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.