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Obituary: Valerie Eliot

23 November 2012


The ministry of Mrs Eliot: with her husband after their honeymoon in 1957

The ministry of Mrs Eliot: with her husband after their honeymoon in 1957

Dr Jason Harding writes:
VALERIE ELIOT, widow and literary executor of the Nobel Laureate T. S. Eliot, died on 9 November, aged 86.

After Eliot's death in 1965, she inherited her husband's shares in the publishing house Faber & Faber, and became a non-executive director. She allowed Andrew Lloyd Webber to adapt Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats in his hugely successful musical Cats, and used the royalties to become a generous patron of the arts. Notable beneficiaries of her charity Old Possum's Practical Trust were the London Library, and Newnham College, Cambridge. She established the prestigious T. S. Eliot Prize for poetry. Immaculately dressed, Mrs Eliot presided over the annual prize-giving events with the aura of a gracious and dignified great lady.

She supervised Eliot's literary estate with a firm grip. On the instructions of her husband, no official biography was permitted. Although generations of academics howled when requests for permission to quote from Eliot's work were politely quashed, she proved herself a scrupulous editor of his writing. Her 1971 edition of the drafts of The Waste Land is a model of good practice.

In 1988, she published the first volume of The Letters of T. S. Eliot, revised and enlarged 21 years later, and accompanied by volume two. Earlier this year, a third volume appeared. In later life, she grew embattled by periodic attacks on Eliot's character, eventually coming to the decision that her husband's reputation would be best served by commissioning teams of scholars to prepare authorised and annotated editions of the complete poetry, prose, and drama, and by continuing her prodigious labours on the voluminous unpublished letters.

Esmé Valerie Fletcher was born in Headingley, Leeds, the only daughter of an insurance manager. She was educated at an independent girls' school, Queen Anne's, Caversham. After hearing a recording of "Journey of the Magi" at the age of 14, she became determined to work for Eliot. On leaving school, she took a secretarial course, and moved to London. After a nervous interview, Valerie Fletcher joined Faber in 1949 as Eliot's personal secretary.

Working relations between the studiously correct "Mr Eliot" and his ultra-efficient secretary "Miss Fletcher" gradually thawed over lunches at the Russell Hotel. Colleagues, however, were unaware of any budding romance. Their engagement was kept secret, and no banns were posted.

The wedding took place before sunrise on 10 January 1957 at St Barnabas's, Kensington. He was 68; she was 30. The officiating priest doubled as the best man. Valerie's parents were in attendance, but none of Eliot's friends. The unexpected marriage upset his flatmate of the past decade, the bibliophile John Hayward, who was not fond of Valerie. Mary Trevelyan, Eliot's confrère and fellow Anglo-Catholic, had harboured hopes of marriage with the poet, but instead she was supplanted as his companion at mass at St Stephen's, Gloucester Road, where Eliot was churchwarden.

The newly-weds settled in a spacious ground-floor flat off Kensington High Street. In the eight years that they were married, Eliot was often in very poor health. They wintered in the West Indies to escape the London fogs that aggravated Eliot's emphysema, and took summer visits to Yorkshire (Eliot got on well with his mother-in-law). At public engagements in London and abroad, the couple beamed radiantly at one another, hand in hand; in private, Eliot informed his friends that he had never been happier. Most evenings were spent cosily at home, playing cards, drinking, the poet reading aloud to his wife. Throughout these years, Valerie became Eliot's staunch protector, nurse, and confidante.

Eliot wrote his best work before his second marriage, but in the poem "A Dedication to my Wife" he offers a rare glimpse of the sanctity of marriage in tender testimony to "the leaping delight That quickens my senses in our wakingtime", even the symbiosis of lovers "Who think the same thoughts without need of speech".

His first marriage, to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, who died in a London asylum in 1947, had been exceptionally difficult - their marital distress is dramatised in The Waste Land. "He felt he had paid too high a price to be a poet," Valerie Eliot told an interviewer.

Public honours never brought him real happiness, but his second marriage unquestionably did.

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