T.S. Eliot’s correspondence with Emily Hale was recently opened, having been kept in Princeton archives until fifty years after Miss Hale’s death. Also opened was Eliot’s response to the archives. It seemed that the poet’s ghost had returned for one last lover’s quarrel with the ghost of his first love, over a century after they had first met and over sixty years since their last letters to each other had been written.
There is a controversy raging over who can claim to be the true love of T.S. Eliot. He was married first to Vivienne Haigh-Wood and then, much later, to Valerie Fletcher. Prior to his first marriage, and before he came to England, he fell in love with Emily Hale, whom he met in 1912 while he was studying at Harvard. Earlier this month, Eliot’s letters to Emily Hale, written during the rekindling of their friendship between 1930 and 1956, were made available to scholars. Until this month, they had been sealed in an archive at Princeton University, in accordance with Miss Hale’s stipulation that they not be opened until fifty years after her death. Miss Hale had died in October 1969.
Although the opening of the archive had been long awaited and much anticipated, the biggest news story associated with its being made available to scholars was the surprise intervention by T.S. Eliot himself, more than a half century after his death. Unbeknownst to scholars, Eliot had written his own response to the anticipated release of his correspondence with Miss Hale. His statement, written in November 1960 with the addition of slight amendments in September 1963, had been deposited at Harvard University with the instruction that it be released on the same day as the opening of the Hale archive. It seemed that Eliot’s ghost had returned for one last lover’s quarrel with the ghost of his first love, over a century after they had first met and over sixty years since their last letters to each other had been written.
Unsurprisingly, Eliot’s unexpected intervention succeeded in upstaging the opening of the archives, with much of the scholarly response focusing on his statement.
Having begun by stating that it was “painful for me to have to write the following lines,” he stated that he had no objection to his correspondence with Emily Hale being made public:
I liked to think that my letters to her would be preserved and made public after we were dead – fifty years after. I was however, disagreeably surprised when she informed me that she was handing the letters over to Princeton University during our lifetime – actually in the year 1956. She took this step, it is true, before she knew that I was going to get married. Nevertheless, it seemed to me that her disposing of the letters in that way at that time threw some light upon the kind of interest which she took, or had come to take, in these letters.
It seems, therefore, that his concern was that the letters might be made public sooner than fifty years after their deaths, and that this was what prompted his intervention. Had he been quite certain that the letters would not be released sooner, he would presumably not have felt the need to intervene. This fact is significant, as we shall see later.
Eliot continues by discussing his first marriage, in 1915, to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, conceding that his explanation for the marriage “would probably remain unintelligible”:
I was still, as I came to believe a year later, in love with Miss Hale. I cannot however make even that assertion with any confidence: it may have been merely my reaction against my misery with Vivienne and desire to revert to an earlier situation. I was very immature for my age, very timid, very inexperienced.
He then spoke of his vocation as a poet and how his meeting in 1914 with Ezra Pound had changed his life. Determined to forge a life as a poet in England, as Pound urged, Eliot saw his marriage to Vivienne as the key to making this possible:
I think that all I wanted of Vivienne was a flirtation or a mild affair: I was too shy and unpractised to achieve either with anybody. I believe that I came to persuade myself that I was in love with her simply because I wanted to burn my boats and commit myself to staying in England. And she persuaded herself (also under the influence of Pound) that she would save the poet by keeping him in England.
Eliot conceded that “the marriage brought no happiness” to Vivienne, adding that “the last seven years of her life were spent in a mental home.” And then comes the nasty bombshell, dropped into Emily Hale’s lap: “To me, [the marriage to Vivienne] brought the state of mind out of which came The Waste Land. And it saved me from marrying Emily Hale [who] would have killed the poet in me; Vivienne nearly was the death of me, but she kept the poet alive.”
It is very difficult to read the foregoing and retain much sympathy for Eliot. His marriage caused great suffering to his wife, possibly contributing to her unstable mental state, but it profited Eliot in the sense that it gave birth to arguably his greatest poem and saved him from the “other woman” and the life of bourgeois respectability which marriage to her would have entailed. It’s as though his wife was a necessary sacrifice to his art and Emily Hale an unnecessary distraction from it.
As his marriage to Vivienne disintegrated, Eliot accepted a teaching post at Harvard in 1932. While in America, he travelled to the west coast in early 1933 to meet Emily Hale, who was teaching in California, rekindling their relationship. After he returned to England, he continued to see Emily “from time to time every summer,” because she visited England annually with her aunt and uncle who took a house every summer at Chipping Campden, a small market town in Gloucestershire.
Following the death of Vivienne in the winter of 1947, Eliot claimed that he realized that he was not in love with Emily Hale: “I had been in love only with a memory, with the memory of the experience of having been in love with her in my youth.” Furthermore, he came to see how little he and Miss Hale had in common. “[S]he was not a lover of poetry, certainly that she was not much interested in my poetry.” Eliot had become concerned “by what seemed to me evidence of insensitiveness and bad taste.” Then, having mentioned their differences of religion, Miss Hale being a Unitarian and Eliot an Anglo-Catholic, he added one other significant fact: “I might mention at this point that I never at any time had any sexual relations with Emily Hale.”
Following the death of Vivienne, Eliot claimed that he came to perceive that his love for Emily Hale “was the love of a ghost for a ghost.” Furthermore, his letters to her, over a thousand of them written over a period of twenty-six years, from 1930 to 1956, were those of “an hallucinated man, a man vainly trying to pretend to himself that he was the same man that he had been in 1914.” Is this really credible? Can we really believe that a man can be hallucinating self-deceptively for so long?
Those scholars who have reviewed the Hale archive, the content of which cannot be reproduced because Eliot’s work is still in copyright, do not believe that Eliot’s dismissive account of his relationship with Miss Hale is borne out by the letters themselves. Apart from his expressions of love for her, he mentions lines in his poetry, including “The Waste Land,” that had been inspired by her or which were intended as tributes to her. Was this merely flattery on Eliot’s part, or did Emily Hale serve as his Muse, a role that has traditionally been ascribed to Vivienne?
Having laid out the evidence, it is possible to perceive the real reason and motivation for Eliot’s minimizing of the importance of his relationship with Emily Hale. It is not, as many scholars seem to be saying, merely because he was annoyed that Miss Hale should have deposited the archives with Princeton University. He makes it clear that he fully expected that his letters would be made public but that it should not be until fifty years after his death. His fear is that they might be disclosed earlier. It is this fear that animated him, and it is this fear which motivated him to act. And it would appear that he was doing so in order to allay the fears and assuage the feelings of his new wife, Valerie Fletcher, whom he married in January 1957, only a few months after the conclusion of the correspondence with Miss Hale:
It is only within the last few years that I have known what it was to love a woman who truly, selflessly and whole-heartedly loves me. I find it hard to believe that the equal of Valerie ever has been or will be again; I cannot believe that there has ever been a woman with whom I could have felt so completely at one as with Valerie. The world with my beloved wife Valerie has been a good world such as I have never known before. At the age of 68 the world was transformed for me, and I was transformed by Valerie.
These lines are the key to the whole of Eliot’s statement, which was evidently written for Valerie’s benefit and was probably read by her before it was sealed from the eyes of the world. This was Eliot setting the record straight in the eyes of his new wife, with whom he was clearly very happy. Was he telling her the whole truth? Was he massaging the truth to make her feel better? Was he telling her lies, albeit lies that he might have felt were justified? Perhaps these questions are not as easily answered as the original question which we set out to answer. The true love of Eliot’s life, at least at the time he wrote this bombshell of a statement, was not Vivienne nor Emily, but Valerie.
As for the ghosts of loves lost and the spirits of loves denied, perhaps we should let things be or, in the very last words with which Eliot closes his statement: May we all rest in peace.
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The featured image is “Roses” (c. 1895) by Grace Joel (1865-1924), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.