THIS IS big book. In fact, taken with its first volume, Robert Crawford could be said to have produced the definitive biography of TS Eliot.
And it’s one that’s sorely needed. If there’s one literary figure of the 20th century in need of some re-evaluation then it’s surely Eliot. From the cliché of the Brylcreemed, pin-striped and bowler-hatted trying-so-very-hard-to-be-an-English-gent photographs and the humourlessly ardent Anglicism.
And then there’s the disastrous marriage to Vivien Haigh-Wood that after his death has led to Eliot being cast as hate figure of the literary patriarchy — and immortalised in Michael Hastings’ rather one-sided play Tom and Viv, as well as the subsequent cinema adaptation.
But there’s obviously a lot more to Eliot than that and Crawford has very been very successful in redressing that balance.
Not that this is any sense a hatchet job of Vivien or a hagiography of Eliot. Crawford has been assiduously, even forensically, fair in his treatment of, I think, all the major players in this story and has been just as critical of both Eliot and Haigh-Wood as is demanded. Certainly, Vivien no longer emerges the cartoonish feminist martyr she has sometimes been portrayed and Eliot is no longer the heartless Prufrockian figure he often appears but Crawford certainly doesn’t shy away from engaging with Eliot’s anti-Semitism and his occasional sexism and nor does he try to wave it away as the ‘product of a different age’. Rather, we’re presented with two very complex, and actually pretty damaged, individuals who should really never have been married to each other in the first place.
Similarly, Crawford manages to get past Eliot’s monolithic Great Man of Letters reputation and present a vivid and often rather ordinary life that just happened to be punctuated by moments of great import for 20th century letters.
Something that was surprising was, in fact, this focus on Eliot the man rather than Eliot the poet. Given Crawford’s own career as a literary academic, not to mention a poet of some note, I would have expected, and probably liked, a little more critical analysis of Eliot’s work.
But on reflection, I think Crawford has made the right decision in focusing on the more human aspects of Eliot’s life (there is, after all, no shortage of critical study on Eliot.
What we do have is an evocative portrayal not just of a life but of a period in history and Crawford provides us with a highly readable account and analysis of a man who lived not only a rather dull, sedentary and emotionally stunted life compared to some of his contemporaries but who also produced some of the most important, and influential, poetry and criticism of the 20th century. I came away from reading this with some serious misconceptions around Eliot blown away and while I’m not sure I could say I like him as a human being any better, I’ve been given a greater sense of his life and psychology in its entirety and that is surely the mark of a great biography.