This year marks the centenary of TS Eliot’s groundbreaking modernist poem, “The Waste Land” (1922). Steven Carroll’s new novel, Good night, Vivienne, good night, sympathetically reimagines the life of Vivienne Haigh-Wood, Eliot’s first wife, and reflects on her life and poetry. Its publication is both welcome and timely.
Carroll is best known for his novels Glenroy, a six-volume meditation on Australian family life focused on the Melbourne suburb of the same name. In recent years, however, he has also written a series of novels loosely based on aspects of TS Eliot’s life.
Each novel intersects with one of Eliot’s four quartets, which he wrote in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Previous tomes are The lost life (2009), A world of other people (2013) – which shared the 2014 Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction with Richard Flanagan The narrow road to the Far North – and A New England Affair (2017).
Good night, Vivienne, good night brings Carroll’s Eliot Quartet to a deeply satisfying ending.
The novels reflect Carroll’s admiration for Eliot’s poetry. However, by emphasizing the inner lives of the characters, they also suggest the influence of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. Consciousness, the theater in which dreams, wishes, memory, emotion and thought interact, is central to Carroll’s narrative imagination. He is very prominent in Good night, Vivienne, good night.
The novel opens with the heroine remembering the day Eliot left her, ostensibly to go to America for a year, but actually intending to separate permanently. The torment of Eliot’s abandonment is vividly depicted, but so is Vivienne’s newfound ability to analyze the marriage and the causes of their unhappiness.
Vivienne’s physical and mental health had never been strong, and Eliot’s decision was traumatic for her. After exhibiting erratic behavior and delusions, she was confined to Northumberland House, a London asylum, where she died in 1949. Carroll opens a hole in this personal story by imagining Vivienne coming to her senses and escaping with the help of friends.
Eliot was an extremely private man, who forbade the publication of any biography during his lifetime. He threatened legal action against a reviewer who published a biographical rendition of “The Waste Land.” In the 1980s playwright Michael Hastings encountered hostile resistance from Eliot’s friends and family while researching his play (later a film) Tom and Vivi (1994).
Since then, several biographies, memoirs and collections of letters have been published, enriching our knowledge of the private life of Eliot and those around him, and providing more detailed information about the personal experiences that were reworked in the poems. Carroll’s understanding of their relationship is broadly consistent with those presented by the excellent biographers Lyndall Gordon in The Imperfect Life of TS Eliot (2012) and Robert Crawford in Young Eliot (2015).
Eliot’s antisemitic speeches and images
The gesture of Good night, Vivienne, good night is torn between the heroine’s attempts to stay at large in London and police detective Stephen Minter’s quest to find her.
Minter and Vivienne are critical readers of Eliot’s actions and writings. Vivienne interprets it from the perspective of her obsession, reflecting on their lost love. Minter reads Eliot in an effort to understand the story of her missing person and her famous husband. Initially indifferent, he quickly finds discrepancies intriguing and begins to feel “the tug of the tale”.
Vivienne identifies the episodes that gave rise to the poet’s images, focusing on his creative life. Minter also reads clues to the history of the relationship, finding more than he expected. Son of Jewish refugees from Austria, he feels challenged and smeared by Eliot’s anti-Semitic discourse and images.
Alternating scenes provide a window into the world of wartime London in the early summer of 1940, a tense period of waiting. Barrage balloons outnumber airplanes. Foreigners, including Minter’s parents, are interned. Men in uniform look suspiciously at those who are not.
Carroll’s sketch of the city’s cultural life sardonically reflects the main themes of the novel, as Vivienne attends amateur productions of Eliot’s play The Family Reunion (1939) and Noel Coward’s Private Lives (1930). This alternation of perspectives is skilfully managed by Carroll to create suspense and surprise, both in the stories of the hunt and in Vivienne’s psychological state.
Carroll features intricate portraits of Minter, Vivienne and Eliot. The latter was at the height of his reputation in the 1940s: England’s most famous poet, critic and literary editor. In this novel he is seen from the outside, through the critical but not unfair eyes of Vivienne and Minter, and various members of staff at the Faber et Faber publishing house, where Eliot worked from 1925.
This “tableau made up of angles, all different, but all united like clues” presents Eliot as a deeply repressed figure. He wears the mask of a serious and learned old man, but his courtesy includes a strong sense of social superiority. Carroll captures both the oracular personality of the Four Quartets and the fallible human being who wrote them.
Vivienne’s escape from Northumberland House coincided with the publication of ‘East Coker’ (1940), the second of the Four Quartets. A public reading of the poem provides the novel’s climax.
East Coker is the Somerset village from which Eliot’s ancestors sailed for America. It is also the place where the poet, famous for making the trip in the opposite direction, was buried when he died. The poem includes the self-critical lines,
… Don’t let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
To belong to another…
The lines appear to reflect the marriage and personalities of Vivienne and Eliot as depicted in Good night, Vivienne, good night.
Vivienne as ‘crucial collaborator’
Gender politics within the family, marriage, and workplace are subtly explored in the novel. Vivienne’s contributions to Eliot’s literary career are repeated throughout.
Vivienne is known to have suggested the name of her influential literary magazine, The criterion, for which she also wrote. She also advised on the drafts of “The Waste Land”, even suggesting some lines. Although eager to start a new life, she remains invested in Eliot and in a vision of herself as his crucial collaborator.
In a remarkable passage shot through with footage from “The Waste Land,” Carroll presents a scene from the wedding that transitions smoothly from life to text. Marital anger and desperation modulate into Vivienne doing the voices of Lil and Albert, in effect setting the pub closing scene in the second part of Eliot’s poem.
These lines – “Goonight Lou. Good evening May.
Authorship and place of biography
In his introduction to Tom and Vivi, Michael Hastings called his play “critical fiction”. The same label could be applied to Good night, Vivienne, good night. It mixes history and imagination to reflect on Eliot, paternity and the place of biography in the understanding of literature.
Eliot insisted in his essay “Tradition and Individual Talent” (1919) that “poetry is not a release from emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality”.
Great poetry, he believed, required a depersonalization of experience, a distillation of its meaning. By creatively reconnecting poetry to its personal sources, Good night, Vivienne, good night invites readers to reconsider Eliot’s theory of poetic impersonality. Was his affirmation of the necessary “extinction of the personality” a product of experience, a symptom of its repression?
Despite its critical portrayal of Eliot, the novel isn’t really there to demystify his achievement. While primarily focusing on Vivienne’s life, it also reflects Eliot’s legacy as a poet. The interior monologues of the two protagonists are interspersed with images and phrases taken from his writing. His words shape their perceptions of the modern city, alienation and the search for meaning and value. I suspect they also inform Carroll’s understanding, as do many readers.
Eliot was a particularly intertextual writer, who declared that “immature poets imitate; mature poets steal. Carroll quietly appropriates his method. One of the pleasures of the novel is the way in which allusions to earlier literature are discreetly sprinkled throughout its vivid, poignant, and thrifty narrative.
Good night, Vivienne, good night is a human and creative remix of biography, poetry and social history that addresses current concerns about personal identity and recognition. Fiction buffs and Eliot fans will feel “the tug of the tale”.
Kieran Dolin is Professor of English and Cultural Studies at the University of Western Australia.
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