In Review

Book of the week: The Fall of a Sparrow by Ann Pasternak Slater

Pasternak Slater delves into the unhappy tale of T.S. Eliot’s ‘problem’ wife, who ended up in a psychiatric hospital

The Fall of a Sparrow by Ann Pasternak Slater

Everybody has heard of T.S. Eliot’s “problem” wife, who ended up in a north London psychiatric hospital, said Bryan Appleyard in The Sunday Times. “But few have tried to understand her.” This is something Ann Pasternak Slater rectifies in The Fall of a Sparrow, which charts Vivien Eliot’s life in greater detail – and with more “sympathetic insight” – than any previous biography. Pasternak Slater acknowledges that Vivien could be immensely difficult, and that her effect on her husband was oppressive. Yet she also presents her as a “talented and highly intelligent” woman who was important in shaping Eliot’s poetry: both by her suggestions of improvements to specific lines (most notably of The Waste Land), and by generating the “anguish and confusion” that informed so much of his work. Drawing on a wide range of sources, including Vivien’s own unpublished stories and poems, this “monumental work” is “likely to be definitive”. 

Vivien married Eliot in 1915, a year after his arrival in England from the US, said Rachel Cooke in The Observer. “Right from the start, things were difficult.” They rented a flat owned by Bertrand Russell, and Vivien “would quite soon go to bed with their landlord” – who later described their congress as having a “quality of loathsomeness about it”. Eliot’s Bloomsbury friends were no more complimentary of the Bury-born Vivien: for Katherine Mansfield, she was a “teashop creature”; Virginia Woolf recalled her “making me almost vomit”. She developed a baroque range of ailments, said Ian Thomson in the London Evening Standard, including septic influenza, depressive mania and “colonic explosions”. Eliot eventually “withdrew into icy silence” and, after abandoning Vivien in 1933, communicated with her entirely via lawyers. 

Although Pasternak Slater promises to shun “conjecture”, she actually goes in for quite a bit of it, said Kathryn Hughes in The Guardian. Without much evidence, she explains Vivien’s various blights by claiming she suffered from Munchausen’s – a condition where patients feign illness in order to elicit love and sympathy. She suggests that, later on, Vivien developed “split personality” – again, without real evidence, and with a definition “culled from Wikipedia”. This book isn’t an uplifting read, said Tristram Fane Saunders in The Daily Telegraph. For its 784 pages, you are “shut up in grinding proximity” with two exceedingly unhappy people. Yet it is finely written and a “remarkable feat of scholarship” – and, moreover, it achieves the impressive feat of making you feel “immense pity for both of them”.

Slater Faber 784pp £35; The Week bookshop £23.99 (incl. p&p)

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