In her essay ‘A House of One’s Own’, about Vanessa Bell, Janet Malcolm says memorably that Bloomsbury is a fiction, and that compared with letters and first-hand material, biography is like canned vegetables compared with fresh fruit.
We read the letters of writers because they are informal, unguarded, unbuttoned, intimate and candid, revealing not only the secrets of composition but, we hope, glimpses of the writer in the flesh, with his trousers down. This is T.S. Eliot, on 26 December 1941, thanking the editor and critic John Hayward for a gift of toilet paper:
“BROMO is, as you know, and as the manufacturers state, so well known that lengthy description is not necessary... I shall try to be frugal, if not parcimonious [sic], in using what you have so generously provided: and on each occasion, will bless your name.
John Haffenden’s typically assiduous editorial note informs us:
“Bromo Toilet Paper was manufactured by the Diamond Mills Paper Company, New York. JDH [Hayward] responded, 30 Dec.: I am pleased you like the now very precious torche-cul. The sergeant, x in the old tale, advised the economically-minded Quartermaster that the men were ordered to limit their requirements to three sheets: 1 UP – 1 DOWN – 1 BURNISHER.
Throughout this volume, Eliot encourages Hayward to garner the unconsidered trifles that make up the texture of life: ‘I am happy to think that the Recherche du temps perdu is stirring in your mind.’ The analogy with Proust’s omnium gatherum needs no explanation, though the project was inevitably never completed. These letters give us the idea in practice: ‘I can’t remember whether I reported our Air Raid (with the story of the Old Lady who lost her knickers)...’ We learn about Eliot’s ‘emerods’ and the consequences of a plumbing failure:
“Then there is the horror of having nowhere to rear. If I waited till I got to the club at lunchtime, I would find, after worrying the other way all the morning, that I had become constipated with nerves; and I dared not take a purge at night, for fear it would operate too early.
Eliot has his teeth extracted and dental plates made (55 guineas):
“I have had most of my teeth out — did you know that? — nursing home in London this summer, epivan — and am still being fitted for my new ones, they make me speak like Mr Churchill, but the dentist says I will overcome that.
The Gestalt of wartime Britain is captured in a series of accidental accuracies: butter becomes a valued Christmas present; razor blades have to be resharpened by dubious rival methods; batteries are scarce (‘Every time my battery runs out I have to buy a bigger torch in order to have a battery’). There are air-raid shelters: ‘A sinister chemical closet broods in a corner,’ Hayward reports. There are air-raid drills:
“We were marshalled by Major Lee, the elderly and infirm, but still as active-as-a-cricket ARP Warden of this part of Sou Ken. He was clad in a monocle and a brown boiler suit. The monocle he presently removed and handed to a lady in the crowd to hold during the demonstration. He was assisted by another elderly gent in a monocle and a blue boiler suit, whose name, as far as I can make out, is Major Repington.
We hear that Montgomery Belgion, a regular contributor to the Criterion, is a POW in
“Oflag VI B and he asks me to notify you [Hayward] and his other cronies. He has not yet received the books I sent him, but has been reading Hoskyns’s Fourth Gospel and Temple’s Gifford Lectures: the Oflag had a library of 3,000 volumes. He has gained 4 kilos, but does not say what he weighed before.
A surprise comparable to Eliot’s worries about his wardrobe: ‘I never dress now when I can help it: I have a vision of coming back to my house to find it bombed and me with nothing to wear except evening clothes.’
One of the most touching accidentals, which would never find its way into a biography, is the autistic son of F.V. Morley, a fellow Faber director: Michael Tippett, recommended by Auden, was brought in to help, and recorded in his memoirs: ‘Oliver, then about six, while musically very talented was almost inarticulate verbally. He confined himself to a few remarks like “that dog barks in B flat”.’
Of course, there are important literary matters in these letters. The Family Reunion falls flat. Eliot is jaundiced about the more successful Murder in the Cathedral: ‘But I have to have a few drinks before I can listen to that stuff now: and except perhaps in one or two spots I don’t think it’s very brilliant as poetry.’ The composition of Four Quartets is meticulously recorded, but we are already familiar with this material from Helen Gardner’s study (but not Eliot’s irreverent nicknames, ‘Sandwiches’ for ‘The Dry Salvages’ and ‘Spittle-Skidding’ for ‘Little Gidding’).
There are one or two off-colour remarks (to be expected for the period): worthy BBC talks to India and the Commonwealth are ‘blackchat’. Eliot’s friend Richard Jennings has ‘an odious Negro servant’ who is referred to as ‘the coon’ and ‘the darky’. There are also tracts of theology, patiently annotated, but about as invigorating as two inches of cold bathwater. And there is some iron-clad whimsy in the Hayward exchanges, as entertaining and distant as the chortle of Victorian plumbing.
But what is that beside this priceless observation, on a visit to the Duke of Northumberland: ‘A framed Christmas Card with robin redbreasts “from the King and Queen”.’ Or this naked confession:
“I doubt the permanent value of everything I have written; I never lay with a woman I liked, loved or even felt any strong physical attraction to; I no longer regret this lack of experience; I no longer feel acutely the desire for progeny which was very acute once; and since I became a Christian I feel that the only difficulty I should have in a monastic life...would be the deprivation of French tobacco.