Controversial film cast doubts on poet's sanity: Marianne Macdonald reports on new claims about T S Eliot's first marriage

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The Independent Online
THE LITERARY world will be rocked on its heels this Christmas by a film about one of Britain's most tempestuous poetic partnerships. The dollars 10m ( pounds 6.8m) film on T S Eliot's first marriage to Vivien Haigh- Wood, the society beauty, is written by a playwright convinced it was not she who went mad, but her famous husband.

Filming started last month for the feature film Tom and Viv, starring Willem Dafoe and Miranda Richardson, to be released at the end of the year.

It is co-written by Michael Hastings and based on his play of the same name. Far from subscribing to the conventional wisdom that Eliot was persecuted by his jealous and later insane wife, Mr Hastings believes Eliot was mad.

The film has not been welcomed by the publishers Faber and Faber, which first printed Eliot's work and employed him as a director from the early 1920s until his death in 1965. The producers, Harvey Kass and Marc Samuelson, held lengthy and 'constructive' talks with Faber to gain permission to quote Eliot's poetry. Nor has the film, which disinters the relationship between Eliot and Vivien, been welcomed by the poet's second wife, Valerie Eliot, who controls his estate. 'Valerie does not wish to talk about it. It has been a subject of bad feeling and rancour,' Matthew Evans, Faber's chairman, was reported as saying.

The film will tell how Eliot, an awkward Harvard graduate, fell in love with Vivien Haigh- Wood in 1914 when he saw her turning cartwheels in an Oxford quad. Both were 26. They eloped the next year. It was the beginning of a tragic marriage which may not have been consummated and ended with her death in an asylum in 1947.

Mr Hastings researched the subject extensively, interviewing Vivien's brother, Maurice, the matron of the asylum, members of her family and a doctor who treated her. It was the first time they had been approached. He argues that, rather than the 'painted shadow' her husband once described her as, Vivien has been unjustly neglected for her contribution to Eliot's poetry.

The reason was partly her eccentric behaviour. After they separated, she pursued Eliot against his will. She was seen outside a theatre in which one of his plays was being staged with a placard which read: 'I am the wife he deserted.'

Mr Hastings argues history should be rewritten. 'I don't think she ever went mad. He did. She was drugged up to the eyeballs. Edith Sitwell put it best when she said something like, 'Thomas Eliot went mad and promptly certified his wife'. She was by all accounts quite well,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)