T.S. Eliot’s first wife, the Hampstead socialite and aspirant author Vivien Haigh-Wood, died in a mental home off Green Lanes, north London, in 1947, at the age of 58. She was addicted to chloral hydrate soporific and no longer thought her life had any meaning or purpose. In 1921 a nerve specialist had urged her long-suffering husband to quit his job at Lloyds Bank in the City to take the sea air at Margate; Eliot’s 1922 masterwork The Waste Land, with its imagery of drowning men, perfunctory sex in sleazy Highbury locations and women on the edge of a nervous breakdown (“My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad”) emerged out of his marital unhappiness.


A courteously formal and private man, Eliot would not have appreciated Anne Pasternak Slater’s life of Vivien. In scrupulously researched and super-detailed pages it lays bare her every addiction and fit of madness. Morbidly fascinated by her own ailments, Vivien suffered from gastric upsets (“colonic explosions”), septic influenza and depressive mania. Frustratingly, almost no account is given of her background, other than that her painter father Charles Haigh-Wood was a Royal Academician.



Instead, The Fall of a Sparrow: Vivien Eliot’s Life and Writings opens in March 1914 when Vivien, in her mid-twenties, is about to meet Thomas Stearns for the first time. The Harvard-educated young poet impressed her as an old-world American “prince”, with a “deep and thrilling voice”. Susceptible to all things American, she enjoyed dancing at the Savoy and seems to have offered the snobbish Eliot a lifestyle that was more thrilling than the “Cubist teas” he indulged with his cranky arch-Modernist colleagues Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis.


Only two generations from her roots in trade, Vivien struck the Bloomsbury circle as “vulgar” (in Virginia Woolf’s estimation she was “malodorous and tousled”). Vivien was beautiful, though, and cut an alluring figure in her bohemian shawl-dresses. Her extra-marital affair with the philosopher Bertrand Russell seems to have exacerbated Eliot’s feelings of inadequacy. Beneath his decorous manners and dandified dress sense Eliot was a sexually timorous man who was unable to “seize the day” (as Pasternak Slater’s poet husband Craig Raine put it) and live life to the full.



Vivien’s odd behaviour was evident soon after she married in 1915. She took up not just with Russell but (it was maliciously put about) anyone who would have her. Eliot withdraw into icy silence; Vivien refused to accept his abandonment of her. She flirted with Fascism (“good old Mussolini”, she hurrahed) and was picked up by the police one night in a confused state while wandering round Marylebone. Eliot never visited his wife in the Haringey asylum where she was committed in 1938; the fiancée he had left behind in the States, Emily Hale, remained his one true love, it has been suggested.


Superbly written, The Fall of a Sparrow includes an edition of Vivien’s writings, which are mostly of antiquarian interest (“One’s soul stirs stiffly out of the dead endurance of the winter”). Vivien was buried in Pinner Cemetery, Harrow, with the wrong death date incised on her headstone. No one troubled to correct it.



This review first appeared in the London Evening Standard on 19 November 2020