The Muse Writes Back: Vivien Eliot's Response to High Modernism

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T. S. Eliot's reputation as a critic, scholar, editor, and writer was bolstered by his role as the editor of a small literary quarterly called The Criterion. Funded initially by Lady Rothermere and later by Faber and Gwyer, the magazine, after a rocky start, became one of the premier voices of modernism until it was discontinued in 1939. (1) Vivien Eliot (2) was, from the beginning of the magazine in 1922 and up until T. S. Eliot began editing it at his office at Faber and Gwyer in 1926 as The New Criterion, an integral part of the publication. She was responsible for the name of the magazine, as Eliot reported to Pound. (3) In addition to naming the quarterly, she helped "her husband in editorial duties," corresponding with contributors, typing to dictation, and reviewing books. During 1924 and 1925, she contributed stories, sketches, reviews, letters, and a poem, which appeared under the various pseudonyms E M., Fanny Marlowe, Feiron Morris, and Felix Morrison, in addition to writing and editing collaboratively with her husband and his secretary Irene Fassett. (4) Her authorship was not widely known, although it was an open secret among the Eliots' friends, some of whom were reportedly not amused by her satirical portraits of London literary society.

Although Eliot himself found his wife to possess great talent--admiring her for her "original" and "not at all feminine" mind--her work in The Criterion has drawn little serious critical notice. (5) For the most part, Vivien Eliot's writing has been received by Eliot scholars as thinly veiled autobiography, reflecting her attitude toward her husband and his friends. While Vivien was undoubtedly a dilettante writer, she was an intelligent woman and a perceptive reader, as her book reviews show. This was certainly not the case of the husband's publishing his wife, blind to the quality of her writing. Rather it was a case of Eliot's publishing a promising and emerging writer alongside established writers, a practice The Criterion was known for, as Bonamy Dobree points out in "T. S. Eliot: a Personal Reminiscence": "its outstanding virtue being its welding together of so many kinds of contributor, from Wyndham Lewis, F. M. Ford, Virginia Woolf, to lesser lights and beginners." (6) Before Vivien Eliot's authorship was generally known, Herbert Howarth favorably compared her work to a cocktail-party story by Aldous Huxley and a short piece by her husband, both published in The Criterion. (7) After her authorship was known, her publications were either resented by those parodied in them, dismissed, or mined for biographical insights.

All of Eliot's biographers mention Vivien Eliot's writing, but usually only with the intent of elucidating what it reveals about the Eliots' marriage. She is given very little credit for artistic craft and is not allowed an artistic identity, not recognized as a writer with a writer's concerns. Peter Ackroyd describes Vivien's writing in The Criterion in almost purely biographical terms, although he does note one area of originality--the rhythm of her dialogue. He characterizes Vivien's writing as a pale imitation of her husband's, overseen by and influenced by him: "it seems likely that he wrote certain passages himself." What Ackroyd finds most noteworthy in Vivien's publications are the parodies or portraits of her husband, and the impression they give of the author as "a woman acutely sensitive to the external world but also nervous and withdrawn." This impression is derived from the assumption that the characters and the author are inextricable from one another, an assumption that Ackroyd does not make in his analysis of her husband's work. Clearly Ackroyd thinks Vivien had a "feminine," and therefore possibly hysterical, mind. His views on Vivien's work are marked by their reliance on the autobiographical "phallacy," a term coined and defined by Mary Jacobus as the critical gesture "whereby male critics hold that women's writing is somehow closer to their experience than men's, that the female text is the author, or at any rate a dramatic extension of her unconscious. …