The Letters of T. S. Eliot Volume 6: 1932-1933 edited by Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden (Faber, £50)

With this volume of Eliot’s letters we come closer than ever before to the personal tragedy that for many, blighted his reputation not as a poet, but certainly as a husband and as a man. This is the year he made the final break with his wife, Vivien: in five years’ time, she would be committed to an insane asylum which she would never leave.

Some recent biographers have judged Eliot harshly over his treatment of his wife, calling him a ‘deserter’ who ‘abandoned’ a desperately ill woman, and some, like Carole Seymour-Jones, have blamed Eliot’s repressed ways for Vivien’s mental breakdowns, never mind his casting her aside. He never visited her during the years she was sectioned, despite her pleas to him not to forget her.

In such a desperately sad story, sides are often taken, and it’s understandable that Eliot’s second wife, Valerie, should have been keen to set the record straight about her husband before she died in 2012. The volumes previous to this one show a horrifying build-up to this main event: the early years of their marriage are dominated by the joint illnesses both constantly experience from one day to the next, and which only clear up for Eliot when he starts to spend more time out of the house in his day job at the bank, and then subsequently at the Faber offices. At this point his life becomes almost schizophrenic in its demarcations of public versus private: the letters that fly from his Faber office gently turn down some aspiring writers and encourage others, sympathise with the problems James Joyce is suffering, or exchange witticisms with Ezra Pound.

Meanwhile, his personal life is imploding. For the sake of his sanity, Eliot leaves this year for an extended stay in America, teaching at Harvard. He describes this experience as “the happiest I can ever remember in my life.” For Vivien, it’s a disaster. The break gives Eliot the chance to live apart from her for good. Nothing will make him return to her, and he struggles even to think of what will become of her: “When I can avoid it, I don’t think about these matters. I have to work out a new way of life: even when the change is a blessed relief, it is difficult to start life afresh…I cannot think at all what is to become of her, and I have to force myself to consider that that is not my business any more.” He informs her, through his solicitor, of his intentions.

We also see, though, that Eliot is “anxious” Vivien should not “lose any friends through my action”. Friends like Lady Ottoline Morrell did encourage others to visit Vivien, but one of them, the novelist Elizabeth Bowen, found the atmosphere of the Eliots’ flat “exceedingly sinister and depressing…poor little Vivien’s wild eyes!” Virginia Woolf, a witness to many scenes, said, "she as wild as Ophelia – alas no Hamlet would love her.” Vivien herself records how Eliot’s going to America had her “practically in a state of collapse”. When his solicitor tells her the marriage is over, she refuses to accept it: “All I want is my own husband & to be able to look after him and take care of him again.” She believes she is the victim of a “wicked plot” and lives “now in a state of siege.”

Eliot has been called cruel for informing Vivien of the end of the marriage via a solicitor. But he was aware of his own inadequacies, and the limits he had reached. In one letter to a friend, he acknowledges that “few of us are prepared to cope with mental illness”, and there is no doubt few of his friends could either. There is a huge sense of self-preservation throughout this volume, that it was either Eliot or Vivien who would buckle and sink. In the end, it was the famous poet and editor, the man with the important public role, who floated to the top, leaving the woman who had nothing, to flounder and drown. Yet as judgemental as that sounds of Eliot’s final actions here, it is also hard to see what else he could have done. He continued to pay for Vivien’s upkeep and never divorced her. The conscience is a complex thing, as these letters sadly emphasise over and over again.