Vivienne Haigh-Wood Eliot
|Vivienne Haigh-Wood Eliot|
Vivienne on the left, with Peter Stainer and Mildred Woodruff, photographed by Lady Ottoline Morrell in 1921
28 May 1888|
Bury, Lancashire, England
|Died||22 January 1947
Northumberland House mental hospital, Harringay
Cause of death
|Pinner Cemetery, London|
|Other names||Vivienne or Vivien Haigh, Haigh-Wood, Eliot, and Haigh Eliot; Daisy Miller, Fanny Marlow, Feiron Morris, Felise Morrison, FM, and Irene Fassett|
|Known for||Notable as the first wife of T. S. (Tom) Eliot. She was played by Miranda Richardson in the 1994 film, Tom & Viv.|
|Spouse(s)||T. S. Eliot from 1915 until her death|
|Parents||Charles Haigh-Wood (1854–1927) and Rose Esther Robinson (died 1941)|
|Relatives||Colonel Maurice Haigh-Wood (brother, died 1980)|
Vivienne Haigh-Wood Eliot (28 May 1888 – 22 January 1947) was an English governess and writer who became the first wife of the American poet, T. S. Eliot (1888–1965). She is also known by the name she preferred to call herself, Vivien. 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 neurotic femme fatale who enticed the patrician Eliot into an inappropriate and disastrous marriage, or as his muse, without whom some of his most important work would never have appeared. His second wife claimed the copyright of Vivienne's writings in 1984, including her private diaries, which has complicated the research into her role in Eliot's life.
They met 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 Vivienne's poor physical and mental health, and Eliot's apparent intolerance of it, produced a stormy relationship, made worse by Vivienne apparently having an affair with the philosopher Bertrand Russell. Eliot arranged for a formal separation in February 1933, and shunned her entirely, hiding from her and instructing his friends not to tell her where he was.
Her brother, Maurice, 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—ostensibly of a heart attack, though there is a suspicion that she took an overdose—the year before Eliot won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
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. In one passage in particular, Eliot is believed to be reflecting Vivienne and her state of mind:
"My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me
"Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak
"What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
"I never know what you are thinking. Think."
Eliot's sister-in-law, Theresa, said of the relationship: "Vivienne ruined Tom as a man, but she made him as a poet."
Vivienne was born in Knowsley Street, Bury, Lancashire, the first child of Charles Haigh-Wood (1854–1927), an artist and member of the Royal Academy of Arts, and his wife Rose Esther, née Robinson (died 1941). 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 hence Vivienne was born in Lancashire rather than London.
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, thus 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), an affluent Dublin suburb, which gave the family financial stability and a certain status, allowing Vivienne's father to be sent to Manchester Art College, and to join the Royal Academy School in London when he was 17.
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 Vivienne to Hampstead, a fashionable part of north London. They settled into a house there at 3 Compayne Gardens around 1891, where Vivienne's brother, Maurice, was born in 1896; he went on to train at Sandhurst, and fought during the First World War. Although the family was clearly well-to-do, Seymour-Jones writes that Vivienne 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.
Health and education
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 there was apparently little that could be done. She was treated by Sir Frederick Treves, the surgeon who had treated Joseph Merrick, the "Elephant Man," and said she had had so many operations, she had no memory of her life before the age of seven.
She was also plagued throughout her life 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, much to Eliot's dismay. She apparently felt unable to turn to her mother, Rose, for help, and her father—reportedly wanting a quiet life and no match for his dominant wife—was no comfort. Eventually Rose took her to a doctor in Queen Anne Street in London's West End, and he prescribed potassium bromide to sedate her, which probably meant she was diagnosed with "hysteria," a common label for difficult women. Virginia Woolf famously described her 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.
As the medical bills rose, so too did the 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 one of the top public schools. Vivienne is known to have had one relationship before Eliot, also stormy, with a schoolteacher, Charles Buckle, in 1914. They got engaged after Buckle asked Vivienne's father for her hand, and he agreed, but Buckle's mother was apparently unhappy about it, and Vivienne's health problems appear to have persuaded Rose that her daughter was suffering from "moral insanity." She decided Vivienne was not fit to marry or bear children, and overruled her husband, withdrawing the family's permission for the match.
Relationship with T. S. Eliot
Vivienne first met Tom Eliot in the spring of 1915 at a dance in a large hotel in London, where he took tea with her and a friend. They met again that March at a lunch party in Scofield Thayer's rooms at Magdalen College, Oxford. 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 spotted Vivienne earlier, punting on the River Cherwell, which runs through Oxford. 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—and although the town was somewhat empty of British men in 1914 because of the war, a number of American students had arrived to fill the gap.
Lyndall Gordon writes that Eliot was jolted to life by Vivienne. 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." She was flamboyant, a great dancer, spoke her mind, smoked in public, dressed in bold colours, and looked like an actress; not the kind of woman, Gordon writes, that a young gentleman of the time could introduce to his mother. Impressed by her apparently wealthy background, the artist father, and the brother at Sandhurst, he failed to realize that, within the rigid English class system, Vivienne was no match for his New England background or for the English aristocrats he was surrounded by— although a few of them, including Aldous Huxley, said they liked her precisely because she was vulgar. For her part, she fell instantly in love with Eliot, seeing in him what she described as "the call to the wild that is in men."
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 already completed The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock in 1911, 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. 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 back in the U.S.; he wrote her 1,000 letters over the course of his life, letters that his estate has so far not allowed to be published. What he really wanted from Vivienne, 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 in Eliot's mind marrying Vivienne became part of that, in that it meant he could stay in England and avoid philosophy at Harvard. "'I came to persuade myself that I was in love with her," he wrote, "simply because I wanted to burn my boats and commit myself to staying in England."
The couple were married after three months, on 26 June 1915, at Hampstead Register Office in London, with Lucy Ely Thayer, Scofield's sister with whom Vivienne had become close, and Vivienne's aunt, Lillia C. Symes, as witnesses. Eliot signed himself as of "no occupation," and described his father as a brick manufacturer. Neither of them told their parents. Cyril Connolly, the writer, spread a story that Vivienne had seduced Eliot in a punt, and that he had felt obliged to marry her—the "awful daring of a moment's surrender/Which an age of prudence can never retract" that Eliot writes of in The Waste Land—though James Edwin Miller argues that it was unlikely either would have felt that sex had compromised Vivienne, because she had already had at least one affair. In any event Eliot told a friend, Conrad Aiken, that he wanted to marry and lose his virginity.
Eliot arranged for a formal separation in February 1933, and 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. Vivienne could not accept the end of the relationship. She became panicky and depressed, her frantic attempts to reach out to him appearing to confirm that she was mentally ill. Virginia Woolf, a friend of Eliot's, called her a "bag of ferrets" that he wore around his neck.
She finally caught up with him 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, a black beret, and a black cape. 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. It was the last she saw of him.
Eliot's attitude toward women
Carole Seymour-Jones, one of Vivienne's biographers, believes there was a strong streak of misogyny in the way Eliot regarded Vivienne. Eliot once wrote to a friend that she had an original mind, but "not at all a feminine one." Louis Menand argues in The New Yorker that Eliot regarded women the way he regarded the Jews, seeing both as responsible for irrationality and romanticism. He had an additional horror of female sexuality—which led Seymour-Jones to suspect he was gay—a horror manifested both in his poetry and in his attitude toward Vivienne's body and the monthly battles with her out-of-control menstruation. Menand writes that Eliot's work is replete with oversexed women, whom he saw as modern succubae, such as Grishkin in Whispers of Immortality:
The sleek Brazilian jaguar
Does not in its arboreal gloom
Distil so rank a feline smell
As Grishkin in a drawing-room.
- Gordon 2009.
- Seymour-Jones 2001, p. 16.
- Seymour-Jones 2001, pp. 1–6.
- Seymour-Jones, October 14, 2001.
- Menand 2002.
- Seymour-Jones 2001.
- Seymour-Jones 2001, pp. 4–5.
- Charles Heigh-Wood, Artnet, accessed 9 November 2009.
- Craven, Ken (Kindle Books, May 2012)
- Gordon 1998, p. 114.
- Seymour-Jones 2001, p. 14.
- Woolf p. 331, cited in Miller 2005, p. 378.
- Seymour-Jones, pp. 16–17; Pritchard 2002.
- Seymour-Jones 2001, pp. 24–26.
- Miller 2005, p. 217.
- There is confusion about where they first met. Carole Seymour-Jones writes in The Observer on October 14, 2001, that they first met in London in March 1914 at a party in a hotel,  as does James Edwin Miller (2005, p.217). In Painted Shadow, she writes that Eliot first saw Vivienne while she was punting in Oxford, and was first introduced to her at a lunch party held by Scofield Thayer in Magdalen College in or around March 1914. 
- A brief history of the University, University of Oxford, accessed 10 November 2009.
- Miller 2005, pp. 220 ff.
- Miller 2005, p. 218.
- Miller 2005, p. 219.
- Seymour-Jones 2001, pp. 547–548.
- Artnet. Charles Heigh-Wood, accessed 9 November 2009
- Collini, Stefan (2009). I cannot go on, The Guardian, 7 November 2009.
- Eliot, T. S. (1922). The Letters of T. S. Eliot, Volume 1, 1898-1922.
- Gordon, Lyndall (1998). T. S. Eliot. An Imperfect Life. W.W. Norton & Company.
- Gordon, Lyndall (2009). "Eliot, Vivienne Haigh," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, accessed 9 November 2009.
- Hastings, Michael (1985), Tom and Viv. Penguin.
- Menand, Louis (2002). The women come and go, The New Yorker, September 30, 2002.
- Miller, James Edwin (2005). T. S. Eliot: the making of an American poet, 1888-1922. Penn State Press.
- Pritchard, William (2002). The Hollow Man and His Wife, The New York Times, April 22, 2002.
- Seymour-Jones, Carole (2001). Painted Shadow. Nan A. Talese, Doubleday, 2001.
- Seymour-Jones, Carole (October 14, 2001). Tom and Viv... and Bertie, The Observer.
- Seymour-Jones, Carole (October 26, 2001). Not crazy after all these years, Times Higher Education.
- Woolf, Virginia (1981). The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol 3, 1925-1930. Harvest Books.
- Conrad, Peter (2001). His trouble and strife, The Guardian, 21 October 2001.
- Christensen, Karen (2005). Dear Mrs Eliot..., The Guardian, 29 January 2005.
- Cooley, Martha. The Archivist. New York: Back Bay Publishers, 1999.
- Ferlinghetti, Lawrence (2009). Vivienne Eliot in 1938 Upon Entering an Asylum, oil on canvas, George Krevsky Gallery, accessed 11 November 2009.
- James, Caryn (1994). Tom & Viv (1994), The New York Times, December 2, 1994.
- Johnson, Loretta (1988). A Temporary Marriage of Two Minds: T. S. and Vivien Eliot, Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Spring, 1988), pp. 48–61.
- McCrum, Robert (2009). Revealed: the remarkable tale of TS Eliot's late love affair, The Observer, 24 May 2009.
- Tom and Viv... and Bertie, The Observer, 14 October 2001.
- Craven, Ken. , The Victorian Painter and the Poet's Wife, Amazon Kindle Books May 2012.