Remembering the Poet’s Wife

Irina Echarry

Vivien Haigh-Wood and T.S. Elliot

Impressed by the “The Wasteland,” I scoured through the old books of vendors looking for something more from that poet, who had expanded my pleasure for verses.

That was how I found, an interesting volume on the life and work of T. S. Eliot, which I devoured with the passion of the 22-year-old I was at the time. From it I learned many things about the poet.

Back then I liked reading biographies and the correspondence of interesting people as I was trying to discover the humanity that was sometimes lacking or overflowing in the poems and narrations of famous writers.

What I wanted was in this book: anecdotes about the life of Eliot, literary references and deeper insights into his religious ideas. It also talked about his relationship with his wife Vivien, who suffered menstrual dysfunctions due to some hormonal imbalance.

What disconcerted me greatly back then — in addition to learning about her suffering abundant menstrual flows — were my own monthly odysseys of finding sanitary pads in the 1990s. That situation was enough to depress anyone. Once while I was walking from house to house investigating who might be selling cotton or homemade dressings made of pieces of sterilized cloth, the suffering of Vivien came to my mind.

The young woman spent most of the time bleeding, as her happiness gradually drowned in an ocean of red anguish tinged by the alternation of euphoria and constant weakening. Of course, her mind couldn’t be in peace because her body wasn’t.

Confronted by that situation, kind-hearted Eliot had no other remedy than to institutionalize his wife (the person who had been at his side when he wrote “The Wasteland” and who, according to him, gave it that title). She was placed in an asylum for the mental ill.

Years have passed and now my problem of acquiring sanitary pads is different, though no less depressing. There aren’t enough of the ones that can be bought with one’s ration card at deeply discounted prices in the pharmacy; plus their quality is terrible.

What I have to do is hit all the stores that sell in hard currency, though even in these places there often aren’t any pads (especially the cheapest ones), and when the can be found the prices are appalling. Right now a pack of eight or ten pads costs 1.30 CUC (about $1.50 USD), while smaller packs of only four pads (supposedly for nights) go for 1 CUC. In either case, these are sums that not everyone can afford to pay every month.

For women, this is a product of the utmost necessity – both physically and emotionally. When these can’t be found or afforded, despair invades our beings, as we’re still supposed to go to work, or school or to have a good time.

That despair makes me think back to the poet’s wife and her irregular menstruations, her emotional changes, the mental hospital where she died alone and misunderstood by her family, society and especially by T.S. Eliot – that sensitive author of the poem “Ash Wednesday.”

2 thoughts on “Remembering the Poet’s Wife

  • It’s a terrible thing to observe that the spouse of the poet has been somewhat erroneously named. The lady sitting alongside late Mr. Eliot isn’t actually late Mrs. Vivienne Eliot, but, on the contrary, late Mrs. Valerie Eliot. If one’s very fond of reminiscing something from someone’s personal accounts, he ought to be well equipped with the details thereof, which hasn’t been taken care of, here.

  • Poor Vivien Haigh-Wood. I think Marilyn Monroe also had the same problem. I can certainly relate to their suffering, as I had intense pain and copious bleeding during menstruation. Monthly doses of Lupron Depot induced temporary menopause for four months, and after, no pain and normal blood flow. My hormones were “reset.”

    How women in Cuba are expected to go to work or school without anything to catch the blood is beyond me. I wondered about this when I visited Cuba in 1998.

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