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Posts tagged Vivienne Eliot

The Mad Wives of Modernism

The following is a submission from Molly Parent, who, in light of Kate Zambreno’s recently published study Heroines, considers the special cases of two writers no one reads: Vivienne Eliot and Zelda Fitzgerald. (Ed.)

* * *

Kate Zambreno’s Heroines—a thoughtful, confessional, research-rich book recently published by Semiotext(e)—focuses on the mythology and the actualities of a particular camp of writers no one reads: the mad wives of modernism.

While some of these women, including Jane Bowles, Jean Rhys, and Djuna Barnes, had brilliant but often under-acknowledged literary careers, the words of many of their contemporaries never made it onto—or, considering their perpetual role as characters in others’ fictions, off of—the page.

Tom and Vivienne Eliot

One such woman is Vivien(ne) Eliot, wife of T.S, who preferred to drop the last two letters from her name, the most transparent pseudonymous identity of a handful she used throughout her life. A pal of the Bloomsbury group (in a sense: Virginia Woolf once described her as “the bag of ferrets Tom wears around his neck”), Vivienne was assumed not to have much literary talent of her own. She frequently wrote semi-autobiographical short stories, an activity condescendingly prescribed as an exercise to soothe her “nerves”. Zambreno writes: “Eliot praised her mind as being ‘not at all a feminine one,’ which reveals only Eliot’s bias, not any truth regarding her prose style, or even regarding his.” 

Still, Vivienne’s mind was capable of co-editing The Criterion, the Eliots’ quarterly literary magazine. Writing under a pen name, many of her contributions were based on Bloomsbury gossip; Zambreno describes her as “the bored yet alienated female Prufrockian narrator who listens in and cattily, wittily exhumes.”  (One of many in a line of literary gossips, of course. “Or,” as Elizabeth Hardwick said, “as we gossips like to call it, character analysis.”) This was not always well received, and eventually Tom gave in to the complaints of his social circle and shut down the publication. It reappeared a year later as The New Criterion. Vivienne was banned from contributing.

Soon after, the Eliots’ marriage began unraveling, along with Vivienne’s mental health, though this tumultuous time coincided with a feverish period of literary activity on her part. Ultimately, Tom arranged for a formal separation—so formal, in fact, that he instructed his friends and business partners to cut off contact with his estranged wife and to not tell her where he was, a move that baffled and further unhinged her.

Vivienne’s life from that point on was marked by desperation, ill health and psychiatric wards. Despite this, she still produced a prolific amount of journaling, which she at least saw as valuable: “You who in my later years will read these very words of mine,” she wrote in a diary entry in 1934, “and will be able to trace a true history of this epoch, by my Diaries and Papers.” Their value did not go unnoticed by certain interested parties; Vivienne’s diaries and papers cannot be accessed without permission of the estate of Eliot’s second (recently deceased) wife Valerie. Should one wish to read Vivienne’s writing without navigating such litigious waters, her most concise and heartbreaking prose may be found in an advertisement she tried to place in the paper after Tom’s departure. It reads: 

Will T.S Eliot please return to his home, 68 Clarence Gate Gardens, which he abandoned Sept. 17th, 1932. 

Zelda Fitzgerald, self-portrait

A few years later, a more famous literary wife would experience a similar litany of institutionalization and silencing despite a more focused literary ambition. Zelda Fitzgerald, remembered mostly as an emblem of the flapper lifestyle and as Scott’s less stable half, wrote the entirety of her one novel, Save Me The Waltz, in a six-month stay at the Phipps Psychiatric Clinic in Baltimore (one of multiple institutions to which she was committed throughout her life). The novel drew heavily on autobiography, which posed a problem for Scott, who tended to use facts about Zelda to color the novels that had made him quite famous—and it happened to share some such content with a draft he had been agonizing over for the last seven years. Luckily for him, editors took the side of the literary heavyweight and not the notorious nut job. Save Me The Waltz, with much of it slashed out by Scott’s pen, was eventually published to “meh” reviews. Tender is the Night, the seven-year masterpiece, fared much better. 

Undeterred, Zelda had designs for a second novel, which Scott, with the help of doctors (enlisted by him) and editors (his), firmly and rather brutally talked her out of pursuing. In Heroines, Zambreno quotes the transcripts of one such “psychiatric evaluation”: 

The doctor tells Zelda that if she could not write “masterpieces” like her husband, then her “ambitions” would only further “depress” her. “I will always be unhappy then,” she said. “I was a good deal more unhappy when I did not want to write.” She finally agrees to what the doctor prescribes… she is forbidden from writing fiction that draws on a shared biography (in other words, her own life.) 

As such, should one wish to read Zelda, one of the truest ways to do so may be to read Scott, whose writing often lifted entire phrases from her letters or speech. The most famous and eerily aware of these is Zelda’s exclamation at the birth of their daughter, which became one of the most recognizable of Daisy’s lines in Gatsby: “Isn’t she smart—she has the hiccups,” Zelda said upon seeing her child, having stated moments before that she herself was drunk for the occasion. “I hope it’s beautiful and a fool—a beautiful little fool.” And so Zelda the myth lives in fiction, Scott the myth lives as its author.

Zelda died in a fire in the hospital where she was finally institutionalized for schizophrenia. An incorrect date was printed on her tombstone, and her husband’s words placed literally atop her grave.

Zelda's grave

Despite the tragedy and justified anger in which Heroines is steeped, it ends with something like hope regarding the idea of being read. After all, the book is a chronicle of Zambreno’s obsession with reading these unread or unreadable women, an exorcism of their ghosts that produced the thing they longed for: their words, their truths, in print. And, Zambreno argues, today the internet provides a forum for questioning the cannon and a community that informs, supports and reads each other, one that may have aided Vivienne and Zelda had they been granted access. In a poignant shift in the book’s last twenty pages, Zambreno suddenly turns her narrative towards a you – triumphantly, a reader, and if you take up her charge, a writer, a decider of the mythology. The question, as she puts it: “Who gets to be remembered and who does not?”