19 February 2015

‘Lent as seen through the Movies’:
briefing notes for ‘Tom & Viv’

Patrick Comerford

This year [2015] marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of the great Anglican poet TS Eliot on 4 January 1965, and the one-hundredth anniversary of his marriage to his first wife Vivienne Haigh-Wood on 26 June 1915.

Brian Gilbert’s 1994 movie Tom & Viv, which we are watching in this series next week [26 February 2015], tells the story of their turbulent relationship. They were married after a brief courtship, and they separated in 1933. But they never divorced, and it was only after Vivienne’s death in 1947 that Eliot married his second wife, Valerie Fletcher (1926-2012).

The film is based on a 1984 play of the same name by the British playwright Michael Hastings, and was adapted as a screenplay by Adrian Hodges.

The film stars Willem Dafoe (TS Eliot), Miranda Richardson (Vivienne Haigh-Wood), Rosemary Harris (Rose Haigh-Wood), Tim Dutton (Maurice Haigh-Wood) and Nickolas Grace (Bertrand Russell). It was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Miranda Richardson) and Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Rosemary Harris).

Tom & Viv tells the story of a volatile marriage that was marked by what is ultimately a misdiagnosis of Vivienne as clinically insane. The film revolves not so much around its plot as it does the constant, highly-emoted turns taken among its characters.

TS Eliot (1888-1965) and Vivienne Haigh-Wood (1888-1947) met in rooms in Magdalen College, Oxford, and were married 100 years ago on 26 June 1915, at Hampstead Register Office, London. She was the daughter of Charles Haigh-Wood (Philip Locke), whose mother, Mary Haigh, came from Dublin and inherited seven semi-detached houses in Dún Laoghaire (Kingstown) that gave the family financial stability.

The film is limited to the years of the marriage, from a meeting at Oxford in 1915 until her death in 1947, a span that includes his writing of his best-known poem ‘The Waste Land.’

Their marriage is presented as a series of erratic, embarrassing outbursts on Vivienne’s part, but the film also captures the allure of the life to which Eliot aspired. He travels from the stateliness of Oxford to the country house of the Haigh-Wood family, with its dark wood walls and formal gardens. The Haigh-Wood family and its social standing evoke more passion from Eliot than his wife ever did.

One evening, when her medicine is failing to help, Vivien refers to their friend Bertrand Russell in a loud voice: “Bertie wants to go to bed with me. Did you know that, Tom?” Her mother (Rosemary Harris), with helpless concern, quickly ushers her from the dining room.

No 24 Russell Square, London, where TS Eliot worked for Faber and Faber, is now part of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

She follows Eliot to work at the offices of Faber and Gwyer (later Faber and Faber) at No 24 Russell Square in Bloomsbury and – denied access – she pours hot chocolate into his letter box. His second wife, Valerie, later dismissed the veracity of this episode. She said the doors at Faber were always open and there was never a problem about walking in.

Yet, in this movie, Vivienne ultimately becomes a sympathetic character, a woman misunderstood by medical science and disparaged by her culture. It may have appeared to Eliot and to her family that her behaviour was due to her desire to stake some claim on her husband’s poetic success. But long after she is committed to an asylum, it is discovered that a hormonal imbalance is responsible for her psychiatric instability.

One of the key scenes in Tom & Viv shows a spry and sane Vivienne being asked to solve two difficult logical puzzles. Tom is present during the interrogation. Viv gets one of the answers wrong and is declared insane. A few days later, with his implied consent or acquiescence, she is dragged brutally out of a café (where she has been calmly taking a toast and tea with her friend Louise Purdon) and hauled off in a van.

The makers of Tom & Viv claim it is a “truly passionate, tragic and wonderful story about an extraordinary couple who found great love but couldn’t handle it.” They say it enhances TS Eliot’s reputation by showing how his art grew directly out of his life.

The suffering this couple endured in their marriage undoubtedly contributed to the inspiration of ‘The Waste Land.’ But the film does not suggest this. Instead, Vivienne says “I am his mind” and it claims that not only that she gave him the title ‘The Waste Land’ but that she wrote parts of it too. Indeed, Michael Hastings says one cannot tell the difference between their handwriting on ‘The Waste Land.’

The film has sparked many allegations about Eliot:

1, That he took the credit for writing poetry, notably parts of ‘The Waste Land,’ that were written by Vivienne.
2, That he betrayed his deep love for Vivienne (and his muse) in his eagerness to become a member of the British literary and religious establishment.
3, That he was cold, ruthless and self-absorbed.
4, That he got hold of Vivienne’s money by becoming an executor of her father’s estate.
5, That he incarcerated Vivienne in a mental institution when she was in sound mental health, cruelly refused to visit her, and – while he went on to enjoy world renown – allowed her to languish there for nine years until, cheated and neglected, she died of heart failure at 58.

It appears Eliot continued to care about Vivienne after her breakdown or the breakdown of their marriage. During World War II, he wondered if she should be moved to Brighton or somewhere, with a private nurse, in case of being bombed. But why did he never visit her?

Is there any basis for the chocolate story? It is said that liked vanilla ice cream with hot chocolate sauce. One day he was eating it in a restaurant once when a man opposite said: “I can’t understand how a poet like you can eat that stuff.” With hardly a pause, Eliot retorted: “Ah, but you’re not a poet” … and continued on eating.

Contrary to the depiction of his character in the movie, Vivienne’s brother, Maurice Haigh-Wood, wrote a moving letter he wrote from the trenches in 1917 in the spirit of Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon. Her father, far from being a despised philistine, was a painter; her mother never reproached Eliot for his treatment of her daughter. Nor did Vivienne resist his going into banking, resent his conversion, or batter at the doors during his baptism and confirmation in 1927.

There are other emphasises that critics see as distortions in the movie. For example, it dramatises the honeymoon in Eastbourne in 1915, but Eliot’s mentor Ezra Pound makes no appearance in the film.

In this film, there is no depiction of the second marriage between TS Eliot and Valerie Fletcher. They married on 10 January 1957, 10 years to the month after Vivienne’s death. This second marriage had only eight years to run. He was plagued by emphysema, and he died on 4 January 1965, at 76. Valerie, then 38, was his literary executor. On the advice of Faber, she gave permission to the makers of Tom & Viv to quote from his poetry.

Valerie Eliot gave her life to protecting his memory and the copyright of his work. As a 14-year-old schoolgirl, Valerie experienced a ‘revelation’ on hearing John Gielgud read ‘Journey of the Magi.’ But she had read Murder in the Cathedral even before hearing Gielgud’s recording, and later sought out the rest of Eliot’s work. At 18, she resolved to work for Eliot. At 22, she became his secretary. At 30, she married him, when he was 68. At 38 she became his widow and his executor.

The greatest distress caused for Eliot’s widow was the thought of a public who do not know TS Eliot’s poetry, or who might be turned off it by Tom & Viv.

Some questions

Was Michael Hastings inspired by a throwaway remark by Edith Sitwell (Linda Spurrier), that “at some point in their marriage Tom went mad and promptly certified his wife”?

Hastings claims that Eliot “Stalinised” Vivienne. In his own entry in Who’s Who, Hastings does not name his first own wife and states baldly: “one d[aughter] by previous m[arriage].” Was he drawn to this by something in his own past?

Did Eliot have relationships with two other women, Mary Trevelyan and Emily Hale? Should the movie ask whether these are just two people who should never have married? Should they each have married someone else?

Is Eliot’s self-pity hinted at by the reproduction of ‘The Martyrdom of St Sebastian’ that hangs over his desk?

Eliot tells a roomful of admirers that “poetry is not an expression of emotion, but an escape from emotion.”

How important to you is poetry in conveying truth that cannot be conveyed in narrative discourse?

Tom and Viv:

Directed by Brian Gilbert.
Screenplay by Michael Hastings and Adrian Hodges.
Based on: Tom & Viv by Michael Hastings.
Music by: Debbie Wiseman.
Cinematography: Martin Fuhrer.
Distributors: Miramax Films.
Release date: 2 December 1994.
Running time: 115 minutes.


Willem Dafoe: TS Eliot
Miranda Richardson: Vivienne Haigh-Wood Eliot
Rosemary Harris: Rose Haigh-Wood
Tim Dutton: Maurice Haigh-Wood
Nickolas Grace: Bertrand Russell
Geoffrey Bayldon: Harwent
Clare Holman: Louise Purdon
Philip Locke: Charles Haigh-Wood
Joanna McCallum: Virginia Woolf
Joseph O’Conor: Bishop of Oxford
John Savident: Sir Frederick Lamb
Michael Attwell: WI Janes
Sharon Bower: Secretary
Linda Spurrier: Edith Sitwell
Roberta Taylor: Ottoline Morrell
Christopher Baines: Verger
Anna Chancellor: Woman

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These briefing notes were prepared as part of the programme, ‘Lent as seen through the Movies,’ organised by the Lay Training Department at CITI.

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