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By the time Vivienne Eliot was committed to an asylum for what would be the final nine years of her life, she had been abandoned by her husband T.S. Eliot and shunned by literary London. Yet Vivienne was neither insane nor insignificant. She generously collaborated in her husband’s literary efforts, taking dictation, editing his drafts, and writing articles for his magazine, Criterion. Her distinctive voice can be heard in his poetry. And paradoxically, it was the unhappiness of the Eliots’ marriage that inspired some of the poet’s most distinguished work, from The Family Reunion to The Waste Land. This first biography ever written about Vivienne draws on hundreds of previously unpublished papers, journals and letters to portray a spontaneous, loving, but fragile woman who had an important influence on her husband’s work, as well as a great poet whose behavior was hampered by psychological and sexual impulses he could not fully acknowledge.
Intriguing and provocative, Painted Shadow gracefully rescues Vivienne Eliot from undeserved obscurity, and is indispensable for anyone wishing to understand T.S. Eliot, Vivienne, or the world in which they traveled.
Although the history of literary marriages is littered with tragic muses and sacrificial spouses, few partnerships are considered as ill-starred as that of T.S. Eliot and Vivienne Haigh-Wood (1888 1947). History has condemned the first wife of the great American ex-patriate modernist as a neurotic, hypochondriacal harridan whose presence tormented Eliot and whose committal to an insane asylum after 17 years of marriage proved a long-overdue relief for the beleaguered genius. (Virginia Woolf memorably characterized Vivienne Eliot as "this bag of ferrets" hanging around the poet's neck.) Seymour-Jones's biography, while often stressing Vivienne's victimhood, is a nuanced portrait of an independent spirit becoming unhinged. In their early years together, the Eliots were infamous for their constant peregrinations, their chronic yet evasive medical problems, their money troubles and persistent unhappiness. The lively banter and free sexual mores prized by their friends in the literary avant-garde did little to strengthen their marital stability. Glimpses of their oppressive, sexually silent marriage appear in The Waste Land, Sweeney Agonistes and The Family Reunion which masterpieces, Seymour-Jones (Beatrice Webb) argues, Eliot might never have written without his intolerable muse. She also endeavors to restore Vivienne's status as a close literary collaborator. As an intellectual biography of the Eliots, this volume should be of considerable interest to scholars of modernism. It stands as a chronicle of a fine mind highly unstable but not necessarily insane. Illus. not seen by PW. .