THESE letters, written seven years after T. S. Eliot had announced his conversion, see him settling into the role of distinguished churchman, while remaining the éminence grise of English letters. He was an almost daily communicant, and became the vicar’s warden of St Stephen’s, Gloucester Road, an office that he held for 25 years. The vicar, Fr Cheetham, a simple man, wrote: “to me he has been a spiritual big brother.”
Eliot lived in the clergy house, mainly, as he revealed, because he felt “hunted”, and he could hide out there. He had become legally separated from his wife, Vivienne, but she still pursued him. Her letters, revealing a disturbed mind unwilling to face up to the reality of her situation, are painful to read. Eliot took a vow of celibacy in 1928 after he brought his wife back from a sanatorium in Paris, which, he indicated, it was possible to keep. What, one wonders, did she think of that? At the same time, he was in touch with Emily Hale in America, whom he saw when she came to England.
The notes in this book, as in the other volumes, are wonderfully illuminating, and they reveal interesting facets of Hale and her situation. The notes also reveal the frank feelings of his friends, such as Virginia Woolf and Ottoline Morrell, about him at this time. They were annoyed by his formality and puritan nature. More revealing is the friend who realised that beneath the straitjacket there was a romantic trying to get out, a man of deep and intense feeling, who could keep himself going at this difficult period of his life only by battening down all hatches.
We also learn more about Eliot from a long letter, 12 pages in the book, from his elder brother, Henry, who with the same magisterial style as TSE himself subjects his brother’s beliefs to sceptical scrutiny, accusing him of being mischievous and lacking in full self-knowledge regarding his motives. But Eliot himself would have been the first to agree.
While continuing his work for Faber and editing The Criterion, reading manuscripts, encouraging authors, and offering criticism, his main focus at this period was writing verse plays at the request of church authorities. First, there was a great pageant to raise money for new London churches, for which Eliot wrote the verses known as The Rock; and then there was Murder in the Cathedral.
At the same time, he entered the lists of church controversy in letters to the papers and persons, on a range of subjects, from what it means to receive the sacrament to how to derive a political position from the Christian faith, an urgent concern at that time of depression.
One such letter was sparked by an article in the Church Times saying that Christianity and Fascism were incompatible. This was challenged by one clergyman, and this in turn brought forth a serious response from Eliot, in which he pointed to the ideological basis of Mussolini’s politics, leaving people to see what a danger it was to Christianity. He thought both Fascism and Communism incompatible with the faith, but that fascism was the more immediate danger.
Occasionally, the more playful side comes out, as in his relationship to his godson, and his continuing love of cheese. He wrote a strong letter to The Times in support of Stilton, and remarked that one of the purposes of life was in discovering new cheeses. Once again, a volume of his letters is an exemplary piece of work.
The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford. He is the author of The Beauty and the Horror: Searching for God in a suffering world (SPCK, 2016).
The Letters of T. S. Eliot: Volume 7, 1934-1935
Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden, editors
Faber & Faber £50
Church Times Bookshop £45