Life before Tom.
She played the piano, painted, took ballet lessons, was a good swimmer, and worked for a short time as a governess for a family in Cambridge. She was flamboyant: danced, spoke her mind, smoked in public, dressed in bold colours, and looked like an actress. She also had severe health issues and her mother, having decided Vivienne was not fit to marry or bear children broke off her daughter’s engagement to Charlie Buckle on the grounds of “moral insanity.”
Tom and Viv.
Vivienne meets Tom at a dance hall in London and seduces him on a punt on the River Cam. They marry after only a few months’ acquaintance and without her family’s consent. The honeymoon is a disaster and, without a stable income, they accept Bertrand Russell’s offer of a room in his flat. He embarks on an affair with Vivienne.
Tom and women
Eliot’s attitude to women and the Jews has been the subject of much debate, based not only on their representation in his poetry but also his correspondence. He enjoyed the attention of women, but held them responsible for irrationality and romanticism, and had an additional horror of female sexuality, which quickly became apparent to Vivienne.
In 1927, Eliot was confirmed into the High Anglican Church, which crystallised his developing view that he must rid himself of his wife. As the years passed, Eliot became convinced that his wife was a polluting presence from whom he must turn away to be cleansed through faith.
Vivienne became convinced that Tom had not left her of his own free will, but at the instigation of their ‘enemies’. ‘Because I showed I enjoyed our brief period of Prosperity, and because I made the most of it, Jealousy and Envy and Hate surrounded us both, and finally tricked Tom into going to America, and worse, to deserting me,’ she wrote in her diary on 28 January 1934.
With friends like this…
“Oh—Vivienne! Was there ever such a torture since life began!—to bear her on one’s shoulders, biting, wriggling, raving, scratching, unwholesome, powdered, insane, yet sane to the point of insanity, reading his letters, thrusting herself on us, coming in wavering trembling … This bag of ferrets is what Tom wears round his neck”. (Virginia Woolf)
Eliot was already considering a separation when he was offered a one-year fellowship at Harvard in 1932. On his return to London he was shielded by his Bloomsbury friends from any contact with Vivienne, and she discovered that their friends had only ever been his.
Their final meeting
Carrying her dog, Polly, and three of his books, Vivienne arrived at one of Eliot’s book signings. She had joined the British Union of Fascists – perhaps simply for the companionship – and wore the uniform in public. As Eliot signed copies of the books for her, she asked him, “Will you come back with me?” and he replied, “I cannot talk to you now,” then left. They did not meet again, although it was several more years before she was committed to the privately-run Northumberland House asylum in Finsbury Park.
Tom the Pure
Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, Vivienne never accepted Eliot’s complicity in her mistreatment and clung to the belief that he loved her and would come to reclaim her.
Vivienne died on 22 January 1947 aged fifty-eight, possibly by her own hand. She is buried in Pinner Cemetery, contrary to her wish to be buried alongside her father in Eastbourne, and the headstone shows the wrong date (29th January) which has not been corrected.
In researching and preparing Vivienne, the following texts were of great help:
Painted Shadow: A life of Vivienne Eliot – Carole Seymour-Jones (pub. Constable)
The complete poems & plays of TS Eliot (pub. Faber)
Stephen McNeff and Andy Rashleigh’s breakthrough operatic version of TS Eliot’s The Wasteland, titled The Waste Land, at the Donmar Warehouse in 1994, was based on Martin Rowson’s graphic novel of the same name.
Our thanks to Martin for his permission to use this image from the novel, which shows Vivienne and Tom Eliot, surrounded by other literary greats. A limited edition print of this image was presented to supporters of Vivienne who contributed to our crowdfunding campaign.
Martin Rowson’s The Waste Land is available from Seagull Books.