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How TS Eliot found happiness

Withdrawn and prejudiced, the poet is hard to warm to – but Robert Crawford’s new biography shows how Eliot’s second marriage transformed his life.

By Erica Wagner

It is impossible not to be moved by the final pages of Robert Crawford’s Eliot: After The Waste Land, in which the 20th century’s greatest poet at last finds contentment with his young wife Valerie. Much more than contentment: “I am madly happy in being her husband,” Eliot wrote to his friend Violet Schiff upon the couple’s return from honeymoon in 1957. The wedding – and indeed, the whole courtship and relationship – between the 68-year-old Nobel Laureate and his 30-year-old Yorkshire-born secretary had been a secret from nearly everyone who knew them until the very last moment. The ceremony had been conducted at 6.15 in the morning, by special licence from the Archbishop of Canterbury, so as to evade the attentions of the press.

The bride’s parents were in attendance, and Eliot’s lawyer: no one else. Eliot’s devoted colleague Geoffrey Faber had been informed but, as he told the Daily Mail, “I am not in the habit of getting up at five in the morning to attend wedding ceremonies.” Eliot’s friend of nearly 20 years’ standing, Mary Trevelyan, learned of his actions after she returned from her holiday to find a postcard dated 9 January: “On Thursday the 10th January I am being married to Valerie Fletcher,” Eliot had written. “Naturally I thought Tom had gone out of his mind,” Mary would write of this moment: she had known nothing of any personal relationship between Eliot and “Miss Fletcher”, as he had always referred to her in Mary’s presence. In the years prior to his marriage, Eliot had shared a flat with the critic John Hayward;  Hayward felt abandoned by the poet, and as Crawford writes, took to describing himself as “the Widow”.

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That Eliot’s closest friends were so astonished by the marriage is revealing of the way in which “Tom Eliot”, as Crawford calls him, kept his life rigorously compartmentalised. Those compartments were so secure that the poet often seems sealed off from himself. Eliot told his old friend Ezra Pound that Valerie “gives me the first happiness I have ever known”; but after the collapse of his marriage to Vivien Eliot, the failure of his chaste relationship with his childhood friend Emily Hale – and his refusal of not one but two proposals of marriage from Trevelyan – he had been certain that he would never find an igniting love. In 1932, just before his separation from Vivien, he had written to Emily of living “in a mask all one’s life”. Finally ending their etiolated love affair 15 years later, he was blunt. “I cannot, cannot, start life again,” he told her. Life is never what we expect, even for the greatest artists.

As in this book’s 2015 companion volume, Young Eliot: From St Louis to The Waste Land, Crawford’s work is impeccable. His aim is to give a “close-grained, intimate portrait” of Eliot from after the publication of The Waste Land in 1922 to his death in 1965. In the years following his modernist masterwork, TS Eliot would become one of the most influential artists of all time, “his poetry – whether in the original or in its many translations – having become a detectable presence in literatures as different as Gaelic, Greek and Chinese”.

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It is not the purpose of this book to elucidate that poetry, or Eliot’s work overall; for the most part Crawford doesn’t enter into the game of connecting the life to the writing. It was a game that Eliot himself steadfastly refused. He wanted, as Crawford writes, no spotlight on his own life. “I do not say that poetry is not ‘autobiographical’,” Eliot wrote in 1927, “but this autobiography is written by a foreign man in a foreign tongue, which can never be translated.”

The events of the last four decades of his life are diligently recounted: from Eliot’s rise to fame, the painful end of his first marriage, his conversion from the Unitarian faith of his American forebears to the high- church Anglicanism of which he became an exemplar. (He told Hale in 1933 that he could not possibly divorce because of his standing in the Church: “I can say wholly without overestimating my importance that if I had a divorce it would be the greatest misfortune of the Anglican Church since Newman went over to Rome – and Gladstone called that a ‘catastrophe’.”)

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He receives the Order of Merit; he receives the Nobel Prize. In 1925 he joins the board of directors at Faber & Faber (then Faber & Gwyer) after eight years working for Lloyds Bank. He is an accomplished businessman and talent-spotter: at Faber he publishes the work of Stephen Spender, WH Auden, Djuna Barnes and Ted Hughes. Notoriously, he rejected George Orwell’s Animal Farm, despite his personal admiration for the work. Writing to Orwell in 1944 – when, in the last months of the Second World War, Britain was still allied to the Soviet Union – he said he doubted whether “this is the right point of view from which to criticise the political situation at the present time”.

Eliot plays his cards close to his chest: personally, politically. This can make him a tricky biographical subject in the 21st century, but Crawford – correctly – refuses to judge. “I try to present Tom Eliot’s life and work without undue moralising, letting readers reach their own conclusions.” The reader, then, may choose what to feel upon learning of Eliot’s 1923 exchange with his “virulently anti-Semitic supporter John Quinn” regarding The Waste Land’s US publisher Liveright: “I am sick of doing business with Jew publishers who will not carry out their part of the contract unless they are forced to.” He told Quinn that he wished he could find “a decent Christian publisher in New York”.

Fifteen years later – in 1938 when, as Crawford underlines, reports of German concentration camps filled British newspapers – Eliot refused to sign a letter in the Church Times protesting the rise of British anti-Semitism; he would not commit himself, despite his personal attempts to assist Richard Fuchs, a German Jewish composer. He wrote to Hale that he was willing to support a fund for refugees but “there is no denying that Jews in the mass are antipathetic!” It is impossible not to recoil from such sentiments. He was solicitous of Trevelyan’s dauntless efforts before, during and after the war to assist foreign students of all nations: he wrote, however, that he was “not altogether sorry” to miss an encounter with her “coons and refugees”. It is facile to argue that he was a man of his time. If all people were “of their time”, nothing would ever change.

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Eliot is hard to love, in Crawford’s account: though, of course, we are never asked to love him. That is Valerie’s job, a task she took on from her girlhood, when, at school during the war, she heard a recording of John Gielgud reading “Journey of the Magi”. She asked her teacher the name of the poet. “I shall marry that man,” she said. In later years she said of that moment: “It was as though a bomb had exploded under me.”

Crawford’s magisterial account sometimes feels overcrowded with details of this lecture given, or that essay published in a certain journal. Yet such comprehensiveness is, and will be, invaluable to scholars. And it means that the tender, elegiac final notes of this book are all the more striking. The portrait of the poet’s final years is one of joy – joy despite his own ill-health and the loss of many old friends to death’s reaping scythe. With his last breath Tom Eliot spoke his beloved wife’s name.

Erica Wagner’s “Mary and Mr Eliot: A Sort-Of Love Story” will be published by Faber & Fab

Eliot: After The Waste Land
Robert Crawford
Jonathan Cape, 624pp, £25

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This article appears in the 29 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, American Darkness