Battle of the Wasps

C.K. Stead

The release in 2009 of the first two volumes of T.S. Eliot’s letters, and the year before of the final volume of Katherine Mansfield’s, raises questions about the relationship between these two and their spouses, Vivien Haigh-Wood and John Middleton Murry.[*] Why was Eliot distrustful, and even apprehensive, of Mansfield? What was Murry’s relationship with Vivien – and indeed with Eliot himself? Why were Vivien’s feelings about Murry so tortured – and was Mansfield jealous of her?

There can be no doubt that Eliot was deeply suspicious of Mansfield, and there is plenty of evidence that she observed him closely and accurately. According to Clive Bell, a number of the Bloomsbury set first heard ‘Prufrock’ in 1917, when Mansfield read it at Garsington: it ‘caused a stir, much discussion, some perplexity’. A short time later Eliot and Mansfield met at a dinner party in Hammersmith (Robert Graves was also present) where, she wrote, Eliot ‘grew paler and paler and more and more silent’ while their host (whom she likened to a butcher) ‘cut up, trimmed and smacked into shape the whole of America and the Americans’. The two, he without Vivien, she without Murry, left the party together, and her description of their walk seems to owe as much to the cityscape of his early poetry as to reality.

Mansfield’s letters in the next few years occasionally echo his poems, or reflect on his criticism; but their lives don’t overlap significantly again until 1920. In April of that year Eliot writes to thank Murry ‘very much’ for ‘your thought of me’. What Murry was being thanked for is not clear, but the year before he had offered Eliot the deputy editorship of the Athenaeum, and though Eliot declined he took the offer (as he said to his mother) as another sign that ‘there is a small and select public which regards me as the best living critic, as well as the best living poet, in England.’ In the letter to Murry he says he and Vivien ‘are looking forward to seeing Katherine’.

Mansfield’s report of the dinner party that followed is waspish about Vivien, but offers, with momentary vividness, a revealing snapshot of the Eliots:

The Elliots [sic] have dined with us tonight. They are just gone – and the whole room is quivering. John has gone downstairs to see them off. Mrs E’s voice rises ‘Oh don’t commiserate Tom; he’s quite happy.’ I know it’s extravagant … but I dislike her so immensely. She really repels me. She makes me shiver with apprehension … I don’t dare to think what she is ‘seeing’. From the moment that John dropped a spoon & she cried: ‘I say you are noisy tonight – what’s wrong’ – to the moment when she came into my room & lay on the sofa offering idly: ‘This room’s changed since the last time I was here.’ To think she had been here before … And Elliot, leaning towards her, admiring, listening, making the most of her – really minding whether she disliked the country or not … I am so fond of Elliot … But this teashop creature.

M. comes up after they are gone, and he defends her. He tells me of a party he gave here & how she came & was friends with him & how he drank to get over the state of nerves she had thrown him into. ‘I like her; I would do the same again.’ I feel as tho’ I’ve been stabbed.

Perhaps Eliot was aware of this critical eye; and perhaps Vivien was too. In any case, only a few weeks later Eliot wrote to Pound, mocking Murry’s exaggeration (as he saw it) of Mansfield’s talent, and adding ‘I believe her to be a dangerous WOMAN; and of course’ – he goes on about the Murrys – ‘two sentimentalists together are more than two times as noxious as one.’ This impression of Mansfield as in some way powerful and a threat is echoed soon after in a letter in which, signing herself ‘Yr most adoring’, Vivien urges Tom: ‘Write to Schiff – very nicely. Must not let him fall into K.M.’s hands.’

Eliot’s professional life remained intertwined with Murry’s, but the degree to which his largely concealed dislike could rise is revealed in a letter to his mother in January 1921: ‘I and Murry have fallen apart completely. I consider his verse quite negligible, and I don’t like his prose style; his articles seem to me to become more and more windy, verbose and meaningless. Personally, I think him a man of weak character and great vanity, and I do not trust him.’ And how he feels about Murry seems to spill over into his view of Mansfield, who is all the more suspect because Murry slyly promotes her work. Scofield Thayer, in a letter to Eliot, is perhaps reflecting Eliot’s own view when he refers to Murry as ‘this sparse husband of England’s latest short story prima donna’.

But it is in 1922, when Eliot is establishing his new literary periodical, the Criterion, sponsored by Lady Rothermere, that his distrust of Mansfield reaches a peak. The first sign of the crisis comes in a letter from Vivien to Pound, in which she says that Lady Rothermere has written ‘three offensive letters’ to Tom about the Criterion’s first issue:

If when she sees T. she behaves in the same way as her letters I don’t see that he can do anything but throw up the Criterionand I believe that is what she wants. She is unhinged – one of those beastly raving women who are most dangerous. She is now in that asylum for the insane called La Prieuré [Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at Fontainebleau] where she does religious dances naked with Katherine Mansfield. ‘K.M.’ she says in every letter ‘is the most intelligent woman I have ever met.’ K.M. is pouring poison in her ear (of course) for K.M. hates T. more than anyone.

There appear to be no grounds for this suspicion (and the naked dancing is surely a fantasy). Mansfield did not hate Eliot; she actually quite liked him, even as she viewed him with a certain amused detachment. In February 1922, for example, she wrote to Dorothy Brett:

Yes he is an attractive creature; he is pathetic. He suffers from his feelings of powerlessness. He knows it. He feels weak. Its all disguise. That slow manner, that hesitation, side-long glances and so on are painful. And the pity is he is too serious about himself, even a little bit absurd. But it’s natural; it’s the fault of London, that. He wants kindly laughing at and setting free.

In August she writes to another friend that she has seen that the next number of the Criterion is ‘advertised to appear shortly. It looks very full of rich plums.’ But it is clear that Eliot shared his wife’s suspicion and blamed Mansfield for Lady Rothermere’s negative response to the first issue. Pound’s contribution to this discussion is typically peculiar and not altogether unhelpful. Lady Rothermere thought the magazine dull. He thinks so too, but believes (and seems to expect Eliot to confirm) this is deliberate – that Eliot as editor is playing ‘possum’, intending to sneak radical stuff in under a cover of dullness. And he suggests that Eliot ‘conciliate the K.M. faction’ by including something of hers in the journal. He also asks whether Eliot is sure Lady Rothermere ‘is being intentionally offensive’, and suggests that ‘in your present exhausted and énervé condition … perhaps a slight magnification takes place.’

There is nothing to suggest that anyone had asked, or even hinted, that work by Mansfield should be included in the Criterion. In fact at the time she was too preoccupied with her health, physical and psychic, to be giving much thought (apart from retrospective dissatisfaction) to her literary career; but Eliot replies to Pound as if agreeing reluctantly that such a bargain needs to be struck, and that he will ‘suggest to Lady R. that she should secure a story from K. Mansfield’. ‘I myself,’ he goes on, ‘should much prefer to have something from Murry; he is at least in every way preferable to his wife. The latter is not by any means the most intelligent woman Lady R. has ever met. She is simply one of the most persistent and thickskinned toadies and one of the vulgarest women Lady R. has ever met and is also a sentimental crank.’ Mansfield provoked strong reactions, but this is surely the most extravagant on record, and the least founded on anything except insecurity and paranoia. Lady Rothermere, though she found (without help, I’m sure) the first issue dull, and disliked its format, was not about to cut off funds or curb her editor’s freedom, and the fuss soon died down.

Mansfield died on 9 January 1923. Two days later, still not knowing of her death, Vivien wrote to Tom (whom she addressed as ‘Dearest darling Wing’), responding to a letter in which he must have reported that Mansfield’s illness was serious:

Funnily – I have had Katherine M. perpetually in my mind the last two days – and, last night I dreamed of her all night! This a.m. when I read yr. letter that she was v. ill I felt that there is indeed something psychic going on. I think Rother[mere] shd. be blamed if anything happens to K.M. for if she was not mad and irresponsible she wd. not have allowed K.M. to stay in that bug house [Gurdjieff’s Institute again]. And Murry!!

A week later Eliot writes the necessary – somewhat Jamesian – letter of condolence:

Dear John,

Forgive me for writing to you at all, but one must express oneself if only by a sheet of paper. There is, of course, nothing that I can say, except to remind you that I feel very very deeply, and that this has hardly left my thoughts for ten days, and that my sympathy with your suffering is something that cannot be written.

Yours always

Tom

A PS promises ‘a critical article on K’s work’; and a letter on 26 January assures Murry that ‘I constantly think of you.’

Eliot’s anxieties at this time are enormous and complicated. Vivien is constantly ill. Pound is attempting, through the fund he called Bel Esprit, to free Eliot from his employment in Lloyds Bank. Eliot is cautious, secretive, manipulative and not entirely honest about his own financial affairs, denying that he has received any money from the Bel Esprit fund when in fact he has, and not making clear to Pound and other contributors that he is receiving an income from his family’s brick manufacturing business.

He continues to labour and complain. Even the ever loyal Vivien, who by the mid-1920s is helping him to edit the Criterion, and writing for it in an unmistakably Mansfieldian manner, writes in her diary: ‘One waits, sympathises, but it is dreary work. [Tom] is like a person about to break down – infinitely scrupulous, tautologous & cautious.’ Virginia Woolf writes in hers that he is ‘peevish, plaintive, egotistical’. The question of whether he will or won’t leave the bank is intolerably protracted, the drama of ill-health (his own, but more especially Vivien’s) seems as if it will never reach a fifth act: it is a weary and unrelenting story. As an editor Eliot is industrious, capable of waspishness, but also of diplomacy, particularly when dealing with difficult and favoured colleagues, such as Pound and Wyndham Lewis.

As a husband he displays, for the most part, agonised patience. He is aware of Vivien’s suffering and is sympathetic. Her talent is also acknowledged and her work published in the Criterion under various pseudonyms, all with the initials F.M. The debt her writing owes to Mansfield is never mentioned, but is clearly not held against her. Mansfield herself, however, is not forgotten, and when a new collection of her stories is published Eliot writes to Richard Aldington asking him to order a review copy: ‘I think her inflated reputation ought to be dealt with.’

There is now a peculiar tone in letters to Murry, one or two of which are almost like love letters:

Thanks, dear John, for your adorable letter. Will you wire me please, what you are going to do and where you are to be each day of this week, and give me a chance to reply by wire. Vivien is so dangerously ill that there is a fresh consultation of doctors every day to decide whether she can be moved to London in a closed car.

 I feel a kind of dependence on you, and it will be a great comfort to know every day where you are. You are the only person I want to be in touch with.

This was in April 1923. Two months later Vivien writes to Murry. After praising his ‘beautiful cottage’ and saying the bedrooms ‘particularly touched me’, she goes on:

To speak the truth to you – and you must take this please as my answer to what you tell me of your feelings about me and Tom – since coming back to London I have been in despair. I mean real despair, which isolates and freezes one …

In addition, I am trying to come to a decision. It is an old indecision, really, but the conclusion becomes always more urgent. My despair is paralysing me. There, John, there is no one else in this world today to whom I would make an explanation.

So I can’t see you just now, my dear. But if you are what you must be, you will let me call on you the moment I smash a chair or two, and will come then quickly, before I have time to get re-bound.

This is surely something to do with a crisis in the marriage, otherwise intimated but not directly recorded during the mid-1920s. (The editors of this letter are unable or unwilling to offer any explanation.) Something is referred to as understood between them; and this, or something similar, recurs in a letter from Vivien to Murry in August 1925:

Up till now, it has seemed to me impossible that you would care to hear that I have thought about you constantly for the last month. And that I have had what has happened incessantly in my mind.

Perhaps we may meet some day, and be able to talk.

I am afraid Tom’s terrific life takes all my energy, and I can only lie still and wait for it to end.

With all my thoughts and wishes for you

Vivien

Shortly afterwards she writes to him again:

I am beginning to believe now that I have really got a little niche in your thoughts, and that’s what I want. When things are extra bad I shall always write and ask you to give me as much of your attention as you have time for …

Really John I think of you for ever, constantly, and I know, by thinking, lots of little things about you that it seems to me nobody else knows now.

Eliot’s own feelings towards Murry veer about, and in April 1924 he declines an invitation to Murry’s wedding in a letter in which he doesn’t sound altogether unlike a jilted lover:

My dear John,

You know it is impossible for me to come to your wedding, as I am in a bank and cannot get away at such an hour. I am sure that you have done the best thing for yourself in marrying again, but you know that it has always been impossible for me to understand any of your actions.

Ever yours

T.S.E.

Eliot’s underlying and ongoing quarrel with Murry (expressed in that early letter to his mother) was given public expression in his 1923 essay ‘The Function of Criticism’, in which he takes Murry to task for his idea that the ‘English writer, the English divine, the English statesman, inherit no rules from their forebears; they inherit only this: a sense that in the last resort they must depend upon the inner voice.’ Eliot responds: ‘The possessors of the inner voice ride ten in a compartment to a football match at Swansea, listening to the inner voice, which breathes the eternal message of vanity, fear and lust.’ Eliot was sniffy when he learned that Murry was at work on a life of Jesus. Murry rejoiced that for himself ‘the time of stony places’ was over. Eliot’s response to this was pompous and insulting:

If you are going to be in London, you will probably find a great many ‘friends’ to welcome you … But do you really consider it a good sign that ‘the time of stony places is over’? If so, you are luckier than the Saviour, who found things pretty stony to the last … I do not suppose that I share any other characteristic of the Founder of Christianity, but at least I have nothing but stony places to look forward to. This isolates me, of course, from those who can pass in and out of stony places with practised ease.

But before Eliot could relax into a settled hate for this proponent of the human Jesus and ‘the inner voice’, Murry had done him a great favour. Having just given the Clark Lectures at Cambridge, Murry suggested to the university that Eliot might give the next series. It came just when Eliot was feeling most insecure. ‘You must have realised,’ he wrote, ‘that your proposal of my name, and the hope of this job, would come as a ray of hope just at the blackest moment in my life.’ And in a subsequent letter:

And now I am inclined to retract my views about friendship. Other people have offered things, gifts, but no one, except you, has ever come with them exactly at the right moment. What is this except friendship? You came once with the Athenaeum – and I have since felt that this was a gran rifiuto on my part … I shan’t make that mistake again.

So it is not surprising that when the Eliots’ marital problems reached some kind of new crisis in April 1925 Murry was one of three men to whom he wrote seeking help and guidance. (The others were Bertrand Russell and Leonard Woolf.) The first of two letters to Murry is peculiar and seems incomplete, or is perhaps a document attached to the second (which is dated 12 April 1925). It begins without preliminary, and has something of the flavour of a statement to the police:

In the last ten years [i.e. since meeting and marrying Vivien] – gradually, but deliberately – I have made myself into a machine. I have done it deliberately – in order to endure, in order not to feel – but it has killed V. In leaving the bank I hope to become less a machine – but yet I am frightened – because I don’t know what it will do to me – and to V. – should I come alive again. I have deliberately killed my senses – I have deliberately died – in order to go on with the outward form of living – This I did in 1915. What will happen if I live again? ‘I am I’ but with what feelings, with what results to others – Have I the right to be I – But the dilemma – to kill another person by being dead, or to kill them by being alive? Is it best to make oneself a machine, and kill them by not giving nourishment, or to be alive, and kill them by wanting something that one cannot get from that person? Does it happen that two persons’ lives are absolutely hostile? Is it true that sometimes one can only live by another’s dying?

One wonders what is being talked about, whether it is sex, or something less tangible. Stephen Spender once said that, in conversation, when Eliot got on to some unpropitious subject – the weather, or sales of poetry – he would pursue it remorselessly ‘like a tram going through a slum’; and anyone who has read a number of the editorial commentaries in the Criterion will know what Spender meant. In the year before her death, Mansfield had noticed the same painful treadmill quality when she wrote to Violet Schiff from Switzerland about his ‘London Letter’ in the October 1921 issue of the Dial: ‘Poor Eliot sounds tired to death. His London letter is all a maze of words. One feels the awful effort behind it – as though he were being tortured.’ There is the same feeling, in the statement to Murry, of the mental engine turning – abstractly self-tormenting – with the same preoccupation, and the same circularity, that would surface in the Sweeney poems:

Any man has to, needs to, wants to
Once in a lifetime, do a girl in …
He didn’t know if he was alive and the girl was dead
He didn’t know if the girl was alive and he was dead
He didn’t know if they both were alive or both were dead
If he was alive then the milkman wasn’t and the rent-collector wasn’t
And if they were alive then he was dead.

Murray responded warmly to Eliot’s flattering invitation for advice – unsurprisingly, since Eliot had added that he sought John’s help ‘because I know that in many ways – spiritually, you are much wiser than I.’ ‘Of one thing I am convinced,’ Murry pontificated:

That it is your duty absolutely to come alive again. Absolutely – this without regard to what may be the consequences for V … You have done a great wrong to yourself, and a great wrong has been done to her. You are involved in a vicious circle, which thinking only tightens: you must break it …

I know the consequences of this may be awful for V. I don’t know that they will be. But I am sure that nothing but harm can come of your trying to kill yourself to keep her alive …

Oh, Tom, I am almost afraid to say these things … But I think I know this. There is a point at which the choice really is: she may die, I must die. Then you must say: I will not die.

That sounds terrible: it is terrible, but not in the way it sounds terrible. When you take your stand: ‘I will not die,’ then indeed you do die – to all that you were. That choice is a self sacrifice of the deepest.

Live, and let come what may. One of you two must go forward. It can’t be V. She can only go forward by bodily death, in the state she is in now. And anyhow going forward is the man’s job … But try not to think about the future. You can’t know what will be. And I am sure there is no other way of helping her.

Murry here seems to be laying a claim for himself as the man who bravely chose life, even at the expense of his wife’s survival, and the falseness of tone puts me in mind of a letter in which Mansfield took him to task for some of his critical writing:

Now, I’ll be franker still. There are still traces of what I call your sham personality in this book and they mar it … Can’t you see what a farce it makes of your preaching the good Life? The good Life indeed – rowing about in your little boat with the worm-eaten ship and chaos! Look here! How can you! How can you lay up your sweat in a phial for future generations! I don’t ask for false courage from anyone, but I do think that even if you are shivering it is your duty as an artist and a man not to shiver.

Murry’s reply presented Eliot with a problem more immediate and more mundane than choosing between living, dying or killing his wife. In his next letter he explains that he thinks he understands Murry’s advice; but that Vivien knows he has written for help, and will want to see the reply. The present letter can’t be shown to her, so will Murry please write an edited version? Murry obliges, of course, beginning with the news of the birth of his first child – to be named Katherine.

Towards the end of 1925 (where Volume II of the Letters ends), Eliot’s financial position has been secured by a directorship on the board of Faber and Gwyer, his editorship of the Criterion seems secure and his Clark Lectures are in preparation. Tout va bien. A breakthrough has been made in the understanding of Vivien’s illnesses (she had been almost starved to death by ‘specialists’ who claimed to understand her case), but her state of mind is worse, and she appears to be complaining of some kind of confinement and of Eliot being absent and ignoring her (a foretaste of the worse to come).

Murry recedes from the picture. Mansfield’s ‘inflated reputation’ has not been ‘dealt with’ in the Criterion; but in his 1933 lectures, published as After Strange Gods, Eliot was to use her story ‘Bliss’ as one of three examples of the modern short story, the others being Lawrence’s ‘The Shadow in the Rose Garden’ and Joyce’s ‘The Dead’. The three make an interesting group in that each is about a painful revelation that a loved spouse has had or is having an association of some emotional intensity with another person. Eliot describes Mansfield’s story as ‘brief, poignant and, in the best sense, slight’; it shows Mansfield’s great skill in handling ‘perfectly the minimum material’ – a skill that defines her work as ‘feminine’. Lawrence’s story has ‘an alarming strain of cruelty’ and an ‘absence of any moral or social sense’. Joyce may have lost the Catholic faith of his boyhood but his sensibility remains ‘orthodox’, and this is demonstrated by the fact that the suffering husband at the end of the story feels that ‘his soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead.’

Eliot gave these lectures in America, and used the trip as an occasion to escape Vivien permanently. She was notified only through his lawyer, and he never returned to her, hiding from her until, some years later, she was incarcerated in a hospital for the insane, where she died in 1947. By 1931 Murry’s second wife (who had modelled herself on Mansfield, did her hair in the same way, and wrote short stories) had died – like Mansfield – of tuberculosis. In the same year Murry married for a third time. The new wife, Betty Cockbayne, frequently physically assaulted him until he escaped, ultimately into a fourth and this time happy marriage. He died in 1957, the year Eliot married his second wife, Valerie, co-editor of these new volumes of his letters. Murry’s gravestone bears the inscription: ‘John Middleton Murry, author and farmer. “Ripeness is all.”’

[*] The Letters of T.S. Eliot, Vol. II: 1923-25, edited by Valerie Eliot and Hugh Haughton (Faber, £35); The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield, Vol. V: 1922, edited by Vincent O’Sullivan and Margaret Scott (Oxford, £72). Michael Wood wrote about the second volume of Eliot’s letters in the LRB of 3 December 2009.