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DVD: T S Eliot - The Search for Happiness | reviews, news & interviews

DVD: T S Eliot - The Search for Happiness

DVD: T S Eliot - The Search for Happiness

Competent documentary revises the poet's reputation as a callous husband

The mermaid singing: newlyweds Vivienne and Tom Eliot at 18 Crawford Mansions, Marylebone, in 1916

“How it went with the women,” Martin Amis’s phrase for what most straight men are likely to contemplate in the evenings of their lives, would have made an ideal alternative subtitle for the 50-minute documentary T S Eliot: The Search for Happiness.

“How it went with the women,” Martin Amis’s phrase for what most straight men are likely to contemplate in the evenings of their lives, would have made an ideal alternative subtitle for the 50-minute documentary T S Eliot: The Search for Happiness.

Until 1949, when Eliot met Valerie Fletcher, the secretary to whom he would be happily married from 1957 until his death in 1965, love went badly for the Nobel poet. He regarded his miserable 18-year marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, who was probably bipolar, as “a hideous farce", while his fraught long-distance relationship with the American speech and drama teacher Emily Hale, for 17 years his confidante, ended sourly.

As is well-known, Haigh-Wood was committed by her brother Maurice to a private asylum in Finsbury Park in 1938; unvisited by Eliot, who paid the bills, she died there in 1947. Michael Hastings’s play Tom & Viv and Brian Gilbert’s 1994 film adaptation, along with The Painted Shadow, Carole Seymour-Jones’s 2001 biography of Haigh-Wood, did much to vilify Eliot for his abandonment of Vivienne, whom he saw only once after leaving England for a one-year teaching appointment at Harvard in 1932 and legally separated from in 1933.

Letters first published in 2016 reveal that Eliot regarded Vivienne with compassion and was tormented by the breakdown of their relationship. It might be argued that the woman he treated most cruelly was Hale. The recipient of at least 1,131 of his letters, released for public viewing by Princeton University Library early last year, she was bled dry emotionally by his needy avowals of love and felt betrayed by his marriage to Fletcher. In 1960, Eliot was moved to say he had never loved Hale.

First broadcast on Sky Arts in December and recently released on DVD (without extras), the film revises the prevailing opinion of Eliot as a callous husband by allowing that he had a right to seek contentment after decades of sexual repression and guilt that he rationalized as Christian asceticism.

Like his fellow poet Philip Larkin, whose wretched love life Amis dishes on in Inside Story: A Novel, Eliot was terrified of female sexuality (though Seymour-Jones’s argument that he was gay was circumstantial). Unlike Larkin, whose alleged misogyny has been widely discredited, Eliot demonized women with lurid particularity. Analyzing the psychological provenance of female-phobic poems like “Hysteria” and “Sweeney Erect”, above and beyond Eliot’s growing revulsion for Vivienne, is beyond the film’s remit.

Like the Sky Arts documentaries about E M Forster, Rudyard Kipling, the British Great War poets, Virginia Woolf (who wrote viciously about Haigh-Wood), and D H Lawrence that have also been produced and directed by Odyssey Television’s Adrian Munsey and Vance Goodwin, T S Eliot: The Search for Happiness consists of talking-heads interviews with experts, mostly academics. Archival footage of Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Trevor Nunn, who riff amusingly about turning Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats into a stage phenomenon, lightens the load.

It’s a solid TV format, but in Eliot's case the scholars’ general belief that his miserable first marriage fueled The Waste Land needed further elaboration, or challenging. The attempt to see the poet in the poetry is exciting, however, if critically suspect. The series as a whole may lack the creative ambition of Melvyn Bragg’s The South Bank Show, say, but it works as a useful set of primers or as a fillip to re-engage with the authors' and poets' works.

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