Vivienne Eliot

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Vivienne Eliot (Haigh Wood)

Birthplace: Bury, Greater Manchester, England, United Kingdom
Death: January 04, 1965 (76)
London, England
Immediate Family:

Wife of T. S. Eliot, Nobel Prize in Literature, 1948

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About Vivienne Eliot


Eliot's first wife, Vivien Haigh-Wood, was a dancer and socialite from a well-to-do family in England with whom Eliot was set up with after he sent a letter to one of his close friends complaining that he was still a virgin. He married her rather quickly after their first meeting at the Hampstead Registry Office in London in June of 1915, and the two spend over 20 tumulus years together. Eliot's family did not approve of the union, primarily because they discovered that Vivien had a history of mental instability, but also because she refused to visit the US during the war and thus alienated Eliot from his parents and siblings. This alienation was one of the causes of Eliot's feelings of extreme guilt in the 1920's following his father's death which caused him to be checked into a mental hospital.

Eliot and Vivien clearly did not have an ideal relationship. They had a myriad of sexual problems, and Vivien had frequent nervous breakdowns, menstrual problems, and was overall physiologically unstable. They divorced in 1939, and Vivien spent years begging Eliot to return to her, but to no avail. She was eventually checked into an insane asylum, where she later died.

Eliot's marriage to Vivien clearly affected his writings. In The Wasteland Eliot discusses a man stuck in a disintegrating and hopeless marriage, and this aspect of the storyline was clearly a derivative of his own personal experiences. Moreover, in Family Reunion, there are remnants of Eliot's guilt over leaving Vivien.

Eliot's second wife, Esme Valerie Fletcher, was Eliot's secretary at Faber and Faber. This marriage was much more successful than Eliot's first union, even though Valerie was 38 years younger than Eliot. In fact, she is still alive today and is a well-known editor and literary executive and had published many of Eliot's original manuscripts and personal letters. She is relatively wealthy as a result of Eliot?s literary success and specifically because Eliot's 1939 novel, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats was adapted into the Broadway play Cats.

Vivienne Haigh-Wood Eliot (28 May 1888 – 22 January 1947) was an English governess and writer, who became known for her marriage in 1915 to the American poet T. S. Eliot. Her legacy, and the extent to which she influenced Eliot's work, has been the subject of much debate. She has been seen variously as a femme fatale who enticed the patrician Eliot into a disastrous marriage, or as his muse, without whom some of his most important work would never have been written. Valerie Eliot, the poet's second wife (from 1957) claimed the copyright of Haigh-Wood's writings in 1984, including her private diaries, which has complicated the research into her role in Eliot's life.[1]

Haigh-Wood met Eliot in Oxford in March 1915, while he was studying philosophy at Merton College and she was working as a governess in Cambridge. They were married in Hampstead Register Office three months later. They remained married until her death in 1947, but Haigh-Wood's poor physical and mental health, and Eliot's apparent intolerance of it, produced a stormy relationship, made worse by her apparently having an affair with the philosopher Bertrand Russell.[2]

Eliot arranged for a formal separation in February 1933, and thereafter shunned her entirely, hiding from her and instructing his friends – including members of the Bloomsbury Group and the publisher Faber & Faber, where he was a director – not to tell her where he was. Her brother had her committed to an asylum in 1938, after she was found wandering the streets of London at five o'clock in the morning, apparently asking whether Eliot had been beheaded. Apart from one escape attempt, she remained there until she died nine years later at the age of 58; she was said to have suffered a heart attack, although there is a suspicion that she took an overdose. Eliot won the Nobel Prize for Literature the following year.[3]

Carole Seymour-Jones writes that it was out of the turmoil of the marriage that Eliot produced The Waste Land, one of the 20th century's finest poems.[4] Eliot's sister-in-law, Theresa, said of the relationship: "Vivienne ruined Tom as a man, but she made him as a poet."[5]

Haigh-Wood was born in Knowsley Street, Bury, Lancashire,[6] the first child of Rose Esther (née Robinson 1860–1941) and Charles Haigh-Wood (1854–1927), an artist and member of the Royal Academy of Arts.[7] Charles was local to the area, but his wife was born in London where the couple had been living, and they had returned to Bury for an exhibition of Charles's paintings at a gentleman's club, with Rose Esther heavily pregnant. The journey may have triggered the birth earlier than expected, and Haigh-Wood was born in Lancashire rather than London.[8]

She was registered at birth as Vivienne Haigh, though as an adult she called herself Haigh-Wood. Her paternal grandfather was Charles Wood, a gilder and picture framer from Bolton, so her father called himself Charles Haigh-Wood to distinguish himself. The "Haigh" came from his mother, Mary Haigh, originally from Dublin. Mary Haigh had inherited seven semi-detached houses in Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire), a Dublin suburb, which gave the family financial stability, allowing Haigh-Wood's father to study at the Manchester Art College and the Royal Academy School in London.[6]

Charles Haigh-Wood inherited his mother's property when she died, as well as the family home at 14 Albion Place, Walmersley Road, Bury, and he became a landlord, which allowed him to move his wife and Haigh-Wood to Hampstead, a fashionable part of north London. They settled into a house there at 3 Compayne Gardens around 1891.[4] Haigh-Wood's brother, Maurice, was born there in 1896; he went on to train at Sandhurst and fought during the First World War.[8] Although the family was clearly well-to-do, Seymour-Jones writes that Haigh-Wood was ashamed of her connection to Lancashire, perceived as working-class, and was left with a sense of inferiority that made her self-conscious and snobbish, especially when mixing with Eliot's aristocratic London friends.[4]

Health and education[edit] Little is known of her education. 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 had multiple health problems. She was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the bone in her left arm when she was a child; this was before the discovery of antibiotics and apparently little could be done about it. She was treated by Sir Frederick Treves and said she had had so many operations, she had no memory of her life before the age of seven.[9]

She was also plagued by heavy, irregular menstruation, to her great embarrassment, and severe pre-menstrual tension, which led to mood swings, fainting spells and migraines. She would insist on washing her own bedlinen, often twice a day, and would take her sheets home with her to clean when on holiday, once leading a hotel to claim she had stolen them, to Eliot's dismay. She apparently felt unable to ask her mother for help. Eventually her mother took her to a doctor who prescribed potassium bromide to sedate her, which probably meant he had diagnosed "hysteria," a common label for difficult women. It was during this time Haigh-Wood began experimenting with autoerotic asphyxiation.[citation needed] Virginia Woolf described Haigh-Wood on 8 November 1930 in her diary:

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 [Eliot] wears round his neck.[10]

As the medical bills rose, so did her family's resentment of her. Her brother, Maurice, blamed her for what he saw as his second-rate education, because there was no money left to send him to public school.[11] She became engaged to a schoolteacher, Charles Buckle, in 1914, but Buckle's mother was apparently unhappy about it. Haigh-Wood's health problems persuaded Rose Haigh-Wood that her daughter was suffering from "moral insanity." She decided that Haigh-Wood should not marry or bear children, and withdrew the family's consent to the marriage.[12]

Relationship with T. S. Eliot[edit] First meeting[edit] On writing I think at first, until one has got the spout of this long disused fountain clear, it is better to let the water burst out when it will & so force away the accumulation of decayed vegetation, moss, slime & dead fish which are thick upon & around it. — Vivienne Haigh-Wood[6] Haigh-Wood met Tom Eliot in or around March 1914 at a dance in London, where he took tea with her and a friend.[13] They met again shortly after that at a lunch party in Scofield Thayer's rooms at Magdalen College, Oxford.[n 1] Eliot and Thayer, both from privileged New England backgrounds, had been at Harvard together, where Eliot had studied philosophy, and both had arrived in Oxford on scholarships.

According to another friend of Eliot's, Sacheverell Sitwell, Eliot had noticed Haigh-Wood earlier, punting on the River Cherwell. Seymour-Jones writes that Oxford attracted young women visitors, or "river girls," who would come in search of eligible husbands; women were not allowed to take degrees at Oxford until 1920.[15]

Lyndall Gordon writes that Eliot was jolted to life by Haigh-Wood.[6] He was a repressed, shy, 26-year-old who was bored in Oxford, writing of it that it was very pretty, "but I don't like to be dead."[4] She was flamboyant, a great dancer, spoke her mind, smoked in public, dressed in bold colours and looked like an actress. Impressed by her apparently wealthy background, the artist father and the brother at Sandhurst, he failed to realise that, within the rigid English class system, Haigh-Wood was no match for his New England background or for the English aristocrats with whom he had surrounded himself.[6] A few of his friends, including Aldous Huxley, said they liked Haigh-Wood precisely because she was vulgar. For her part, she fell in love with Eliot, seeing in him what she described as "the call to the wild that is in men."[2]


Photograph from Haigh-Wood's American passport, 1920 Eliot was in Oxford for one year only, and was expected to return to Harvard to begin a career as an academic philosopher, an idea he railed against. He wanted to be a poet. He had completed The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock in 1911,[3] the poem that was to make his name when it was published in Chicago in 1915, and he saw remaining in England as a way to escape his parents' plans for him.[3]

When he was in his 60s, Eliot wrote that he was immature and timid at the time, and was probably in love with Emily Hale, a Bostonian he had had a relationship with in the United States.[3] What he wanted from Haigh-Wood, he said, was a flirtation. But a meeting with the American poet Ezra Pound had persuaded him that the pursuit of poetry was possible, and marrying Haigh-Wood meant he could stay in England and avoid Harvard.[16] Eliot told a friend, Conrad Aiken, that he wanted to marry and lose his virginity.[2]

The couple were married after three months, on 26 June 1915, at Hampstead Register Office in London, with Lucy Ely Thayer (Scofield's sister) and Haigh-Wood's aunt, Lillia C. Symes, as witnesses. Eliot signed "no occupation" on the certificate and described his father as a brick manufacturer.[17] Neither of them told their parents.[6]

Separation[edit] Eliot arranged for a formal separation in February 1933 and thereafter shunned Haigh-Wood entirely, hiding from her and instructing his friends not to tell her where he was. She could not accept the end of the relationship. Her efforts to find him appeared to his friends to confirm that she was mentally ill.

The last time she saw him was on 18 November 1935 at a Sunday Times Book Fair in Regent Street, London, where he was giving a talk. Carrying her dog, Polly, and three of his books, she arrived in clothes she had started wearing to performances of his plays: a British Union of Fascists uniform, black beret and black cape. She wrote in her diary:

I turned a face to him of such joy that no-one in that great crowd could have had one moment's doubt. I just said, Oh Tom, & he seized my hand, & said how do you do, in quite a loud voice. He walked straight on to the platform then & gave a most remarkably clever, well thought out lecture. ... I stood the whole time, holding Polly up high in my arms. Polly was very excited & wild. I kept my eyes on Tom's face the whole time, & I kept nodding my head at him, & making encouraging signs. He looked a little older, more mature & smart, much thinner & not well or robust or rumbustious at all. No sign of a woman's care about him. No cosy evenings with dogs and gramophones I should say.[18]

As he 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 with someone else.[18]

Eliot's attitude toward women[edit] Whispers of Immortality Grishkin is nice: her Russian eye Is underlined for emphasis; Uncorseted, her friendly bust Gives promise of pneumatic bliss. ...

The sleek Brazilian jaguar Does not in its arboreal gloom Distil so rank a feline smell As Grishkin in a drawing-room. — T. S. Eliot, 1919 Carole Seymour-Jones, one of Haigh-Wood's biographers, argues that there was a strong streak of misogyny in the way Eliot regarded Haigh-Wood. He wrote to a friend that Haigh-Wood had "an original mind, and I consider not at all a feminine one."[19]

Louis Menand argues in The New Yorker that Eliot regarded women the way he regarded Jews, seeing both as responsible for irrationality and romanticism. He was uneasy with female sexuality – which led Seymour-Jones to suspect he was gay – which manifested itself both in his poetry and in his attitude toward Haigh-Wood's body. Menand writes that Eliot's work is replete with oversexed women, whom he saw as modern succubae, such as Grishkin in his "Whispers of Immortality" (1919).[3]

Writing[edit] Haigh-Wood wrote several stories and reviews for The Criterion, the literary magazine Eliot founded, using the pseudonyms FM, Fanny Marlow, Feiron Morris, Felise Morrison, and Irene Fassett.[6]

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Vivienne Eliot's Timeline

September 26, 1888
Bury, Greater Manchester, England, United Kingdom
January 4, 1965
Age 76
London, England