The Letters of T S Eliot Volume 6: 1932-1933, edited by Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden, book review

The years in question saw Eliot face an acute personal crisis, played out in the theatre of literary London to catcalls from prominent names among the audience

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The Independent Culture

It would be wrong, when reading the letters of an eminent figure from the pre-digital age, to imagine the persona that emerges is any less consciously constructed than those paraded on digital platforms today. Letters, after all, have been collected for centuries: indeed this particular correspondent, a literary celebrity and regular letter-writing machine, delivered a lecture entitled ‘English Poets as Letter Writers’ at Yale during the period covered by this collection. He was, more or less consciously, writing with us in mind.

It’s all here, from the business-like to the searingly personal. The years in question, 1932 and 1933, saw Eliot face an acute personal crisis, played out in the theatre of literary London to catcalls from prominent names among the audience. In one corner of the stage the author of The Waste Land and reluctant ‘voice of a generation’; an American who affects an Edwardian English accent and who, in the words of Edmund Wilson, ‘gives you the creeps at first because he is such a completely artificial, or rather self-invented character’. In the other, Eliot’s first wife, the fragile and neurotic Vivienne Haigh-Wood, ‘poor, raddled, distressing woman’, who according to Virginia Woolf,  ‘takes drugs’ and is ‘malodorous and tousled—sniffing ether’. Far from the maligned muse of previous accounts, Vivienne emerges in her own letters to be manipulative as well as deluded, the cross Eliot has somewhat masochistically taught himself to bear. For 18 years her grip on him has been sufficient to restrict their social circle to a handful of long-suffering friends and render his home-life, in his own words, a ‘nightmare… like a bad Dostoievski novel’.

His escape is engineered through acceptance of a visiting professorship at Yale and departure for the United States. Vivien attempts to sabotage his plans right up to the last minute, locking a case with essential papers and lecture notes in the bathroom, the loss of which he only discovers in the taxi on the way to the boat train. He will never return to her; instead he hides on a farm in Surrey, the address of which is known to only three people, communicating with her solely through his lawyer. It is, he admits to Alida Monro in February 1933, ‘a step I have contemplated for many years’. This comes as a shock, because he has not hinted at such a decision in any correspondence previously; once the floodgate opens his resentment towards the  ‘hopelessly infantile’ woman who has blighted his life pours out. According to the tenets of the Anglo-Catholicism he has converted to, divorce is not only wrong but also ‘impossible… it isn’t real’; separation, on the other hand, is essential to his survival, both as writer and human being. Eliot is forty-four: ‘my years of activity can be counted, and I have no time now to waste… I cannot face the prospect of dragging on the same futile life’.

And what activity it is. Eliot is a director at Faber & Faber, as well as editor of the literary magazine Criterion. He exists in a workaholic frenzy of correspondence, a distraction perhaps from what awaits him at home. Speaking engagements and inclusion in anthologies must be fended off, translators of his own poetry into Italian and Catalan consulted with, relationships with some of the leading writers of the day handled for Faber —above all that with James Joyce, who is hopelessly overdue with the delivery of what will eventually become Finnegan’s Wake, while his masterpiece Ulysses remains on the banned list, subject to seizure at customs. In publishing matters Eliot is shrewd, acutely aware of margin, print-runs, matters of copyright and the value of a literary property. He wisely decides to play a long game with Joyce, telling him ‘it is at the present moment absurd to talk about refunding your advance’.

As a publisher he is, of course, required to write rejection letters, which range from the brusque to the insightfully instructive, including one to George Orwell he might have later regretted: ‘I should think… that you should have enough material from your experience to make an interesting book on Down-and-out life in England alone’. On a lecture tour of American universities he shamelessly promotes Faber authors, writing to a fellow director that he hopes ‘after all the touting I am doing for Auden & Spender their volumes might be placaeble here; and there may be others you wd. like me to talk about’. In the end it is the secret self of the writer we seek among all these pages, along with crumbs of insight and practical advice from the table of a master, perhaps encapsulated in an unguarded interview he gives to a journalist from the St Louis Dispatch:  ‘I don’t think I like writing. It’s not a regular occupation. Thank God I have a proper job’.

Faber & Faber, £50. Order at £45 from the Independent Bookshop