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End of a dry season

Philip Hensher describes some dramatic changes in T.S. Eliot’s life,  with the collapse of his first marriage, his reception into the Anglican church and the birth of a new poetry

30 June 2012

6:00 AM

30 June 2012

6:00 AM

The Letters of T.S. Eliot, Volume 3, 1926-7 edited by Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden

Faber, pp.953, 40

The Letters of T.S.Eliot is a project which already seems to belong to another world, of leisure and detailed scholarship. It was conceived of decades ago, and the first volume, under the editorship of Eliot’s widow Valerie, came out in 1988. A second volume, with the support of the excellent John Haffenden, emerged 21 years later; this third takes us only up to 1927, with a good 40 years of a busy professional life to follow. There may be a dozen volumes to go, and the undertaking in the end will rival the great Pilgrim edition of Dickens’s letters in scale.

The editing of the Eliot letters is exemplary in its detail, authority and quality of annotation. It is the closest thing to a perfect edition of a great writer’s correspondence that can be imagined. There are few collected literary correspondences of this quality now emerging in English. CUP’s Beckett letters labour under such impossible conditions imposed by the author that sooner or later they will have to be done again. Eliot’s letters, it is interesting to note, are not edited by practising academics.

John Haffenden is now retired from his professorship, with no need to show a record of publication, and for Valerie Eliot it is clearly a labour of duty.

Although there are some major projects emerging from the academy, such as Darwin’s correspondence, institutional pressures on academics to publish regularly are going to work against such longterm projects. (‘How’s it going?’ ‘Oh, well, I’m hoping to bring out the second volume in 20 years’ time.’) In future, the correspondence and private papers of major writers will be placed in the hands of relicts and the eminent retired. This sometimes yields excellent results — as with Eliot — but sometimes disastrous ones, as in the case of Penelope Fitzgerald.

The two years covered by this volume, 1926 and 1927, are ones of dramatic transition in Eliot’s life and practice. His poetry had reached a dead end in 1925 with the nihilistic whisperings of The Hollow Men; by the end of this volume, he has clearly begun a new poetic manner, with the beautiful and expansive Ariel poems, starting with ‘Journey of the Magi’. It is this second manner which culminates in his greatest poetic work, Four Quartets. In this period, too, he becomes a British citizen; in perhaps a more fundamental change, he was received into the Anglican church.

It is possible to see, too, in this volume, a transition in Eliot’s marriage to Vivien Haigh-Wood. The nature of the marriage has been much sensationalised by later commentators and imaginative reconstructors. Clearly, she was mentally very


unstable and constantly ill over an extended period.  Their marriage had long become impossible. In this volume, one can trace a change: at the beginning, Eliot is clearly anguished by her condition and concerned to find the best possible life for her. By the end, with her securely in a sanatorium, she may not have faded from his mind, but she has somewhat receded from his correspondence. He was always concerned to do his duty by her, and there is no reason to think that he fell short — just that as her future became clear, fewer people needed to be consulted or involved.

It is not possible to trace the whole story, because none of Eliot’s letters to Vivien survives from this period. Perhaps they disappeared with all her other things; but it is certain that Eliot would not have wanted them, or any of his other letters, to be read by strangers. Writing to his mother, he says:

About my letters. For heaven’s sake don’t send them to me. What I suggest, even beg, is that you keep all or any that you want to keep, but leave instructions that they be destroyed after your death. I do not want my biography, if it is ever written — and I hope it won’t be — to have anything private in it. I don’t like reading other people’s private correspondence in print, and I do not want other people to read mine.

Manifestly, he failed in his ambition when it came to letters to his mother. If Vivien kept his letters and they were returned to him, he would certainly have destroyed them. It would be good to be told what their fate was.

The editors tactfully include a number of letters from other sources, including Vivien. Eliot’s letters are overwhelmingly dignified, elegant and restrained; when a letter from Vivien interrupts, it is torrential and slightly hysterical. To her lover Bertrand Russell she writes:

Since getting back to England I have not had the courage to come to your house & to give [the jewellery] to you. Which is what I ought to do. So now I am asking Tom to hand you the packet, & as it is nothing to do with him. I hope you will not speak of it together, it wd be very painful to him. I am not showing this letter to him, or anyone. I shall not ask you to forgive me because you cannot.

What was wrong with her? We only have here an absurd amateur diagnosis by Eliot’s brother Henry that ‘the individual is swayed to and fro by two sets of impulses, one set of which may be called robust and healthy, the other set morbid and diseased.’ The reader now can only say that she sounds very ill, and that as a couple they were clearly totally unsuited to each other.

By contrast to Vivien’s, the great mass of Eliot’s letters here are concerned with his editorial duties at the New Criterion, the small-circulation quarterly, then monthly literary magazine. They show him as graceful in expression, tactful in approach, good-mannered and conciliatory. He corresponds with, and extracts contributions from, many of his great contemporaries, from E.R.Curtius to Wyndham Lewis. He manages to keep on good terms both with Arnold Bennett and Virginia Woolf; he attempts to dissuade Robert Graves from publishing an intemperate letter about a fair but critical review of his work.

Only with a couple of people does his tone grow sharp; after taking some trouble with Laura Riding, he loses patience and asks his secretary to send Harold Monro a ‘typical specimen of her manner of correspondence’. A New York chancer who printed The Hollow Men without permission is roundly chastised. And Bertrand Russell is told, of one of his atheistic pamphlets, that it ‘seems a piece of childish folly…why don’t you stick to mathematics?’

But for the most part, what we have here is the polite and engaged correspondence of a highly intelligent literary man, full of encouragement for talent on the way up. In this volume, for instance, is to be found a supportive letter to the 20-year-old W.H.Auden, and plenty of other expressions of interest to writers who did not come to anything much in the end.

We hardly ever see a complete dismissal of an author — submissions which patently didn’t make the grade at the Criterion were given the brush-off by Eliot’s secretary.

The professional letters greatly out-number the personal. There are some jocular ones to his friend Bonamy Dobree. Eliot was a heavy sort of humorist — I admit to being fairly immune to the charms of Old Possum — and these letters must have entertained their recipient much more than they amuse us:

I want to question you about (1) the Native Cat (2) the Edible Dog (3) Rudyard Kipling (4) the Tapir (5) Congreve (6) the removal of the Crocodile (George) in the zoo to new quarters in a coffin specially constructed; and to inform you of new discoveries in Bolivian theology.

Most of the rest of it amounts to detailed, serious letters on publishing business, with only the very occasional move into personal areas, or, indeed, into pronouncements of literary principle.

The portrait that emerg
es is very sympathetic, and comically remote from the self-portrait as ‘irascible’ that he gives his cousin Marguerite Caetani. It is formal, public, kind and dignified. The editing, annotation and production is of an extraordinarily high standard. I have only one suggestion: that Eliot’s secretary and constant support, Pearl Fassett, perhaps deserved a paragraph of biography among his correspondents.


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