Vivienne Haigh-Wood Eliot
Vivienne Haigh-Wood Eliot
Photographed by Lady Ottoline Morrell, 1920
|Born||28 May 1888|
Bury, Lancashire, England
|Died||22 January 1947 (aged 58)|
Northumberland House mental hospital, Harringay, England
|Resting place||Pinner Cemetery, London|
T. S. Eliot
(m. 1915; sep. 1932)
Vivienne Haigh-Wood Eliot (28 May 1888 – 22 January 1947) was the first wife of American poet T. S. Eliot, whom she wed in 1915, while he was studying at Oxford. They were never compatible; he seems to have been seeking a pretext to stay in England, in defiance of his family, by marrying an English bride.
Haigh-Wood had always suffered from serious health problems, compounded by insecurity about her social class. It is clear that her disastrous marriage worsened her condition. Eliot would not consider divorce, but formally separated from her in 1933. She was committed to an asylum and eventually died there, apparently from a heart attack, but possibly an overdose.
Their tortured marriage is often cited as the inspiration for The Waste Land, which remains his most noted work. Research into their relationship has been hampered by lack of access to her diaries, whose copyright was granted to Eliot’s widow Valerie.
Haigh-Wood was born in Knowsley Street, Bury, Lancashire, 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. 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.
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 Schools in London.
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. Haigh-Wood's brother, Maurice, was born there 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 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.
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 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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
Relationship with T. S. Eliot
Haigh-Wood met Tom Eliot in or around March 1915 at a dance in London, where he took tea with her and a friend. 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.
Lyndall Gordon writes that Eliot was jolted to life by Haigh-Wood. 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. 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. 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."
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, 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 had been immature and timid at the time, and probably in love with Emily Hale, a Bostonian he had had a relationship with in the United States. 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. Eliot told a friend, Conrad Aiken, that he wanted to marry and lose his virginity.
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. Neither of them told their parents.
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.
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.
Eliot's attitude toward women
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."
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).
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. Eliot's sister-in-law, Theresa, said of the relationship: "Vivienne ruined Tom as a man, but she made him as a poet."
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.
- Carole Seymour-Jones writes that they first met in London in March 1914 at a party in a hotel, as does James Edwin Miller. In Painted Shadow, Seymour-Jones writes that Eliot first saw Haigh-Wood 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.
- Gordon 2009.
- Charles Heigh-Wood, Artnet, accessed 9 November 2009.
- Gordon 1998, p. 114.
- Seymour-Jones 2001.
- Seymour-Jones 2001, p. 14.
- Woolf 1981, p. 331, cited in Miller 2005, p. 378.
- Seymour-Jones, pp. 16–17.
- Seymour-Jones 2001, pp. 24–26.
- Miller 2005, p. 217.
- Seymour-Jones, 14 October 2001; Miller 2005, p. 217.
- A brief history of the University, University of Oxford, accessed 10 November 2009.
- Seymour-Jones (Observer), 14 October 2001.
- Menand (New Yorker) 2002.
- Miller 2005, pp. 220 ff.
- Miller 2005, p. 218.
- Seymour-Jones 2001, pp. 547–548.
- Seymour-Jones 2001.
- Seymour-Jones 2001, pp. 4–5.
- Seymour-Jones 2001, pp. 1–6.
- Artnet. Charles Heigh-Wood, accessed 9 November 2009.
- Eliot, Valerie and Haughton, Hugh (eds.). The Letters of T. S. Eliot, Volume 1, 1898–1922, Faber and Faber, 2009.
- Gordon, Lyndall (1998). T. S. Eliot. An Imperfect Life, W. W. Norton & Company.
- Gordon, Lyndall (2009). "Eliot, Vivienne Haigh," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
- Menand, Louis (2002). "The women come and go", The New Yorker, 30 September 2002.
- Miller, James Edwin (2005). T. S. Eliot: the making of an American poet, 1888–1922, Penn State Press.
- Seymour-Jones, Carole (2001). Painted Shadow, Doubleday.
- Seymour-Jones, Carole (14 October 2001). "Tom and Viv ... and Bertie", The Observer.
- Woolf, Virginia (1981). The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol 3, 1925–1930, Harvest Books.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Vivienne Haigh-Wood Eliot.|
- Christensen, Karen (2005). Dear Mrs Eliot..., The Guardian, 29 January 2005.
- Collini, Stefan (2009). "I cannot go on", The Guardian, 7 November 2009.
- Conrad, Peter (2001). His trouble and strife, The Guardian, 21 October 2001.
- 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.
- Hastings, Michael (1985), Tom and Viv, Penguin.
- James, Caryn (1994). Tom & Viv (1994), The New York Times, 2 December 1994.
- Johnson, Loretta (1988). "A Temporary Marriage of Two Minds: T. S. and Vivien Eliot", Twentieth Century Literature, 34(1), pp. 48–61.
- McCrum, Robert (2009). Revealed: the remarkable tale of TS Eliot's late love affair, The Observer, 24 May 2009.
- Pritchard, William (2002). "The Hollow Man and His Wife", The New York Times, 22 April 2002.
- Seymour-Jones, Carole (26 October 2001). "Not crazy after all these years", Times Higher Education.