A Biography and A Portrait

–Waugh scholar and EW Society member Ann Pasternak Slater has written a new book relating to a writer Waugh admired but knew only slightly. This is a biography of T S Eliot’s wife Vivien. The book is reviewed by Brian Appleyard in the Sunday Times. He begins by describing Pasternak Slater’s dismissal of the treatment of Vivien Eliot by Eliot’s biographers which is largely unsympathetic but shallow; they are collectively dismissed by Pasternak Slater  as “fabulists.”  According to Appleyard, Pasternak Slater’s book:

… is an assessment based on Vivien’s own archive, Eliot’s published letters and many other sources. It is likely to be definitive. Slater is fair to a fault. Vivien, she shows, was talented and highly intelligent; her love for Eliot was genuine and intense and, in many ways, she made him the poet he was. He even accepted her improvements to some lines in his greatest work, The Waste Land, without question. “Vivien,” she writes, “certainly gained a moral and literary education from Tom. Her vivacious, affectionate and independent spirit also had its impact on him.”

She was a nightmare, though. A full list of her afflictions intestinal, dietary, mental, neurological would fill the rest of this review. One doctor after another failed to make sense of her suffering. Slater, however, notes that many of her worst illnesses were timed to follow significant events in Eliot’s life. She concludes, convincingly, that the cause was Munchausen syndrome, in which the sufferer seeks attention or sympathy through illness.

A contemporary review in the Sunday Telegraph points out that, in later stages of Vivien’s decline, matters were made worse by her increasing drug abuse. According to that review by Tristram Fane Saunders: “Slater’s most significant achievement is fingering the main culprit: chloral hydrate, a drug taken by DG Rossetti, Evelyn Waugh and a young Oliver Sachs.”

After describing the Eliots’ breakup and fraught post marital relations, the Sunday Times review concludes:

This is a monumental work. The inclusion of Vivien’s own work reveals a talent that, though fragile and unformed, is worthy of this resurrection. The title is from a line in Hamlet “There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow.” Vivien is the sparrow, and her special providence was to have played a significant part in the production of some of the most beautiful poetry in the English language.

The most beautiful of all, The Waste Land, reflects the ambiguity of the way she played that part. Her improved lines show a sharp critical eye, but the immense cloud that hangs over the poem “I can connect/ Nothing with nothing” reflects the confusion and anguish Eliot felt about his life at the time. Great art is hard, but a sparrow’s life harder still…

The book was published by Faber & Faber last week in both the UK and USA and is entitled The Fall of a Sparrow. The T S Eliot Society has kindly sent a comment posted below in which it provides links to the two reviews discussed herein and details of future anticipated reviews.

–Another Society member, Duncan McLaren has posted on his internet page a new pencil drawing of Evelyn Waugh. This is by novelist Edward Carey, who illustrates his own books. After an exchange of messages with the artist, McLaren explains the derivation of the portrait on his website:

Carey has principally used a photograph that was used in the Sunday Times, of Waugh sitting at his desk in the library of Piers Court in 1950. But he’s straightened up his body and given Waugh a less garish check suit.

McLaren also uses a list attached to Carey’s novel Observatory Mansions to develop a discussion of listed items which might relate to Waugh. This segues into this remark comparing Carey’s novel with Brideshead Revisited:

Both Brideshead Revisited and Observatory Mansions are books about love, about the intimate relations between people who find these intimacies a problem. But they are also about the relations between a person and the world and everything in it. That’s what’s impressive about these books. In the end, they strike us as being about life in the totality of its lived moments.

McLaren also refers to Carey’s latest novel entitled The Swallowed Man which was published last week. Carey lives in Austin, Texas and teaches creative writing at the University of Texas. An excellent copy of the pencil portrait is posted on Duncan McLaren’s website at this link.

UPDATE: The source of the review of The Fall of a Sparrow was originally cited to the Sunday Telegraph. The review initially quoted actually appeared in the Sunday Times. The Telegraph review was by Tristram Fane Saunders and was unavailable when I searched. Thanks to reader Dave Lull for pointing out the error. Dave also sent a copy of the Telegraph review. Reference to that review as well as a comment from the T S Eliot Society have been added to the text.

UPDATE 2 (9 November 2020): Amazon has corrected its listing for Ann Pasternak Slater’s book to reflect November 2020 publication dates in both the UK and USA. The text has been modified accordingly.

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