Eliot - A War-Time Encounter

How Patterns of Marriage originated in a cabmen's café at Camberwell Green

by Moya Woodside

It was in July, 1943, the fourth year of the war, that I first met Eliot. At that time, the peripatetic students of the evacuated London School of Economics Mental Health Course had returned to Cambridge for final revision and exams. Nine months previously, after our introductory lectures, we had set out from Cambridge encumbered by bicycles, typewriters, suitcases, torches, ration books and identity cards, to do our clinical psychiatry at Mill Hill Hospital, our child guidance and mental deficiency at Oxford with fire‑watching included, then back to Cambridge when uncertainties about future employment began to loom large on the horizon.

One day, our senior tutor announced that 'a doctor at Maudsley' proposed to make a study of marriage and neurosis, and was look­ing for a psychiatric social worker to undertake the interviewing. Was anyone interested? Another student and myself said we would like to hear more about the project; and in due course, separate appointments in London were arranged.

    When I arrived at the Maudsley Hospital with my introduction to 'Dr Slater', a tall, benevolent‑looking gentleman appeared, spoke to me kindly, and suggested that instead of having lunch in the hospital cafeteria, we would go elsewhere. So we walked down to Camberwell Green, went into what appeared to be a sort of cabmen's shelter and there, over wartime stew and mash, followed by cups of ersatz coffee, Eliot expounded his ideas and aims for the study. I cannot now remember how our discussion went, but evidently my interest and enthusiasm must have outweighed my total lack of experience, since Eliot thereupon offered me the job, subject to success in the forthcoming Mental Health Certificate examination.

    Little did I realize then what I was letting myself in for. Two hundred married soldiers from two different military hospitals in Surrey to be selected, interviewed and, more difficult, persuaded to let me interview their wives as well; a 48‑item 'personality test' to be administered to both spouses. Owing to wartime industrial con­scription, all childless wives were working so they had to be visited in the evening. This often involved me in journeys to remote and unknown suburbs of London in the black‑out, sometimes with air­raid warnings in progress. When the flying‑bomb attacks on London were at their height, interviewing of wives had to be suspen­ded. Eliot then arranged for me to have a reader's ticket at the British Museum Library where, for a month or so, I perused the relevant literature on marriage, sex, neurosis and so on, under the disapproving surveillance of the librarian.

    During the 3 ½ years of fieldwork for the project, Eliot and I met regularly, often weekly, at Sutton Emergency Medical Service Hospital to go through the latest batch of interview reports and dis­cuss any ideas or problems which came up. What I learnt and absorbed from these meetings proved an unsurpassable training for research: attitudes, methods and techniques, separation of fact from comment, avoidance of unsubstantiated statements, and always the emphasis on clear thinking and economy of expression, attributes which permeate all Eliot's work. Even when our formal partnership came to an end and I took up another appointment in America we remained in touch, shuttling chapters of our joint book (Patterns of Marriage) to each other across the Atlantic for comment and approval.

    After my return to London some years later, Eliot was, as always, ready to encourage and advise me about any project I undertook. His guidance on the drafting and lay‑out of proposed papers was particularly valuable. Surveys of such diverse groups as attempted suicides arriving at Guy's Hospital, women abortionists in Holloway Prison, and offenders on psychiatric probation in Edinburgh, all benefited from his objective criticism. Looking back over the years, I can truthfully say that the experience of working with Eliot imbued me with an irresistible commitment to research, and laid the foundation for a research career which has brought lasting professional satisfaction.