TS Eliot letters reveal anguish over failure of first marriage

Correspondence to be published this month challenges view that poet was cold towards his wife Vivien as she suffered mental illness

TS Eliot’s desperation to escape the “hideous farce” of his first marriage to Vivien Haigh-Wood and her refusal to believe their relationship had reached its final chapter have been revealed in previously unpublished letters.

The full extent of their mutual anguish is conveyed through correspondence with close friends as well as each other, which casts new light on one of the 20th century’s most important writers. The contents challenge an assumption that he was intolerably cold towards her when she was suffering an obvious mental decline.

The correspondence dates entirely from 1932 and 1933, a crucial period in which American-born Eliot resolved to separate from Vivien (sometimes spelt Vivienne) after 18 years together, returning to the US to lecture.

Writing in February 1933, to his friend Alida Monro, Eliot despaired that “the whole history” of life with Vivien had been “a hideous farce”.

“America has not made any difference, except in making more real to me the fact that I can be comparatively happy solely by being away from V … I cannot face the prospect of dragging on again the same futile life that I have been leading in London,” the letter reads.

Exasperated that Vivien was in denial over their break-up, he writes: “It will be better to have a sharp sudden break and get it over with than allow matters to drag on for months until she becomes reconciled to the fact that I do not mean to return.”

But he also repeatedly showed compassion over her mental fragility, with a commitment to paying for her medical treatment, and concern about her life without him. In August 1933, he writes to his friend, Lady Ottoline Morrell, the society hostess: “I am anxious to be able to feel that Vivienne will not lose any friends through my action.”

Vivien’s letters reflect her deteriorating condition. In March 1933, she writes to Morrell: “Yes I do think it might be a good thing for me to go to the Sanatorium … as I am … in a most terrible state of health … I look so awful. I have only had two, or three, baths since Tom went away. I have only washed my hair twice. I have the most filthy old clothes.”

The correspondence will appear in a new 800-page book, to be published by Faber & Faber on 18 February. The Letters of TS Eliot: Volume 6 is part of a series of 20 planned volumes.

Eliot – who was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1948 – settled in England in 1915, the year he married Vivien. Her mental state seems to have deteriorated after 1925. Whether she was suffering from bipolar disorder or paranoid schizophrenia is unclear, but her symptoms included particularly aggressive behaviour. It has been said that it was out of the turmoil of that marriage that Eliot produced The Waste Land, one of the 20th century’s greatest poems.

That their marriage was troubled is well-documented – notably her apparent affair with Bertrand Russell, and her turning to drugs for solace. Her mental instability was noted by friends including the author Virginia Woolf who described her in 1932 as a “poor raddled distressing woman, takes drugs”. Vivien died in 1947, aged 58, having been committed to an asylum in 1938. After being found by police wandering the streets of London, she asked her brother Maurice whether it was true that Eliot had been beheaded.

The 1932-33 letters reveal the extent of the pain felt on both sides. John Haffenden, an eminent academic and the volume’s editor, said: “It’s a pretty harrowing period for both parties. Eliot biographies have versions of this story, but they certainly didn’t have access to everything.”

He added that the letters show that “Eliot feels guilty as much as he feels reproachful” and that Vivien just “doesn’t quite get it”. “She doesn’t understand why Tom won’t come back to her,” Haffenden said.

In 1957, Eliot married his secretary, Valerie. She died in 2012, having resolved to make her husband’s correspondence available to the public. In the latest volume’s introduction, Haffenden writes: “Valerie hoped that, while facts relating to her husband’s first relationship were scarce, the public could at least have knowledge of all his thoughts relating to the period. Valerie was also adamant that Vivien’s point of view should be given air.”

There are letters reflecting Vivien as an intelligent and witty woman, but others that point to her deteriorating mind. Her letter to the poet Ralph Hodgson in May 1932 suggests a confused state of mind. “You have seemed to me like some very solid tower of strength & reality in a world which had become a world of ghosts & shadows & unrealities,” she writes.

Haffenden, senior research fellow at the Institute of English Studies, University of London, said: “Biographers will say what was wrong is this beastly Eliot torturing her … I think this edition of letters puts that in perspective, that … he’s a very passionate man, really anguished about what he feels he has to do. I think the letters show he treated her with enormous kindness and sympathy. He’s always there paying for her to be treated by consultants and for her to go to very reputable asylums.

“But there comes a point where he realises this is going to be a matter of withering sacrifice for himself.”

In February 1933, Eliot writes to Monro of his plans to separate from Vivien: “I should feel nothing but relief, and should prefer not to see V. again.” He adds: “I have no doubt that all sorts of ulterior motives will be alleged in order to discredit my real, only and obvious motive of getting peace for work and throwing off the poison of uncongeniality and pretense.”


Dalya Alberge

The GuardianTramp

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