Film turns the spotlight on a poet's darker side: Marianne Macdonald examines the factors that could explain why T S Eliot's first wife was incarcerated in a mental asylum

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THE T S ELIOT mythology is based on his career as a City banker, his famous literary friends, his three-piece suits and his poems Prufrock, The Waste Land and Four Quartets. But the outwardly respectable man concealed a darker side. Little is heard about the way his first wife was confined against her will to a mental asylum, where she died in 1947.

There are two questions that have never been resolved about Vivien Haigh-Wood's fate. The first is whether Eliot was responsible for her committal; the second is whether she should have been committed at all.

This controversy will be reopened by Tom and Viv, five weeks into filming in London, Devon and Oxford. The pounds 7m production starring Willem Dafoe and Miranda Richardson is directed by Brian Gilbert and co-written by Michael Hastings. The latter believes Haigh- Wood was the victim of oppressive forces beyond her control.

Tom Eliot and Vivien Haigh- Wood met at Oxford in 1915, both aged 26. He courted her in a punt on the Isis and they married the same year in Hampstead register office. Their marriage became increasingly unhappy; in 1933 Eliot left her, and in 1938 she was confined to a private mental home in north London.

Her physician, Dr Reginald Miller, probably instigated the proceedings. But his order for Haigh- Wood's detention, at Northumberland House in Finsbury Park, must have been signed by two relatives or close friends. The answer would have been in the hospital's records but these appear to have been long since destroyed.

It was almost certainly one of Maurice Haigh-Wood, Vivien's younger brother, her mother Rose, who was then in her seventies, or Eliot. Yet neither of the biographers who investigated the committal - Dr Lyndall Gordon, of St Hilda's College, Oxford, and Peter Ackroyd - could establish which of them did. Maurice said that he could not remember if he signed the order. Eliot certainly had the motive: Haigh-Wood had become a constant embarrassment, described in his later work as 'a restless shivering painted shadow'. Dr Gordon said: 'I think it was wrong to lock her up. They could have employed a private nurse for her. The episode caused Eliot enormous guilt, but it was also very convenient for him.'

Michael Hastings is convinced that Eliot was responsible for her incarceration, but engineered it so that he was in Oxfordshire travelling when the reception order was signed.

'Who else would have put her in a loony bin?' he said. 'He was her family, the trustee of her money. He was still legally responsible for her.

'He and Maurice paid the hospital bills for the nine years she was in there even though she was a rich woman and could have supported herself outside. They put her in there and, under the Lunacy Act 1898, only they could get her out. It was a simple procedure to appeal. But they never did. Those facts speak for themselves.'

Haigh-Wood reportedly made escape attempts, but was brought back. Peter Ackroyd said: 'The long-term effect on Vivien must have been profound; already a lonely woman, she was dispatched into a mental asylum by people whom she knew and trusted.'

Dr Gordon believes that Vivien Haigh-Wood may have been mad, 'in some phases'. But she also said that intelligent women had 'enormous problems' in the repressive society of the day.

In her biography Eliot's New Life, Dr Gordon adds a chilling footnote: 'There is a report that when Maurice Haigh-Wood was close to death he confessed that he, with Eliot, had signed this order, much to his later regret. For when, after some years abroad, he saw his sister again in 1946, he was convinced she was as sane as he was.' She died the following year.

It would be wrong to ignore the eccentricity of Vivien's behaviour. She had a history of illness and an over-frequent menstrual cycle.

Her nerves devastated their first decade of marriage. She suffered from rheumatism and neuralgia; as Eliot pursued teaching, then banking, before landing a directorship of Faber and Faber, the publisher, she became increasingly desperate.

By 1925 they began spending an increasing amount of time apart, Haigh-Wood in sanatoriums abroad, drugged with bromide, her husband at Faber.

In France in 1926 a patient described her appearance: 'Her black hair was dank, her white face blotched . . . Her dark dress hung loosely over her frail form; her expression was both vague and acutely sad.'

In her periods out of hospital, Haigh-Wood began to demonstrate increasingly erratic behaviour. She accused her husband of affairs and took to carrying a toy knife. She met Edith Sitwell by chance in 1932 in Oxford Street. 'Hello, Vivien,' she said. 'No, no: you don't know me,' Haigh-Wood replied. 'You have mistaken me again for that terrible woman who is so like me . . . She is always getting me into trouble.'

That year Eliot seized the chance to leave her to lecture at Harvard University; he returned in 1933 when Haigh-Wood was told by his solicitors that he wanted a separation. Haigh-Wood was against this, refusing to sign any 'blackmailing paper' or abandon her rights.

In the following years the novelist and critic Wyndham Lewis described Eliot as being 'in flight from some Scourge of God'. Haigh- Wood would turn up at Faber asking for him; secretaries would say that he was in a meeting, or out. Once Haigh-Wood exclaimed: 'It is too absurd. I have been frightened away for too long. I am his wife.'

In September 1934, she placed an advertisement in the Times. It read: 'Will T S Eliot please return to his home 68 Clarence Gate Gardens which he abandoned Sept. 17th, 1932.' Eliot, however, managed to evade her, keeping his address and schedule secret.

But she finally found him in November 1935 at a book exhibition. She went up to him and said: 'Oh Tom'. 'How do you do,' he said loudly. 'Will you come back with me?' she asked. 'I cannot talk to you now,' he replied.

It was their last meeting. Three years later she was in the asylum. In later life Eliot discoursed on the nature of choice - how some decisions are irrevocable, and lead to a lifetime of misery.

His marriage was one of them. 'It is terrible,' he once wrote, 'to be alone with another person.'

(Photographs omitted)

Bryan Appleyard, page 21