‘Oh – Vivienne! Was there ever such a torture since life began!’ a dazed Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary in 1930 after a typically miserable visit from T S Eliot and his wife. Vivien had been paranoid and cryptic, rambling about hornets under her bed as Tom tried to cover up with ‘longwinded and facetious’ stories, as she wrote to Vanessa Bell. What agony ‘to bear her on ones shoulders,’ Woolf marvelled, ‘biting, wriggling, raving, scratching, unwholesome, powdered … This bag of ferrets is what Tom wears round his neck.’ To offset this grotesque picture, Ann Pasternak Slater provides a kinder but equally revealing image of the Eliots’ early married life together, supplied by their friend Brigit Patmore. While they were all in the chemist’s one day, Vivien, a keen dancer, decided to demonstrate a ballet move, holding onto the counter with one hand, rising on her toes and putting out her other hand, ‘which Tom took in his right hand, watching Vivien’s feet with ardent interest whilst he supported her with real tenderness ... Most husbands would have said, “Not here, for Heaven’s sake!”’ It’s a brilliant snapshot of their marital pas de deux, Viv letting it all hang out, Tom enabling.
In his compellingly zany play Tom & Viv (1984), Michael Hastings added extra fictional zip to already outré scenes like these, on the grounds that ‘biography itself might be a poor tool, a kind of fiction on crutches’. Not so, counters Pasternak Slater. Hers is only the second biography of