Reviewed by Rob Spence
Who writes letters nowadays? The daily deluge of material through the letterbox rarely contains an actual letter, personally addressed, does it? Email and texting have replaced the letter as a means of personal communication, so when literary historians of the future research the lives of our current young writers, it’s hard to know what will remain. Will they publish the collected tweets in some as yet unheard of medium?
These musings are prompted by reading the latest volume of T.S. Eliot’s correspondence, covering the two years 1932 – 33. This, the sixth volume in Faber’s monumental undertaking, chronicles a significant moment in Eliot’s life. This is the period when he finally breaks with his first wife Vivien, taking advantage of an invitation to be a visiting professor at Harvard to ease the process. So, in among the personal and business correspondence of a busy — and yes, let’s use that old-fashioned term — ‘man of letters’ are some poignant exchanges between and about Eliot and Vivien, highlighting the precarious mental state she was in by this stage.
What first impresses the reader here is the sheer quantity on display. Not all of the letters have survived, but even so, it’s clear that Eliot must have spent a good deal of his time every day engaged in the writing of letters. The picture that emerges is of a busy life, centred on his work at Faber and as editor of The Criterion, but with plenty of personal and social activity, often tinged with anxieties about his wife’s condition. It’s striking how active Eliot is in what we would now call networking: many of his correspondents are invited to dinner, or tea at the office. In preparation for his American trip, he is often at pains to engineer meetings with other writers and academics.
As with the other volumes published so far, the book gives us Eliot’s letters in chronological order, so that we can appreciate the diverse streams of correspondence that crossed his desk, and trace a particular thread as a discussion develops. As the volume opens, in January 1932, Eliot is 44, and already looking forward to his sojourn in America as relief from the demands of domestic life with Vivien. He frequently refers to his plans in the seven months before his departure, and we know from the inclusion of some of Vivien’s correspondence how fearful and apprehensive she was about being left alone.
Although the American episode dominates the volume, there is much else of note to anyone with an interest in Anglo-American modernism. Eliot’s correspondents include some established literary giants: James Joyce, Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound, E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, Conrad Aiken among others. We also note his eye for emerging young talent in his encouragement and promotion of, for example, W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Kenneth Clark, Edwin and Willa Muir. Another delight for the reader is to discover now obscure figures whose lives intersected with Eliot’s – who knows the splendidly named Montgomery Belgion, or Rolf Gardiner, a young socialist seduced by Nazi ideology, or the cultural historian Gilbert Seldes? Incidentally, one of Eliot’s letters to Seldes demonstrates the intensity of Eliot’s letter-writing regime: ‘I did receive your first letter, as well as your second; but I have been infernally busy; this is my twentyfirst letter today, and I have half a dozen more that I must write.’
Eliot’s other correspondents include members of his family, with whom he has a warm, though slightly distant relationship. Writing to his brother Henry Eliot shortly before Christmas, he arranges to stay, but only on condition that no presents are exchanged; and goes on ‘If I find that it seems uncomfortable for you to have me, I shall go to some hotel nearby, if there is one, and take my meals with you.’ This rather odd restraint contrasts with the warmth he exudes to old friends, and, intriguingly, given his situation, with Emily Hale, with whom, according to an unpublished memoir, he had fallen in love as a young man before he left for Europe. They meet in America, and apparently have a close relationship. Eliot’s letters to her are under embargo until 2020; hers to him, suggestively perhaps, were apparently destroyed by Eliot towards the end of his life.
One of the many fascinations about this book is in the varying tones that Eliot takes with his correspondents. Basil Bunting writes in a flap to apologise that his article on Eliot in the journal Poetry could be misconstrued as a personal attack. He blames Harriet Monro’s clumsy editing, and then says (dis)ingenuously ‘I do want to be as rude as possible about royalism anglo-catholicism etc, but that is a very different matter from personal bitterness.’ Eliot replies with patrician disdain – ‘I am quite used to being attacked and am even accustomed to personal attacks, but I cannot see why anyone should be offended by destructive criticism of his work unless it is also an attack on his character and private life.’ Eliot was mellow enough to write him a reference some years later, apparently. With close friends such as Ezra Pound, Eliot adopts a bizarre argot that’s part backwoodsman, part elite scholar, in Joycean non-punctuated stream-of-consciousness mode. Here’s a sample from the beginning of a letter in September 1933, which might easily have been an extract from Finnegans Wake:
Dear Rebet well well wed better not argue too long about the relative merits of the inferior because that Sort of discussion tends to lower ones critical pressure but Here having just had my 45 birthday its hard to Think theres no living poets under the age of 45 but there it is and at the other end Binyon with death before & after and night below & above his life is a watch and/or a vision betwixt a Sleep & a Sleep.
More accessibly, he writes some charmingly illustrated Edward Lear-like self-deprecatory verse to his fellow poet Ralph Hodgson, whose visits, accompanied by his girlfriend Aurelia Bolliger and their dog Pickwick, had lifted Vivien’s spirits and dissipated the gloom of Eliot’s domestic life. After a poem extolling Hodsgon’s virtues, he writes:
How Unpleasant to Know Mr Eliot!
With his coat of Clerical Cut,
And his Face so Grim
And his Mouth so Prim
And his Conversation so Nicely
Restricted to What Precisely
And If & Perhaps and But.
What will probably stay most in the reader’s mind though is the light that these letters shed on the relationship between Eliot and Vivien. At the start of this volume, they have been married for seventeen years, and her always volatile and fragile personality had deteriorated to the point where it was difficult for her to be in company, and where some kind of embarrassing incident was always in the offing. The volume includes several letters by her to Eliot and to others in their circle, and they are poignant in the way they reveal her delicate state of mind, and increasing paranoia. When Eliot returned to England, he effectively hid from her, and communicated formally through his solicitor. Even when he is in America, he avoids writing to her, and Vivien writes to Ottoline Morrell to say that she is ‘insane with anxiety’ as ‘Tom is in danger.’
This volume of letters – and how many more are to come? – offers a real insight into the development of Eliot’s mind and the shaping of his views. It is endlessly fascinating in its revelations of the social and private lives of some of the most important literary and artistic figures of the twentieth century. As a physical object, the book is a joy to hold: clearly, Faber have pulled out all the stops for this series. The paper is of high quality, the typesetting elegant, the photographs evocative. As has been the case from the inception of the series, this volume is an exemplar of excellent editorship. This was presumably the last volume on which Valerie Eliot worked, here along with John Haffenden. The footnotes, preface and appendix are really very useful, giving brief biographies of all the major figures, explanatory glosses on contemporary references, and a timeline of events in Eliot’s life during the period under consideration. Eliot is well served by his old company.
Rob Spence’s website is at robspence.org.uk
Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden (eds.), The Letters of T.S. Eliot: Volume 6: 1932-1933 (Faber and Faber, 2016). 978-0571316342, 847pp., hardback.
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