching Eliot’s letters and papers, resolved to give a voice to Vivien Eliot. She felt it only fair that readers of Eliot’s letters should also be able to read Vivien’s thoughts and try to understand the awful mental turbulence and disturbances she suffered. (I am glad to say too that the Oxford academic and critic Ann Pasternak Slater will in time be bringing out a full anthology-account of Vivien’s writings: her work has been commissioned by the Eliot Estate.)


Sadly – at this distance we cannot put a name to the nature of Vivien’s illness, and perhaps it was even a compound illness: she may have been schizophrenic or bipolar, we cannot be sure – it is evidently the case that while some of the exceptionally talkative entries in Vivien Eliot’s diaries seem lucid and reliably observant, all too many veer towards the zany, obsessional, distracted and paranoid.


Vivien becomes increasingly convinced that her husband is himself ill or absent; that he has been kidnapped, or is being blackmailed; that he needs to be rescued.  She writes: ‘My belief is that he wants to get back to me, & is in chains.’ She writes to him that she will leave her door open at certain times of the day, so he can walk back in and resume his comfortable old routine with her. She tells a friend that her husband needs ‘the very necessary protection of a wife.’ She insists to both her bank manager and her brother that they must arrange a meeting with her husband in a place where she may secretly watch and verify Eliot’s existence. She entertains doubts that the man whom she supposedly saw in person in a lawyer’s office in 1933 was genuine – the real T. S. Eliot. At times she implicitly patronises him and the Christian religion he has espoused. (Other close friends of Eliot’s during this period, including Virginia Woolf and Lady Ottoline Morrell, also sometimes pity and mock him for his religious faith.) Vivien sends Christmas cards to mutual friends ‘As from Mr and Mrs T. S. Eliot’. She asks Eliot to come at a certain prearranged time to rescue her from a hotel in Paris. She feels persecuted by everyone; betrayed in every way. For instance, she tells her brother one day, without good cause: ‘I consider that, ever since July 1933, you have treated me with almost insane cruelty and casualness.’


She had in a way some reason to feel paranoid if not persecuted: the family, friends and servants who sincerely try to help her through the days and months often – for the best of caring reasons – tip off her husband about her activities. She hides out for days at a time in various hotels; she rents other flats for herself, and even for a while a whole house on Edge Street in Notting Hill. All the time, her own solicitor tells her frankly that he is glad to have to do business with such a gentlemanly, reliable, discreet individual as T. S. Eliot.


Still Vivien seeks to surprise Eliot at his office – where the receptionist and secretaries find it a strain to have to fend her off, to tell her the necessary saving lies about his supposedly frequent absences – and she goes again and again to performances of his plays – The Rock which is staged at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in the spring of 1934, and Murder in the Cathedral in 1935 – and finds it all the more exacerbating that he is never to be seen in the stalls at his own widely applauded productions, or even at a curtain call.


Eliot for his part is sometimes fearful of what she might do: he anticipates being ‘molested’. From time to time he dreams of himself as an Orestes being pursued by Furies: his state of mind adumbrates aspects of the fears and anxieties of the figure ‘Harry’ in his play The Family Reunion (1939).


The climax to this emotionally lowering business takes place in November 1935 when Vivien comes face to face with her husband after a lecture he gives at the Dorland Hall, London, as part of the Sunday Times Book Exhibition. By this time she has convinced herself that Sir Oswald Mosley is the strong Leader that England needs during the crisis years of the 1930s, and she has delighted in joining the ranks of the British Union of Fascists. So she proudly wears her fascist uniform when attending Eliot’s talk at the Dorland Hall, and carries her dog in her arms, and at the end she sweeps down on Eliot to ask him to come home with her. The dog – which had once been Eliot’s pet too – leaps with frantic glee to greet her old master. Eliot says to Vivien, ‘I cannot talk to you now’, signs – ‘with automatic hand’ – three of his books that she had brought along with her, and makes haste to quit the hall.


It has become almost a doctrine in some quarters in recent years to label Eliot himself an anti-Semite. In truth, the mature Eliot was little of the sort. It would have appalled the poet to witness his wife wearing the uniform of the Blackshirts: there are several letters in this volume in which Eliot declares his antagonism to Fascism (and also to Communism). He writes in March 1934, ‘I have at hand a book containing statements by Sir Oswald Mosley, which anyone … can recognise to be not only puerile but anathema.’ His pageant-play The Rock includes a passage explicitly denouncing the Blackshirts – in such outspoken terms indeed that the authorities at Sadler’s Wells feared the play might incite a violent demonstration outside the theatre. In February 1935 Eliot warned an American cousin (who had been beguiled by the new régime in Germany) against Mosley: ‘Politically, the man is at present pretty well discredited. His political philosophy is clap-trap. Anti-Semitism is not, and cannot be, a serious political issue in England … Mosley’s movement has been on the decline since a disgraceful meeting at a big public hall last year, at which interrupters seem to have been treated with considerable barbarity.’


And in 1934 Eliot warned Ezra Pound, most presciently: ‘I don’t mind much what you do so long as you don’t go involve yourself with that Mosley.’