Pasternak Slater confidently identifies Vivien as a drug addict, in particular a dependant on chloral hydrate. Her plunging weight, meanwhile, is ascribed to anorexia. Both hypotheses seem plausible, but Pasternak Slater’s insistence that these two conditions are “self-inflicted” misses their complexity and adds an unpleasantly judgmental tone. When Vivien gets madder still, Pasternak Slater identifies her as suffering from “split personality” and offers a definition of what is more usually called “Dissociative Identity Disorder” culled from Wikipedia.
None of this makes The Fall of a Sparrow bad or wrong, but it does make it partial and subjective as all biography must be. Pasternak Slater seems so hostile to her subject that, on those occasions when Vivien is sane, kind and clever, her biographer feels it important to remind us how “unusual” this is. Tom’s behaviour, by contrast, is consistently tip-top: “Few could have displayed conjugal stamina comparable to his.”
Pasternak Slater traces Vivien’s too short life (she died unexpectedly, of heart failure) year by year in small sections, carefully separating fact from hearsay. Yes, we know, as the author notes, that there’s no right or wrong here; that both Viv and Tom were caught up in the “remorseless machinery of unhappiness”. But for the reader, the result is a little like being in a courtroom during a case whose verdict will involve no real jeopardy. Where is the colour? The dash? Hundreds of pages in, I still couldn’t quite picture Viv and her world. I’ve always believed, to pinch from Diane Johnson, whose 1972 book about Mary Ellen Peacock, the first and much-maligned wife of George Meredith, could not be more involving if it tried, that so-called “lesser lives” are frequently as interesting, and even as important, as major ones: the wife, the mother, the muse. Feminism still has work to do here. But as Johnson also writes, the biographer’s job isn’t only to unearth facts, to blow dust from manuscripts. She should have something of the novelist in her, too. She must be a storyteller, and a snoop.
Superbly written, The Fall of a Sparrow includes an edition of Vivien’s writings, which are mostly of antiquarian interest (“One’s soul stirs stiffly out of the dead endurance of the winter”). Vivien was buried in Pinner Cemetery, Harrow, with the wrong death date incised on her headstone. No one troubled to correct it.
Comprising many short sections, and with its narrative punctuated by extended ‘notes’ on such topics as ‘Bertrand Russell’s relationship with Vivien’ and ‘Some of Vivien’s drugs and doctors’, the narrative is uneasily constructed. At the level of individual sentences, footnotes and mini-essays, Pasternak Slater is intelligent and sophisticated; but she lacks the architectonic power a good biographer needs, and appears to have had trouble shaping her material. The Fall of a Sparrow often seems like a volume for scholars, rather than a biography aimed at a wide readership.
Aside from a few repetitive tics, Slater is a superb Dante through this Purgatory, and a fine prose stylist – a better one than Vivien. There’s some interest to Vivien’s late prose fragments, which hold a broken mirror to her unhappy home life. And as for her fiction that Eliot published in his Criterion and championed? Well, if you’re in the mood for some lightly satirical, quasi-modernist, semi-autobiographical prose sketches published pseudonymously in 1924 by an underrated female writer, they still shouldn’t be your first choice. (Hunt down Edna St Vincent Millay’s Distressing Dialogues instead.)
This book is a forensic and often ruthless — Eliot biographers are quoted mainly to be dismissed as rank fabulists — attempt to understand Vivien. It is the first time so much light has been thrown on this troubled character. Everybody has heard of Eliot’s “problem” wife, but few have tried to understand her in this depth and with such sympathetic insight into her impact on Eliot’s greatest poetry.