Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve
Steven Carroll has taken fragments from the facts concerning the tortured life of TS Eliot’s first wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood, to weave a masterly restructuring of her life. Until the publication of her diaries this year, it was maintained that she suffered serious mental illness all her life, inflicted damage to her relationship with Eliot with her irrational behaviour. This led to her being committed to an asylum where she died in 1937 aged in her fifties.
This is the fourth novel in his Quartet devoted to various episodes in the life of T.S. Eliot, regarded as one of the 20th century’s greatest poets, and a Nobel Laureate.
It begins with Vivienne imprisoned in Northumberland House after having endured a breakdown, wandering the night in her sleepwear, and crying that her husband had been beheaded. She was searching for him with a knife clutched in her hand, which proved to be a retractable stage prop. At this juncture, she had been in the asylum for three years, lonely, depressed and forgotten by family and friends.
A charitable group which focused on rectifying wrongs done to the mentally ill, often misdiagnosed and misunderstood, contrived to have her escape in a laundry van. The law existed that, if she could successfully look after herself for 30 days, and a judge agreed, she could stay in the community, a free woman.
Enter a twist to her saga with a young detective, a wounded war veteran, engaged to find her. He is her hunter; she is his fox. Vivienne’s longing to regain her old love, her old life, is painful and touching. She is portrayed as an intelligent, passionate, imaginative yet deluded woman; Steven Carroll skilfully creates a complex character with whom we cannot but sympathise. Eliot is, in the writer’s words, ‘a troupe of actors, an onion, and a prickly creature rolled in a ball’. Certainly not warmly attractive husband material!
Brigid works as a secretary at Faber & Faber, as does Eliot, who is an editor and guest speaker. She witnesses many of the confrontations in the years before Vivienne was banished to the asylum. She befriends Stephen Minter, the detective. He is entranced by her sparkle and lively repartee and becomes seriously attached.
There is a poignant scene towards the end of the book, when, at a crowded event where Eliot is the celebrity guest speaker, Vivienne takes her little dog Polly and directs it to take its toy bone, with a note attached, to the podium where Eliot stands, nonplussed and anxious. The message bids him not to worry….
Until this, he feared she was a threat to his life.
Readers familiar with Steven Carroll’s work will be in for yet another reason to regard him as one of our very best writers. He chooses each word perfectly so that the book becomes as finely assembled as a roll of exquisite silk. Only 250 pages long, it takes some time to read, to pause and to savour the beauty of the writing.
The characters are superbly drawn and, like an artist, he is able to suggest a depth of feeling and unique qualities of his characters with the sketch of a well-chosen phrase.
He uses allusion to a fine degree, especially when referring to the poet, but it is Vivienne who dominates with her wild, rambling, desperate behaviour. Together, there emerges a beautifully written Steven Carroll glimpse of the complex relationship between two very different human beings.
Goodnight, Vivienne, Goodnight
by Steven Carroll
ISBN 978 14607 5111 4