Painted Shadow: A Life of Vivienne Eliot by Carole Seymour-Jones

T S Eliot championed 'impersonal' poetry. But what if his masterpiece encodes the secrets of his miserable marriage - and of a lost, male lover?
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T S Eliot's The Waste Land is the most famous poem of the 20th century, the epitome of literary modernism. It is conventionally read as, in its own phrase, "A heap of broken images". Its fragmentary quotations from the masterworks of past culture and dark allusions to myths of sterility are taken to be symbolic of the entropy of western civilisation in the wake of the Great War.

Generations of students have been taught to read the poem in accordance with the principles laid out in Eliot's own criticism (which was itself the shaping force of academic EngLit for half a century). In "Tradition and the Individual Talent," Eliot argued that "the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates". By a process of "depersonalisation", art approaches the condition of science. The man must be sacrificed to the work, and the reader must attend to the tale and its "tradition" rather than the teller and the contingent circumstances of a work's composition.

According to this way of thinking, biography is the sin against the holy spirit of literature. It was perfectly in keeping for Eliot to instruct his executor that there should never be an "authorised" biography. Mrs Valerie Eliot, his widow, and the publishing house of Faber & Faber have placed formidable obstacles in the way of all Eliot biographers. Few letters have been published and permission to quote from, in some cases even to consult, the unpublished ones has frequently been denied.

All this suggests that Old Possum (as Ezra Pound called him) had something to hide. There were dark rumours from the word go. Mary Hutchinson, who was intimate with the poet, read The Waste Land and said "This is Tom's autobiography". In 1952, John Peter, a Canadian critic, published a persuasive article suggesting that the poem should be read as a homoerotic elegy for Jean Verdenal, dedicatee of Eliot's Prufrock volume, who was killed in the Dardanelles. Eliot threatened to sue, forced an apology and said that he would take "the very gravest view of any further dissemination of this article or the views expressed in it".

Yet he once let slip in an editorial column that he was haunted by "the memory of a friend coming across the Luxembourg Gardens in the late afternoon, waving a branch of lilac, a friend who was later... to be mixed with the mud of Gallipoli." The friend was Verdenal. The two young men shared a small hotel room in Paris; Eliot returned there alone after Verdenal's death. The Waste Land begins with lilacs.

Carole Seymour-Jones argues that there may be an allusion to whatever happened in that room at the climax of the poem, when Eliot proposes that the most important thing in life – the thing that overcomes the desolation of modernity – is "The awful daring of a moment's surrender/ Which an age of prudence can never retract". "By this," the poem continues, "and this only, we have existed."

Seymour-Jones's very long and immaculately detailed biography of the first Mrs Eliot aims not only to rescue Vivienne from the calumny bestowed on her by Virginia Woolf ("this bag of ferrets is what Tom wears round his neck"), but also to show that "the autobiographical and confessional element in Eliot's texts has been greatly underestimated". It succeeds triumphantly in vindicating a prophecy made nearly 40 years ago by that very shrewd critic, Randall Jarrell: "Won't the future say to us in helpless astonishment: 'But did you actually believe that all those things about objective correlations, Classicism, the tradition, applied to his poetry?'" For Jarrell, Eliot was really "one of the most subjective and daemonic poets who ever lived, the victim and helpless beneficiary of his own inexorable compulsions."

The Vivienne story has been familiar since Michael Hastings's play and film, Tom and Viv. A dancer and sportswoman, she was traumatised by heavy and irregular menstrual bleeding. From an early age she was diagnosed as hysterical and given bromide. She had literary aspirations and wrote some passable stories and reviews. Eliot married her soon after Verdenal's death and may well have been impotent with her.

In no time, she was swept into an extended affair with the ghastly Bertrand Russell, apparently with some connivance on Eliot's part. She made notable contributions to her husband's poetry, including the bitter line scrawled on The Waste Land manuscript, "What you get married for if you don't want children?" In the later 1920s, she exhibited symptoms of severe manic depression. Further adultery, and possibly drug use, made it very difficult for Eliot to stay in the marriage, despite his religious principles. In 1932 he left for America without her.

She gave up on personal hygiene, lived in a cockroach-ridden flat in London, and in July 1938 was found wandering the streets at 5am and committed by her brother to a private lunatic asylum. Eliot himself refused to sign the committal papers.

I began Painted Shadow with some scepticism, because it sounded as if it was going to offer a double whammy of biographical reductivism – on the one hand attributing a male artist's achievement to his wife, on the other adding Eliot to the ever-growing heap of notables whom we are to believe were repressed homosexuals. But I ended the book overwhelmed by the weight of evidence that Verdenal really was the great love of Eliot's life.

Seymour-Jones's phrase "this gay relationship" still seems to me anachronistic: we need a different word to convey the frustrated intensities of Edwardian male bonding. It might be said that Eliot's tragedy was that he could not be "gay" precisely because Oscar Wilde was, though again this is not quite right, since Wilde had children and a much happier marriage than Eliot's.

Carole Seymour-Jones's industry in archives around the world has restored a voice to Vivienne. More significantly, she has used Viv as a Trojan Horse with which to penetrate the high wall erected around Tom's life. Admittedly, there was an authorised breach a few years ago when Christopher Ricks was allowed to produce a scholarly edition of early poems (many of which concern alarming acts of buggery), but this biography will reach a far wider audience. Eliot's life of mandarin impersonality is now officially over.

Jonathan Bate is Leverhulme Research Professor of English Literature at the University of Liverpool