Keepers of the flame

Ian Hamilton wonders whether we'll get a full examination of T S Eliot, the man and the work, as long as his widow controls his estate

Much of the talk surrounding the recent publication of Sylvia Plath's Journals has been to do with Ted Hughes's handling of her literary estate. Now that we have the full text of her secret diaries, it's possible for us to re-examine the incomplete text that appeared in 1982 - a version heavily censored by Hughes, Plath's widower and executor.

When the first version of Plath's Journals made its appearance in America, Hughes was criticised by Plath's admirers for stifling his dead wife's cries, and even for playing down his own role in her suicide. It was his infidelity, some said, that had driven her to gas herself in 1963. In the face of such attacks, Hughes for years maintained an almost complete silence, and this served to infuriate his critics further. It even, at times, troubled his defenders.

Now, however, with Hughes dead, it will be possible for biographers to get a clearer understanding of the Hughes/ Plath relationship. The in-full publication of Plath's Journals marks the beginning, one suspects, of a comprehensive un-veiling of the couple's secrets. What, if anything, was Hughes the executor so anxious to protect? Was he excessively vigilant? Should he from the start have been more welcoming to Plath's would-be life-writers?

In the case of Plath's estate, the issues were complicated by the fact that Hughes himself was a celebrated literary figure. He was, in his own right, the object of biographical curiosity. To tell about Plath's life was to tell about his own, and this he did not want to do. Was it indeed fair that he should be obliged to jettison a principled reticence simply because some part of his own biography had, for a time, intersected with that of another public figure? Fiercely mysterious by nature, Hughes, it seems, was not prepared to allow his own biography to become a mere offshoot of his wife's. Now that his own poetic reputation rivals that of Plath, and may even have surpassed it, I think we can expect his critics to fall silent for a while.

Even so, to some observers, Hughes will always be first and foremost the executor of Plath's estate - the executor who did her wrong. And accounts of the Plath/Hughes relationship will for ever need to touch on his function as the keeper of Plath's flame. This does not seem unfair. In life, Hughes's predicament was unenviable; now that he is dead, one has to hope that people will be more prepared to see things from his point of view. There were, as he was now and again ready to point out, several parties who needed to be shielded from Plath's sometimes venomous invective: not least her children and her mother. The mother is now dead and the children are presumably in charge of the estate. So, what next?

Whenever the topic of literary estates comes up for discussion, the habitual question is: but what would the dead person have wanted? In Plath's case, we will never know: she died intestate. But would it have made much difference if she had left a will? George Orwell and W H Auden left instructions that no biographies should be authorised, but in each case the directive has been circumvented. And Philip Larkin's last testament was so peculiarly worded that his executors felt free to guess at what he really wished. In the case of Hughes himself, it seems that his widow has set herself against a biography - at least for the time being. Who can blame her? Nowadays, Elizabeth Hardwick's description of biographers as "the quick in pursuit of the dead" seems horribly spot on: barely 24 hours separates the death of a writer from some speculative column-inch about the soon-to-be-commissioned Life. Small wonder that your average keeper is a cagey beast.

Some, though, are cagier than others. Perhaps the most impregnable estate today is that of T S Eliot. Eliot has been dead for more than 30 years, but still there is no sign of any authorised biography. There have been unauthorised Lives - and good ones, too - by Peter Ackroyd and Lyndall Gordon, but neither of these writers enjoyed much assistance from the Eliot Estate: that is to say, from Valerie Eliot, the poet's fiercely loyal widow. Valerie holds all the copyrights; if Eliot scholars want to print quotations from the poet's work, they have to go through her - and this, by all accounts, is not at all straightforward. If Valerie does not like a critic's line, she may well feel disinclined to grant permissions. In some cases, her refusal could scupper a scholar's entire project.

With Eliot, it is well known that there are no-go areas - or at any rate, areas where writers have to watch their step. These famously include Eliot's alleged anti-Semitism, his relations with his unstable first wife, Vivienne, and the details of his so-called "secret loves" (Emily Hale and Mary Trevelyan are the names we know). All of this "material" predates Eliot's meeting with Valerie, who served as his secretary at Faber & Faber for eight years before their marriage in 1957, but there is little that she does not know about her husband's life and work - the evidence, after all, is in her charge. And, it seems, nothing she knows has diminished her regard for him. So far as we can tell, she remains as ardent a fan as she was when, at the age of 18, she set off for London from her home in Leeds, hoping - she has since recalled - that one day she might get to work for the poet she admired above all others.

For would-be biographers of Eliot, the obstacles to full disclosure do seem pretty well impassable. For one thing, Valerie is sitting on the letters, of which there must be hundreds that we have not seen. These letters she is editing herself, in an edition that might eventually run to six volumes. Of these six, only one has so far seen the light of day - in 1988. Since then, volume two has more than once been rumoured to be imminent, but so far it has not appeared. Is Valerie simply a slow worker, or is it because she doesn't want to bring the project to completion? She was only 38 when Eliot died, after an eight-year marriage; since then, her life's task has been to safeguard his remains. And Valerie is now just a bit older than he was when they married. Or is this an overly romantic view of her now notorious tardiness?

Hostile critics have pointed out that her loyalty to Eliot's shade is not as adamantine as it sometimes appears. For instance, why did she allow the writers of Cats to make free with his "Rhapsody on a Windy Night"? Why did she endorse the facsimile reproduction of his manuscript of The Waste Land - a wholly fascinating publication, but one he would almost certainly have vetoed had he lived? Why did she permit the producers of the scurrilous Tom and Viv film to quote from Eliot's work? And why does she declare that one day, when she has finished editing the letters, there will at last be a biography, a version of his life that will be authorised by her? Eliot's feelings on this matter are quite clear. As Valerie herself has said (of Peter Ackroyd's unofficial Life): "Ackroyd knew when he set out that Tom had said: No biography. So to start bleating at the end about not being able to quote from the poetry, when everyone else has had to obey the same rules, is pretty feeble." On the other hand, she now takes the view that "the world has changed since Tom's death, and so much mischief has been made, I shall probably commission somebody one day . . . But I'll do it when I've found the right person - and after I've done the letters."

So, one day, one day. In the meantime, let us hope that, by the time an Eliot biography gets nodded through, he won't be consigned to the popular histories as an anti-Semite who wrote amusingly about pussy cats and had his first wife locked away for keeps in an asylum - a first wife who may have written certain of his best-known lines. Eliot's posterity, one feels, will always need an extra measure of protection from the philistines, and maybe, in his case, disclosure will serve his reputation more effectively than reticence. When a writer spends a lifetime, as Eliot did, earning a reputation for invisibility, it's always likely that his afterfame will seek some terrible revenge. But it's not too late for Eliot to tell us who he really was - and maybe Valerie's edition of the letters, if and when we see it, will turn out to be the biography he said he didn't want. Valerie must have pondered more than once the true significance of Eliot's last directives: he didn't want there to be a biography, but he did want his widow to supervise an edition of his letters. There is a contradiction here, and over the years it has aroused some sniffy comment. But was this perhaps Eliot's possumish way of fixing his own afterfame: of appointing a chronicler he could trust and also of making sure that the resulting narrative would be written mostly in his words? It's a plausible enough conjecture. And if there was such a stratagem, it does seem to be working. Also - to revert to the romantic line - there has been an extra benefit, so far as Eliot is concerned. He made sure that his young widow would remember him: in detail, and for ever.

Ian Hamilton is the author of Keepers of the Flame: literary estates and the rise of biography (Hutchinson). His most recent book is A Gift Imprisoned: the poetic life of Matthew Arnold (Bloomsbury, £7.99)