Historical Notes: Eliot's hellish heavenly creatures

Click to follow
IN 1993 a stranger wrote to me about his mother's involvement with the Lunacy Law reformers in the Thirties. Part of their work was to rescue people who were put away for life not because they were dangers to society, but only because they were disturbed and difficult. This happened to T. S. Eliot's separated wife, Vivienne.

It was the law at the time that if a certified person could live undetected in normal society for six weeks, they were automatically de-certified. Marjorie Saunders had successfully sheltered one such escapee in her London house, when she was approached by a pharmacist, Louie Purdon, to help Mrs Eliot.

Mrs Saunders duly waited for Vivienne Eliot at the appointed place in Oxford Street - in vain, for Vivienne was "apprehended". From then on, the letter read, "Louie was not able to communicate with Vivienne. The `home' she was in would not pass on telephone messages. Louie's letters were returned." This cut Vivienne off from her only friend. Eliot himself never visited his wife, though during the early years of their marriage, Vivienne had been his keenest co-thinker.

In Vivienne's nightmares, a glaring figure would appear in chains. In one of her talented stories, a paralysed woman next door rivets a discontented wife. Vivienne shared with Eliot her susceptibility to horror, elevated in his own case as "a triumph; for the hatred of life is . . . a mystical experience". Publicly, he was able to mask its virulence with the mild manner of an English gentleman, wearing what Virginia Woolf called his "four-piece suit". With Vivienne, though, horror was unconcealed. Her shrieks and claims disrupted polite gatherings around Eliot. All the same, he used her brilliantly in The Waste Land ("Stay with me. / Speak to me . . . Do you see nothing? Are you alive, or not?"), but though he appropriated this voice, to live with it was hellish.

At length, in the summer of 1938, Vivienne was put away by her brother with the help of two doctors, brought in for one interview with this fearful woman who had long sensed her fate. Eliot was not on the scene, and there is no evidence he signed the certificate. But he didn't stop it - a moral issue he explores in his play, The Family Reunion, written at the same time.

That summer, Eliot kept himself at a distance in Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire, where he used to visit his first love, a Boston drama teacher called Emily Hale. Poised, well-conducted, articulate, Emily was transformed as a "Lady of silences" in Eliot's poetry, a heavenly Beatrice-figure who presides over the soul's journey. The reality was rather different. A newly available batch of letters shows that at the height of her tie with Eliot, she had a breakdown in 1936 - bad enough for him to cross the Atlantic to stand by as she took up a post at Smith College. When Vivienne died in 1947, Emily expected Eliot to marry her, but, by then, she was long fixed in her chaste role in a poet's phantasmagoria.

In 1963, when Eliot came close to death, he asked a Faber colleague to burn Emily's letters. His own side of the correspondence, about a thousand letters, which he could not retrieve, is sequestered at his wish until 2019, the longest of all his bans.

One reason Eliot stands out from other poets of the 20th century is because he had a great subject, a search for perfection.

It has seemed incidental that the two women who offered the hell and heaven of this master-plan were kept under wraps. Eliot's secretiveness recalls that of Henry James when it came to two extraordinary women who had their home in his art. By silencing the partners of their private lives, both writers contrived the myth of solitary genius.

Lyndall Gordon is the author of `T. S. Eliot: an imperfect life' (Vintage, pounds 8.99)