FOR much of his life, T. S. Eliot kept up a secret correspondence with an American teacher of speech and drama, Emily Hale, with whom he believed himself to be passionately in love. These 1131 letters were released from embargo in 2020. The Hyacinth Girl by Lyndall Gordon, the brilliant biographer of Eliot, is the first one to publish what they reveal about the relationship.
Gordon’s work has two great strengths. First, she is sympathetic to all the women in Eliot’s life: Vivienne Haigh Wood, the vivacious but highly unstable first wife, who was a significant influence on The Waste Land; Mary Trevelyan, who acted as his commonsense guardian during his most vulnerable period; Valerie Fletcher, with whom he found consummate happiness in his final years; and, above all, Emily Hale herself, the Hyacinth girl.
Second, she shows the huge influence of Hale on Eliot’s poetry — in particular, on some of his early poetry, “Ash Wednesday” and “Burnt Norton”, which he wrote for her.
Although Eliot wrote Hale what Gordon regards as some of the greatest love letters ever, he would not spell out what kind of future they might have together. He was adamantly opposed to divorce. Then, when his wife died in an asylum in 1947, he informed Emily that he was so wounded that he regarded himself as unfit for marriage. Nevertheless, he assured her that she was the only love of his life. So it was a final devastating blow when he suddenly married someone else.
In addition, although Hale was a talented and much-loved teacher, because she did not have a degree, she could not get suitable posts, and was always short of money. She emerges from all this pain as a woman of great dignity, fortitude, and genuine goodness — which, of course, was what Eliot saw and loved in her.
Gordon also tells the story of the intimate friendship between Trevelyan and Eliot from 1938 to 1957. Trevelyan was a remarkable woman in her own right, who ran the YMCA hostel for international students in London during the war, and then helped to set up places of respite in Europe for soldiers after it. She was intelligent, curious and indefatigable in her efforts to create friendships between students of different countries.
This story is also told in Mary and Mr Eliot: A sort of love story, based on the record kept by Trevelyan at the time. The entries from her notebook are interspersed with excellent commentary from Erica Wagner: well informed, judicious, and just the right length.
Trevelyan and Eliot would spend many evenings together drinking huge quantities of gin and listening to classical music. They shared a commitment to St Stephen’s, Gloucester Road, and, after services, she took him for drives. As a member of the Trevelyan family, she did not lack self-assurance and was robust in telling Eliot what she thought of his behaviour when he was in a bad mood, which he often was. They could relax and unwind with one another, telling each other frankly what they thought.
What they did not talk about was how they felt — or, if Trevelyan tried, it was disastrous; for she was in love with him, and made it clear on three occasions that they could do well to get married. He, for his part, backed away from any relationship that truly engaged his feelings. In the record, he comes across as often depressed, often ill, subject to sudden outbursts of anger, and quick to take umbrage and say that he would not see her for a long time. She treats all this with robust common sense: “Silly old boy.” In one sense, they were like lovers, always on the verge of a tiff or making up after one.
All this came to an end when in 1957, in utter secrecy, Eliot married his secretary, Valerie Fletcher, who had fallen in love with him at the age of 16 when she read “The Journey of the Magi”, and shortly after determined to marry him. Trevelyan and his long-time friend and flatmate, John Hayward, his main literary support and critic, were kept totally in the dark. The relationship with both of them came to an end.
This part of the story is told in both books, but then Lyndall Gordon finishes with an important discussion of what we might call the battle of the letters. How was posterity to understand the love that was expressed in them? When he was married to his much loved Valerie, Eliot wrote a preface to the letters in which he disavowed his earlier expressions of love for Hale, saying he was only in love with an idealisation of her from when he first met her in Boston. But it was more than this.
It has always been obvious that Eliot was a complicated person. What now emerges is that he was so complex and contradictory that, even with these two indispensable books, he is difficult to fathom. He was capable of great kindness, but cruel and unfeeling as well, with a sadistic streak. He was a puritan who wrote lewd, vulgar, racist, and misogynistic letters to his male chums. He was rigidly restrained, and yet capable of volcanic outbursts, but also a little boy of simple heart, who was good with children and wrote his cat poems for them. He kept all these different sides of him in private, separate compartments, and yet wanted posterity to know him in all his beastliness and failings.
Eliot told Trevelyan about going to confession. “I only go three times a year. Sometimes my confessor has no idea what I am talking about — and I can hardly tell him when he has missed the point! Sometimes I make up sins that I think he will understand to help cover up what is too subtle and complicated for me to explain.”
The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford, and an Hon. Professor of Theology at King’s College, London. He is the author of Haunted by Christ: Modern writers and the struggle for faith (SPCK, 2019).
The Hyacinth Girl: T. S. Eliot’s hidden muse
Church Times Bookshop £22.50
Mary and Mr Eliot: A sort of love story
Mary Trevelyan and Erica Wagner
Faber & Faber £20
Church Times Bookshop £18