In Painted Shadow
, the first major biography of Vivienne 'wife of TS' Eliot, Carole Seymour-Jones succeeds where five previous biographers had allegedly failed, and in the process further reclaims the tattered reputation of the poet's tragic collaborative muse. Variously diagnosed with "moral insanity", anorexia and hysteria, Vivienne suffered from severe menstrual symptoms most of her life, as well as an inherited tendency for manic depression. Having collided in their desperation to escape their mothers, she and Tom married in 1915, to their families' disapproval and Tom's quickly encroaching disgust (newly married, he slept in a deckchair in the hall). He was revolted by the female form, and his wife's in particular, but during their 18 years together she was to inspire, and, on occasions, shape, his finest poetry; without her, "in all probability", The Waste Land
would not have been written. Seymour-Jo! nes insists on a confessional, intimate reading of this landmark work, focusing on the influence of Jean Verdenal, the young French medic killed in the First World War, and whom Eliot idolised, and, in truth, idealised. Vivienne herself pursued a complicated menage à trois
with Bertrand Russell, but she was as transparent as Tom was opaque, and when the cracks in their marriage became chasms he finally left her. After calling herself Daisy Miller she dabbled in music and fascism before finally being committed to a North London asylum in 1938, partly to prevent her besmirching Tom's reputation. She died there nine years later. Ultimately, her malady was less that she had gone out of her mind, than that she had gone out of her husband's.
With apposite and rich quotation, Seymour-Jones' prose glides effortlessly through the mire of early 20th-century London literary society, and in and out of the Eliots' tangled lives and marriage, bringing together valuable archive materials, subtle reading of the poetry, and sensitive consideration to produce a compulsive biography of considerable appeal and art. If ultimately Tom upstages the increasingly spectre-like Vivienne with his alcoholic rages, sadistic impulses, and sheer ferocious talent, Seymour-Jones unfurls a 'behind-every-great-man' life that proves as harrowing as it was doomed, and rescues the much-maligned Vivienne Eliot from the attic of literary madwomen. --David Vincent