Saturday, January 29

Fall of a Sparrow Review – Vivien Eliot, TS Eliot and ‘Total Hell’ | Biography books


secondAt the end of this exhaustive and exhausting book, I felt like I had married Vivien Eliot and had barely survived to tell the tale. Oxford scholar Ann Pasternak Slater spares no miserable details about TS Eliot’s infamous first wife, the “madwoman” whom the author of The murder in the cathedral he was forced to remain hidden not in his attic but in Northumberland House, an Italian-style asylum house in the north London suburbs. However, before the Eliot reached that point of relative stasis in 1938, he (and we) have to overcome two decades of a relationship that Eliot himself described as “total hell.” Get ready for nearly 800 pages of emotional mayhem, including (but not limited to) hysterical laughter, fake letters, ruinous medical bills, explosive diarrhea, bloody sheets, and some really scary road trips (the driving test had yet to be invented and not even Eliot was exactly a natural behind the wheel).

None of this is new and most of it will be familiar to the reader of the monumental The letters from TS Eliot. What Pasternak Slater has done is, in his own words, “choose a coherent narrative” from this sea of ​​material, to which are added Vivien’s own writings, published here for the first time, with her magazines, which have been digitized by the Bodleian Library and now available online. Pasternak Slater, he promises, will be “objective” and avoid all contemporary “guesswork” and gossip (unless it comes from Virginia Woolf, who is too funny to be excluded). All of this sounds eminently sensible, bordering on the radical impersonality that was a key component of Eliot’s own thinking about art.

However, it soon becomes clear that Pasternak Slater’s “objectivity” and high Mandarin flair are a cover for something much more committed. His intention is to demolish a biography of Vivien Eliot that was published almost 20 years ago. A painted shadow It was the somewhat clumsy attempt by the late Carole Seymour-Jones to extract Vivien from the myth of the “crazy poet’s wife” and give her full subjectivity as a woman of spirit and talent who was crushed by the patriarchal system. However, as far as Pasternak Slater is concerned, Seymour-Jones produced a book that was “deliberately inaccurate”, jumping from one wild speculation to another, ending in an unpleasant “full-blown fantasy” in which Tom is unmasked as an alcoholic. . womanizer and homosexual wardrobe.

The fall of a sparrow, then, represents the corrective swing of the pendulum towards the version of events that has TS Eliot as the holy genius who made the mistake of marrying a silly girl in 1915 who was good for a game of tennis and not much else. Pasternak Slater, despite his avowed horror of gossip, assembles a number of witnesses of a hostile nature. Bertrand Russell, having slept with Vivien just once, sportily reports that there was “a quality of disgust that I cannot describe.” Woolf steps in to declare that the sight of Vivien makes him want to vomit, while Katherine Mansfield, for once agreeing with Woolf, confirms that there was something disgusting about her. Not to be left behind, Eliot himself comes down from his cross long enough to suggest that his big mistake was marrying a girl from “a fairly common suburban family with a streak of abnormality.”

Having relied on contemporary gossip, Pasternak Slater proceeds to conjecture, something else he said he wouldn’t do. She retrospectively diagnoses that her subject suffers from Munchausen, the syndrome in which the patient invents, or perhaps represents, the disease in order to gain love and sympathy. It is this, Pasternak Slater says, that explains Vivien’s inexhaustible list of minor plagues during the early days of marriage, from bad teeth to a crooked uterus (caused, Vivien argued, by standing too high). By the mid-1920s and illnesses seem too insistent to be imaginary, Pasternak Slater confidently identifies Vivien as a drug addict, particularly a chloral hydrate dependent. Meanwhile, her dizzying weight is attributed to anorexia. Both hypotheses seem plausible, but Pasternak Slater’s insistence that these two conditions are “self-inflicted” loses its complexity and adds an unpleasant tone of judgment. When Vivien gets even angrier, Pasternak Slater identifies her as suffering from “split personality” and offers a definition of what is more commonly called “dissociative identity disorder” taken from Wikipedia.

None of this does The fall of a sparrow bad or incorrect, but it makes it partial and subjective, as any biography should be. Pasternak Slater seems so hostile to his subject that, on those occasions when Vivien is sane, kind, and intelligent, her biographer thinks it’s important to remind us how “unusual” this is. Tom’s behavior, on the other hand, is always excellent: “Few could have shown a conjugal resistance comparable to yours.”

Even Pasternak Slater, however, is forced to admit the contribution Vivien Eliot made to her husband’s best work. Waste land. Ironically, Vivien had that same impersonality, that willingness to suspend the biographical fallacy, which allowed her to urge Eliot to continue at an embarrassing cost to her. In the margin of each successive paragraph, from “My nerves are bad tonight” to “Squeeze my eyes without lids,” which she must have known were based on her own uneasy whining and terrible anomie, she writes: “WONDERFUL, wonderful and wonderful . Yes.”

The Fall of a Sparrow: Life and Writings of Vivien Eliot by Ann Pasternak Slater is published by Faber (£ 35). To purchase a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply.


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