TS Eliot died on January 4 1965, aged 76. He had been married for just eight years to Valerie Fletcher, his adored and devoted second wife, 38 years his junior.
Since Eliot’s death, his widow has managed her husband’s literary estate with love, loyalty and some unfortunate consequences. Determined to edit his legacy herself, a task beyond any one person’s abilities, perhaps also sometimes attempting to manage his reputation, Valerie Eliot has inadvertently prevented much of his work having the currency it should have had for more than half a century. In 1971, she published her excellent facsimile edition of the drafts of “The Waste Land”; in 1978, she authorised Helen Gardner’s study, the Composition of the Four Quartets. Eliot’s unpublished Clark lectures appeared in 1992, and the early note-book poems in 1996.
But after her first volume of Eliot’s letters, which covered the years 1898-1922, was published in 1988, nothing more appeared for 21 years, although she continued to work on the letters and add to her collection of them. Only quite recently, after Valerie Eliot resigned absolute control due to ill health, have matters begun to progress. A full scholarly edition of all Eliot’s prose in multiple volumes is being prepared by Ronald Schuchard, while Jim McCue and Christopher Ricks have in hand an equivalent edition of his poetry.
And three years ago, the first two volumes of a projected ten or so of his complete correspondence appeared, beginning with a new expanded edition of the 1898-1922 book and at last a second volume, edited by Hugh Haughton with Valerie Eliot, covering 1923-1925. Now here’s the third instalment, edited this time by the highly respected William Empson expert John Haffenden. It’s a massive work of scholarship, and claims to be a comprehensive gathering of Eliot’s correspondence from the period, including all of the major letters and covering every aspect of his life and work, friendships and contacts. Haffenden, a wholly trustworthy editor, apparently forgets to explain why, nonetheless, there are still some major gaps.
For example, although they were still married and sometimes living apart, there is not one letter here from Eliot to his first wife, Vivienne – all presumably lost now, if ever written. Emily Hale, supposed by some biographers to be the key to Eliot’s emotional life at this time, and known to have written to him in May 1927, appears only in one glancing footnote. It could usefully have been stated that his letters to her are sealed at Harvard until October 2019. There is, moreover, another editorial problem here in the sheer quantity of routine administrative correspondence by Eliot included. Although these missives show Eliot’s great diligence and decency in his official capacities, and how he ran his literary life, their bulk makes it hard for the non-specialist to find the more vital letters. In these years, in his late thirties, Eliot was editing the Criterion: A literary Review, which switched from being a quarterly to a monthly. “Getting out a number every month is a bloody sweat,” he tells Conrad Aiken. He writes repeatedly soliciting contributions from some writers and courteously declining offerings from others. Almost always he concludes even rejections by offering encouragement, saying he will “look forward with particular interest and great hope to the next piece of work that you think fit to show me”, or something similar.
At the same time, he was himself reviewing and lecturing extensively, while the poetry he published in this period includes “Journey of the Magi”, the fragments of “Sweeney Agonistes”, and sections of what was to become “Ash Wednesday”. He was changing. in June 1928 he was baptised and confirmed in the Church of England and in November he became a British citizen (“I don’t like being a squatter. I might as well take the full responsibility”).
Throughout this period, his wife Vivienne was sick, suffering from multiple ailments, subject to delusions, making suicide attempts, pleas and threats. Although she spent much time in a sanatorium in France, Eliot felt that he could never leave her alone. To his brother Henry, he writes in June 1926: “Her beliefs in persecution are unshaken, and she still hears voices. But she has not made any attempt on her life for over a fortnight.”
He compares his life to “a bad Russian novel”. In a long letter, Henry offers his own analysis of her behaviour (“the perversities of a spoiled child”) and the way Eliot “allowed her to exploit his own habit of polite and interested solicitude”. Haffenden includes enough of Vivienne’s own letters to inform and appal. In one, she tells Eliot that he is pushing her into the hands of his masseur: “the net is being drawn bit by bit, so stealthily, so cunningly round me, You, with your head in the air, in your splendid isolation are leaving your wife to be most vilely & cunningly ruined.” In another, to John Middleton Murry, she talks not only of not understanding her husband but fearing him and thinking he is mad: “Sometimes that he is mad or else that he is most frightfully & subtly wicked and dangerous. that he is a terrible menace.”
For his part, Eliot rarely discloses himself, avoiding discussion of his own poetry, although he does issue plenty of those literary obiter dicta which Murry noted slipped too easily from his pen, so tempting to quote. Only a few correspondents elicit true directness. To Geoffrey Faber, he declares that “one’s relations to one’s friends and lovers, apart from the love of God, always, in my experience, turn out a delusion and cheat. Either they let you down, or you let them down, or both; but no human relation is in itself satisfactory”. To his mother, he writes the most moving letter. “I imagine that many people who think they will meet again in a future life never meet at all; because I believe that these things will be regulated not by what we consciously think but by our real affinities. Many people believe they love each other, and understand each other, who are in reality utterly isolated from each other. But I believe that you and I understand each other and are like each other perhaps more than we know, and that we shall surely meet.”
The publication of these letters, so long overdue, is a major literary event. We do not yet know Eliot, the greatest poet of his time, enough. It is frustrating that we are still waiting for so much of the journalism he mentions here to be republished – but this is one of the truly essential books of the year.
The Letters of TS Eliot: Volume 3: 1926-1927
Edited by Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden
Faber, 992pp, £40
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