A Woman on the Edge of Madness (1): Vivienne Haigh-Wood Eliot

NPG Ax140865; Vivienne ('Vivien') Eliot (nÈe Haigh-Wood) by Lady Ottoline Morrell

Vivienne Haigh- Wood Eliot was born on the 28th May 1888.  As with many women in the past she has been overshadowed by her famous husband, the writer T.S. Eliot. Eliot would like other women who have suffered the same fate would attempt to erase her entirely from history (Hatsheput is an example of this). There is something tragic in seeing how being married to Eliot would impact Haigh- Wood’s life. To see the way that Vivienne an intelligent woman who worshiped her husband’s talent would end up being committed to an asylum in 1938.


Haigh-Wood met Eliot in 1915 at Oxford. It would not be an understatement to say that the marriage wasn’t an easy one, that Eliot who was twenty-six (he may have been a virgin) and Haigh-Wood weren’t really meant to be a couple. It seems that both Eliot and Haigh- Wood would play off it each other, causing their already existing personality traits to be worse. One of the biggest issues seems to be when they discovered they sexually weren’t compatible which really probably wasn’t that unusual for that time. This led Haigh-Wood to start an affair with Bertrand Russell. I will get back to their marriage but I think it is important to first discuss the historical background to issues that Vivienne had existingly.

Vivienne who called herself Haigh- Wood was plagued with a series of different health problems and to connect it to her life later isn’t unreasonable. Haigh- Wood had tuberculous as a child which led to her having a series of operations as a child. It was said that she had so many operations that she had no memory of her life before she was seven. While this is unfortunate her issues with her menstruation now days which would be helped through doctor’s intervention wasn’t the case in this time which lead to her treatment in ‘hysteria’.

Hysteria and the treatment of what was often medical illnesses in women is horrifying to consider now. To see the way that a woman’s needs and body would be used against them to lead to a hysterectomy or sent to an insane asylum is shocking. Hysteria historically goes back to the Ancient Greeks and from that period till the 1950s would play a large part in the misunderstanding of women’s bodies. Plato in Timaeus argued that

“the uterus is sad and unfortunate when it does not join with the male and does not give rise to a new birth, and Aristotle and Hippocrates were of the same opinion”.

Now for me this is quite a concept to decipher as it highlights the layers associated with women. The idea that women are simply to have children and the belief that our very bodies are against us from the beginning is disturbing. It can be argued that this highlights that women’s bodies are frightening to the men of this time, that through their inability to understand the complexities of menstruation that they wanted to supress it. Women already have issues with seeming to be ‘hysterical’ of being seen as the ‘farer sex’, considering the actual difficulties of birth how women could be seen as weak seems preposterous.

It was Hippocrates in the 5th century BC who actually created the term hysteria as he believed that the uterus would move around the body and cause problems.  He believed that the uterus is prone to get sick because women psychologically are cold and wet compared to the hot dry and warm male body. That sex and procreation leads to the woman’s canal being ‘widened’ and so cause the uterus to not wander. This highlights the difficulties of understanding what to do with the woman that doesn’t have children in this time. If women are seen as only useful for procreation, then how can they exist outside of it? This issue of control through mental illness is a troubling one that will be continued to be addressed in the other cases in this series.

Now you are probably wondering why this is important to the story of Haigh-Wood but this background is important to seeing why she faced imprisonment in this way, as a woman she didn’t show the traits she should have, she didn’t have children and already was being treated for Hysteria. Hysteria was a fake disease that now would have been anything from menstrual problems, to epilepsy to depression and anxiety. Haigh- Wood had extreme issues with menstruation with extreme times between her cycles and issues with flow that would led her to taking sheets from hotel rooms to wash. It is not unreasonable to see these issues could have led to her mood swings. I am not a doctor but having seen the effects on people with these problems and how it causes hormones to be out of whack in a large way makes seeing her problems in a new light.

As with most of history it’s hard to see why Haigh-Wood was placed in a mental institution as Carole Seymour Jones argues she was definitely not mad. What is madness though? Is it rattling against the bars of the mental institution? I think that now days there is no sense in the term ‘mad’ it’s simply a blanket term for a whole host of mental disorders which now have more awareness and help available then in those days.

Haigh- Wood seems to have been a victim of her time, to have the symptoms of hysteria in that time meant that she was already at risk of being deemed insane, to add to this is the knowledge that Haigh- Wood had an affair soon into the relationship. In no way is this trying to defend Haigh-Wood at all. Haigh- Wood was human and made mistakes as one, that doesn’t mean that she loses the right to be remembered.  It seems that the marriage was an unhappy one that continued to be so in front of other people. The Woolf’s (Virginia and Leonard) who had significant issues of their own would be brought into the disagreements. They would side with Eliot in this.  It seems that by having an affair Haigh-Wood would highlight the issue of women’s sexuality, that women who strayed from the general belief of women being chaste were then ‘whores’ the worst thing a woman can be. Eliot had begun to see his wife as being ‘the whore’ which intensified his anger towards her. Haigh-Wood from her own issues and this infidelity wasn’t the demur woman that women were expected to be and that would lead to her downfall.


So how does a smart woman get committed to a mental institution when she wasn’t meant to be there? Firstly, it seems that T.S. Eliot may have wanted to get his wife out of the way. After their separation in 1932 where Eliot went to teach in the United States it seems that she began more and more desperate to see her husband. She would show up at his office at Faber and Faber to the point that the receptionist had a special sign to warn him. Most of her friends abandoned her and she became more and more desperate, one example of this was seen when she joined the British Fascists but political ideology really isn’t an indication of mental instability in itself.
The first time in 1935 that Eliot tried to get her committed the doctors refused to sign the order as the Doctors argued there was no mental disorder. This highlights that there were sinister motives. It seems that Haigh-Wood realised her husband’s intentions as she tried to escape her husband by taking on a false name. It wouldn’t be enough as in 1938 new doctors came and committed her to Northumberland House, Finsbury Park. Vivienne Haigh-Wood would die here in 1947. Her brother when he visited her after her commitment to the mental institute would remark later in 1980 that “ It was only when I saw Vivie in the asylum for the last time I realised I had done something very wrong,” he told Michael Hastings, author of Tom and Viv, in 1980. “She was as sane as I was. What Tom and I did was wrong. I did everything Tom told me to.”vivienne_haigh-wood_eliot_us_passport_photograph_1920_cropped

In a fitting end it would seem that in a last act of power Vivienne Haigh -Wood would leave her papers to the Bodieian Library in Oxford to preserve the record of her marriage to Eliot, so that people would know the truth of the relationship. “The truth will all come out, if not in our life, then after it”. To think of Haigh-Wood being so utterly helpless in the shadow of a powerful man highlights the strength she saw in words. Words had committed her but she would believe words would set her free. This blog post is about considering the woman behind the man, to think of women who were unfairly put into a psychiatric hospital. While history seems to have been written by the victors the fact that these arguments are happening shows that Vivienne Haigh-Wood won’t be forgotten. By all means enjoy T.S. Eliot but consider the woman he locked away, just like Mr Rochester.

Let us remember those ‘mad women’ in the attics of famous men.

For further reading: Painted Shadow by Carole Seymour-Jones.










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