Obituary: Valerie Eliot, publisher

Valerie Eliot
Valerie Eliot
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Born: 17 August, 1926, in Leeds. Died: 9 November, 2012, in London, aged 86

Valerie Eliot married the poet and playwright TS Eliot in 1957 when he was 39 years her senior. After a stormy and unhappy first marriage the poet’s self-esteem was at a low ebb and Valerie provided much domestic and social reassurance. Biographies of Eliot have often mentioned that Valerie had a rejuvenating effect on him and their time together gave Eliot some of the happiest years of his life (he called it “leaping delight”). His health declined and his death in 1965 was a bitter blow for Valerie. She became an assiduous protector of her husband’s reputation and writings, carefully editing many of his most famous works such as The Waste Land (with an authoritative introduction by Valerie), The Letters of T S Eliot, Volume I: 1898-1922 and Volume II: 1923-1925.

Valerie Eliot (born Esmé Valerie Fletcher) was the daughter of a Leeds insurance manager, whose great love of literature and poetry she inherited. When she was 14 she heard a recording of John Gielgud reading Eliot’s poem, Journey of the Magi, and was immediately entranced by his writing. When she left school she went to work at Faber and Faber, where Eliot worked.

In 1949 – shortly after Eliot had received the Nobel Prize for Literature – Valerie became his secretary. It was also the year Eliot’s play The Cocktail Party was given its world premiere at the Edinburgh Festival (with Alec Guinness). He was 60 and their relationship remained very formal and proper. He always referred to her as “Miss Fletcher” and he was “Mr Eliot”.

But gradually he found the courage to suggest a drink in the nearby Russell Hotel on a Friday night – eventually he gave her a bunch of roses. Rosemary Goad, then in the typing pool of Fabers and later a director, has recalled: “None of us suspected any romance. It was so unlikely, it never occurred to us.”

They got married in 1957 and the nuptials were conducted in utmost secrecy – Eliot had a lifelong horror of publicity. The ceremony was at 8am and after a very brief wedding breakfast for Valerie’s parents the couple left for the south of France.

Their years together were all too brief but Valerie settled the poet into a relaxed lifestyle and he wrote in a late poem (A Dedication to My Wife) of “lovers whose bodies smell of each other”.

They lived a simple, uncomplicated life in South Kensington, occasionally attending, hand-in-hand, literary functions, with Valerie politely fending off unwelcome attention. At home in the evenings they played Scrabble and read aloud to each other.

He died in 1965 and, as well as her profound sense of grief, she was left to administer his complex, but hugely valuable, literary estate. As well as the administration of numerous copyrights around the world, and constant literary requests, there was the involved question of his last wishes.

He had insisted there be no official biography and Valerie stood by that request. She became known throughout publishing for her resolute opposition to co-operate with academics and authors who were researching Eliot’s works. In 1974, to widespread acclaim, she published a facsimile edition of The Waste Land, complete with a full-blown scholarly appendix.

The edition included a transcript of the original drafts by Eliot with annotations by Ezra Pound. Then came Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Suddenly Eliot’s writings were hot property. Valerie managed the contract for Cats with an unremitting shrewdness and undoubtedly made the Eliot estate immensely wealthy.

She was further recognised as an Eliot scholar when she published with Christopher Ricks a collection of unpublished verse in 1996, The Inventions of the March Hare and the volumes of letters in 2009 and 2012.

But she sternly fought to preserve her husband’s reputation. There was a play (Tom and Viv) about Eliot’s first unsuccessful marriage in the 1980s, which was made into a film in 1994 with William Defoe and Miranda Richardson. Both caused Valerie much distress as she felt they portrayed Eliot as “a mean old bastard”. With typical tenacity Valerie spoke out in support of Eliot and her unswerving support over the years has done much to enhance and build his considerable reputation.

She donated a £15,000 annual prize money to the Eliot College in Canterbury to support the TS Eliot Prize. Apart from the considerable funds from Eliot’s estate – especially the worldwide royalties from Cats – Valerie held a large portion of the equity of Faber and Faber.

As a charming footnote to her very personal programme notes for the original production of Cats (1981) in London Valerie wrote: “Whenever he was unwell or could not sleep, Tom would recite the verses under his breath.”