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26 October 2022

The women who made TS Eliot

Accounts of the poet’s brutal rejections of Mary Trevelyan and Emily Hale shed light on a man obsessed by posterity and guilt.

By Margaret Drabble

This year marks the centenary of one of the most celebrated poems in the English language, TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, and it has been marked by many tributes to the poet’s work (including Ralph Fiennes’ powerfully intelligent reading of Four Quartets) and several examinations of his problematic life. Under consideration here are studies of two women who were very important to him, the New Englander Emily Hale and the thoroughly English Mary Trevelyan. Erica Wagner takes on Mary Trevelyan in Mary & Mr Eliot, drawing on Trevelyan’s diaries and her unpublished account of Eliot in The Pope of Russell Square. Lyndall Gordon complements her 1988 biography, The Imperfect Life of TS Eliot, with The Hyacinth Girl, which is based on an incendiary cache of letters only recently released from their 14 steel-bound boxes – Gordon writes that when opened in January 2020 they “detonated according to plan”.

Hanging over both these compelling narratives is our proleptic knowledge that on 10 January 1957 the poet married his much younger secretary, that “peach of a girl”, Valerie Fletcher, having allowed both women to think that were his first wife, Vivienne, to release him by death, he might consider marrying one of them. Despite or because of our knowledge of this (to them) devastating marital denouement, both narratives have the suspense of works of fiction, and prove compulsive page-turners. They fit uncannily well together, with their cross references and interwoven incidents.

[See also: 1922: the year that made modernism – John Mullan]

The relationship of Mary and Tom takes one into the world of Barbara Pym, a world of saints’ days and church wardens and evensong, a world of London fogs and air raids and endless card games. Eliot loved playing patience, and we learn that one of his acts of self-denial during Lent was to give up “smoking before breakfast and patience after lunch”. Trevelyan was from a well-connected Anglican background; the biographer Humphrey Carpenter, her nephew, recorded that she was a true “daughter of a Victorian vicarage”, belonging to “a sublimely self-confident caste”. She was also a formidably courageous administrator and well-travelled internationalist, applying herself to the welfare of foreign students in London and to the war-wounded in Europe: her imposing title in 1947 was “Head of the Field Survey Bureau in the Unesco Department of Reconstruction in Paris”.

Despite this demanding public life, she managed to create with Eliot a cosy domestic refuge where a characteristic supper at her flat might consist of “soup, eggs and bacon, an excellent Brie, Cox’s apples and coffee”, accompanied by classical music on the gramophone. They also drank a lot of gin. He came to depend on her ministrations, and on her driving skills – he even paid for a new car for her, in recognition of how much time she had spent ferrying him about London and occasionally further afield.

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He certainly led her to believe that he valued their friendship, and she was full of supportive admiration for his work and sympathy for what she knew of his unhappy marriage. Socially and intellectually she could hold her own with Bloomsbury and the Huxleys and Bertrand Russell (who may have had an affair with Vivienne, and whom Eliot wittily characterised in “Mr Apollinax” as an “irresponsible foetus”). She had a caustic eye for what she saw as his weaknesses, particularly his valetudinarianism, and thought that he spent far too much time retreating to the London Clinic whenever he thought he was slightly ill.

She had good grounds for thinking that she and Eliot had formed an unusually close relationship, for he frequently turned to her for help, requested her company, and showered her with gifts ranging from rosaries to “lovely nylons”. He introduced her to members of his family when they visited England and seemed to encourage her friendship with his sister. She records his snobbish and racist remarks, telling us in a neutral tone that he told her that what we need is “tighter immigration laws”. They discussed euthanasia and Ezra Pound, dentistry and Bernard Shaw.

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Wagner points out that Trevelyan’s diary entries are designed to emphasise the intimacy between her and Eliot, which made the news of his announcement that he had secretly married Valerie all the more shocking. He had disparaged Valerie to Mary, and it is somehow disquieting to learn that in the Faber office Valerie wore her large engagement ring concealed by a fingerstall. Wagner comments that Eliot seemed startled that Trevelyan had taken the marriage amiss, and concludes that it is clear “that throughout their friendship his focus was always on himself, and on his own needs and requirements”. Indeed so.

[See also: The vision of Ralph Vaughan Williams – Rowan Williams]

If Tom and Mary tried to create a cosy refuge for themselves in the manner of the not-always-cosy Barbara Pym, the longer and more intense relationship of Eliot and Emily Hale has more tragic dimensions. In some aspects it recalls the preoccupations of Henry James in The Aspern Papers and his short story “The Altar of the Dead”: sealed boxes, posthumous revelations, treacheries, the beloved as muse, the duties of the guardian of the flame.

The down-to-earth, self-sufficient Mary Trevelyan never claimed to be a muse, although she may appear in Eliot’s play The Cocktail Party as a “guardian”, but Emily, who features in The Waste Land as the “Hyacinth Girl”, was deliberately cast by Eliot as his inspiration, and then as deliberately rejected by him. It is a tale of betrayal on a grand scale, and it is very well told. The surviving correspondence from Eliot to Hale proves, as Eliot and his wife Valerie correctly feared it might, a bombshell for his reputation, not as a poet, but as someone who presumably aspired to be a good man, but who was obsessed by a sense of ancestral guilt. He had Hale’s side of the years-long correspondence destroyed, and Gordon’s account of the fate of these two caches is as exciting as a detective story. She catches the drama of the sealed boxes brilliantly. But it is the story behind – or rather within – the boxes that makes these revelations so important.

Eliot, who was three years older than Hale, first met her in 1905 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when she was 14. In December 1913, as their friendship developed, they attended a performance of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde in Boston, an experience that leaves a recognisable mark in The Waste Land.

Before Eliot left for Europe in 1914 he had fallen in love with Hale and declared himself, though without offering any proposal for the future or asking her to wait for his return. She had already entered his poetry in “La Figlia che Piange”, which is dated to late 1911 or 1912. At this point there was nothing to prevent their eventually entering into a fulfilling love affair and a happy marriage. Instead, they embarked on a medieval romance, a Roman de la Rose, a spiritual journey in which she was transformed in Eliot’s eyes into the “Lady”, into Dante’s Beatrice, unattainable and unattained. One might almost describe it as a folie à deux, had its participants not been so high-minded. This romance persisted long after Eliot’s ultimately disastrous and destructive marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood in 1915, and Gordon establishes the profound influence it had upon the substance and in particular upon the imagery of his work, lasting from The Waste Land through to Four Quartets.

Eliot acknowledged the immensity of the poetic debt he owed her, and one of the most curious features of this tragedy is the way in which in earlier years he urged her to record her emotions in hundreds of letters, and to preserve his side of the correspondence as testimony to their love and her powerful influence on his work. She was hesitant, he insistent that he wished the true story of their love to be told. (He had his eye on posterity from a very early age.)

There can be no doubt of the nature of his feelings for her in these years. It was not entirely a long-distance affair: in 1930 Hale spent the summer in England, attending the Shaw festival at Great Malvern and speaking on American poetry at the Lyceum Club in London (she was a much admired teacher of diction and drama, renowned for her beautiful voice), and Eliot invited her to a tea party with Vivienne at their home in Clarence Gate Gardens. Then aged 39, Hale was “smartly turned out” in a hat and “very pretty” dress. He told her later he had to struggle to maintain the polite detachment of his public face. From the moment Hale came into the room, “Eliot felt ‘something very strong and deep’ between them… Overwhelmed by emotion, he nearly spilt his tea.” Nearly, but not quite: a Prufrock moment.

They drew even closer together, physically and spiritually, on a subsequent visit, when she was staying with friends in Chipping Camden: the imagery of this period belongs unmistakably to his poem “Burnt Norton”. The brutality of his rejection of both Hale and Trevelyan (who gamely referred to herself as “jilted”) is startling: Gordon claims he thought he was protecting Valerie, but at what a cost! Valerie guarded his memory after his death but did not stand in the way of the truth, some of which, because of the length of the embargo on the sealed boxes, she was never to know. But Eliot’s claim on Hale condemned her to a solitary life: Gordon refers several times to her “loneliness”. One could say that Emily Hale has had the last laugh, but she was too good a woman to laugh at the ironies of fate.  

Mary & Mr Eliot: A Sort of Love Story
By Mary Trevelyan and Erica Wagner
Faber, 320pp, £20

The Hyacinth Girl: TS Eliot’s Hidden Muse
By Lyndall Gordon
Virago, 432pp, £25

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[See also: First review: The Waste Land by TS Eliot]

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This article appears in the 26 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, State of Disorder