I’ve been reading Richard Aldington’s novella Stepping Heavenward (1931), a sixty-three page savaging of his former friend, T.S.Eliot. The attack is so brutal and so personal that I’m amazed it got past Chatto and Windus’s lawyers.
In the book, Eliot is caricatured as Jeremy Cibber, not a poet but a historian-come-saint; the representation would have been transparent to those in the know. Aldington quite mercilessly describes his protagonist’s career, from spoilt childhood in the Middle West, to an apotheosis as the law-giver of literary London. Eventually, he is beatified.
Aldington’s tone is mock-scholarly throughout, as he affects to offer a balanced view of Cibber’s career, endorsing neither the hagiographers for whom every action of thought of Cibber’s is the product of heavenly inspiration, nor the constipationists, who ascribe his entire career to the effects of bowel problems.
Cibber’s most notable characteristics are his emotional coldness and his taciturnity (He did not speak till the age of three, his published work is minimal and fragmentary, and his silences are awe-inspiring.). As a historian, he produces nothing original, but his brief and brilliant criticisms of critics of historians inspire respect and fear.
The most damaging part of the depiction is the story of Cibber’s marriage, to Adele Paleologue, a governess whom he meets in France:
Nevertheless, this marriage is one of the major mysteries of Cibber’s life. On Adele’s side we may perhaps explain it by pointing out that any sort of man and a shack are better than being a nursery governess. But how about Cibber? How explain this infatuation in so cool a fish?
In London during wartime, Cibber cannot support a wife on his minimalist writings, so takes a job in a haberdasher’s ‘where his courteous manners and distinguished appearance found full scope.’ This, of course, is a caricatured version of Eliot’s employment in Lloyd’s Bank, which some of his associates found so unfortunate that they tried to form a charitable league to release him from the job. Other incidents also refer directly to Eliot’s life, such as the time when he returned home from abroad with a (to Aldington) ludicrous Uncle Sam beard. This incident would be referred to again in Life for Life’s Sake, Aldington’s 1941 memoir, whose picture of Eliot is considerably less hostile.
Even more painful would be the unsympathetic description of the marriage, which drives Adele ‘into wild neuraesthenia’:
After all, it must be rather a shock to think you are marrying a nice young American and then to discover that you have bedded with an angel unawares.
Cibber’s behaviour to his wife is pictured as quite inhuman:
So many a time poor Adele gazed into the mirror, clutching her hair distractedly, and whispering: ‘I’m going mad, I’m going mad, I’m going mad.’ Cibber invariably stood up when she came into the room, and their quarrels were conducted on coldly intellectual lines.
Eliot’s drift into religion is brutally mocked. When Adele finally runs away from this frigid monster she begs for a divorce. This proves to be just the nudge that Cibber’s ‘great and wonderful mind’ needed to make him affirm his commitment to Catholicism, thus cruelly making divorce impossible.
Cibber’s rise to intellectual fame is explained by the fear he aroused in critics, and by his assiduous social networking. He is helped on his way by a fellow-American, Lucas Cholmp, who takes on the role of Cibber’s publicist, much as Pound did for Eliot. He hopes to use Cibber, while Cibber is cleverly using (and finally outgrowing) him.
The book is full of cruel wit (and more brilliantly written than most of Aldington’s other work that I have read) but it is a vicious piece of work. I’d be interested to know what contemporaries made of it, and whether they recognised its picture of Eliot. I’ll look up some reviews.
The roman à clef is an odd form, and usually seems to have more to do with the venting of private grievance than the production of a lasting piece of literature. I assume that Aldington wrote this one because he sided with Vivienne in the marriage. Eliot and Vivienne did not formally separate until 1932, the year after this book was published. It seems unlikely that the publication could have been a positive contribution towards their finding an amicable settlement.
Aldington’s old comrade-in-arms Wyndham Lewis was another writer who went in for the roman à clef, on a grander scale, and (in my view) wasted his time and talent in squashing literary nobodies in The Apes of God, whose comic invention is remarkable, but which gets simply tedious over hundreds of bilious pages. At least Aldington’s squib has the virtue of brevity.
I must admit that, for all its unfairness, I enjoyed Stepping Heavenward hugely, since it is written with great gusto and a fine turn of phrase. But unfair it is, as is shown by the recently published second volume of Eliot letters. Among all the business communications relating to the Criterion there is a thread of correspondence in which Eliot expresses his pain about what is happenning to Vivienne, and a desperation as doctors come up with increasingly ineffective and punishing treatments for her. These letters show him not as a frigid saint, but as a confused man, trying to do his best in an increasingly impossible situation. I don’t think he ever says a word against her, but works hard to try and get her writing noticed and appreciated.