T.S. Eliot’s life in letters

by Adam Mars-Jones

The Observer

In this fourth volume of collected letters, the limitations of the project show up clearly. T.S. Eliot’s correspondence documents his life but rarely expresses it. He reliably transcribes some aspect of what he thinks, but the form doesn’t spark new thoughts in him as it does in other writers — not necessarily companionable ones — such as Samuel Beckett, Philip Larkin or James Joyce.

THE LETTERS OF T.S. ELIOT: Volume 4, 1928-1929, edited by Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden. Faber and Faber, 2013, 826 pp., £40 (hardcover)

By this stage of his life, temperamental resistance was intensified by professional circumstance. Eliot was a director of a publishing house (Faber and Gwyer, which became Faber and Faber during the period covered by this volume) and editor of a literary monthly, the Criterion. It follows that much of his correspondence has to do with soliciting or refusing submissions and is generically similar to the business exchanges of other publishing professionals, those who were not independently creative, let alone on course for a Nobel Prize.

Prudence and even caginess were good business practice. Eliot never rejects a manuscript without asking to see future work and never refuses a speaking engagement without hoping to be asked again. Many of the letters here would be neutral documents even if they hadn’t been written by someone who took refuge in neutrality of manner. There are welcome glints of dry and donnish humour and a single moment (May 22, 1928) that may amount to outright mockery. Returning a poem called “Listen! Listen!” (the title is clearly relevant) to one R. Ellsworth Larsson, he points out the danger of making the eye “do duty for the ear” and recommends his own practice of reciting verses aloud “to the accompaniment of a small drum.” Of course, it’s possible that he really did so, but wouldn’t it have become part of the myth if he had? More likely that he gave in for once to irresistible impulse and took the piss out of a no-hoper.

When Herbert Read, an important contributor to the Criterion, complained about a certain indefiniteness in the magazine’s objectives, Eliot replied that, on the contrary, his positions were so definite as to require tactful blurring in the interests of breadth of appeal to readers and contributors alike.

Those positions were spelled out in the essay collection “For Lancelot Andrewes” (1928) as classicism, royalism and Anglo-Catholicism. Responding to a reviewer who had referred to his having been received into the Anglo-Catholic church, Eliot pointed out that there was no such entity existent to receive him or anyone. This is presumably why he set such store by his first confession, which also took place in 1928 (he had been confirmed earlier). Confession is a dispensable part of Anglicanism, less so for its Catholic tendency.

The letters are fully and helpfully annotated, though “The Seagull” isn’t usually attributed to Henrik Ibsen, as it is on page 666. It becomes possible to correlate private communications with editorial comment in the Criterion. The lack of overlap is sometimes disconcerting.

As an editor, Eliot deferentially commissioned a pamphlet about censorship (“it would be a document of the first importance”) from Lord Brentford, who as home secretary had weighed in against “The Well of Loneliness.” In subsequent negotiations, he gave Brentford real help in securing U.S. publication under the best terms. Yet he didn’t hesitate to tear the home secretary’s public statements to shreds: “We fear that Lord Brentford, like many other people, has ceased to be a human being — that is to say, has ceased to think independently — because he has been a Statesman … When [he] convinces us that he really knows what the words mean when he talks glibly of books ‘debauching the young’, or ‘corrupting’, we may be inclined to give him the attention that we would give to any serious undergraduate.”

Of course, Eliot was only doing what editors do, stirring up controversy. The surprise is the relish with which it is done, how gleefully Old Possum turns weasel.

If he could dish it out, then he could also take it. His reaction to a savage review of “For Lancelot Andrewes” by an old friend, Conrad Aiken — “you may be right” — is astonishingly mild. Aiken being right would mean Eliot showing a “thin and vinegarish hostility towards the modern world” and sounding a note of “withered dogmatism.” Yet there seems nothing forced about the response. Being savaged seems to put a spring in his step, to judge by the jaunty tone of the rest of the letter: “No, these are not dull subjects: Theology, Bridge and Detective Fiction are not dull.”

Discrepancy between private and Criterion opinion is sometimes instructive. Eliot expressed private regret (“it is a great loss”) on the death of Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who had been a contributor, but there is something jarring about writing in the magazine: “Of your charity pray for the soul of Hugo von Hofmannsthal …” If this is a religious publication, why single out a particular soul for prayer? If a cultural one, why the concern with a soul rather than a life’s work?

When Thomas Hardy died, his body was buried in Westminster Abbey, his heart in Dorchester. Writing to his mother, Eliot objected: “Why not divide him joint from joint, and spot him about the country? I think that if one is buried at all one should decently be buried all in one place.” In the pages of the Criterion, his complaint acquires a perverse anti-Catholic tinge, with a reference to Hardy being “dismembered in a fashion intolerable in any society which is not given over to idolatry of relics and fetishes.” Perverse not only because Hardy was no Catholic but because relics are displayed rather than buried. But perhaps Eliot thought it politic to emphasise aspects of Roman belief that repelled him.

The oddest feature of the book is the way Vivienne Eliot’s letters to friends cut across the rest. Strictly speaking, they don’t belong here, being neither to nor from Eliot, but in their absence there would be no discussion of a marriage in the process of disintegration.

Vivienne Eliot is, if not the elephant in the room of biographical studies about her husband, then certainly the parrot whose cage is routinely covered with a cloth. After Michael Hastings’s 1984 play “Tom and Viv,” the second wife, the late Valerie Eliot, claimed the copyright of all Vivienne’s papers, a questionable legal maneuver and a remarkable assertion of control. From then on, hers was the hand that sometimes chose to raise the cloth.

The sound that emerges is less a squawk than a forlorn piping. Vivienne’s letters are slightly twitchy and sometimes almost pitifully direct. She won’t go to a party in November 1928 because “I have no dress — am ugly & have rough hands.” Reading the book, it seems incredible that two people with so little ability to communicate could imagine themselves a couple.

The Eliots moved house more than once during the period covered here. Various premises were too big, too small, too expensive or had unmanageable stairs. It’s hard not to feel that they were seeking a topological solution to problems that were not topological. It didn’t work, anyway, and 68 Clarence Gate Gardens near Regents Park was the last address they shared. This volume of correspondence may show one aspect of their difficulties: It’s not that T.S. Eliot is poor company, exactly — he’s hardly company at all and seems to prefer it that way.