Faber £40

The Letters of TS Eliot Volume 3: 1927-27, Ed Valerie

Yours faithfully, kindly and with modesty, Tom

The first two volumes of T S Eliot's letters, covering the years from 1898 to 1925, revealed an emerging poet and a disastrous marriage. This third volume begins with a letter from his wife, Vivien (two spellings of her name, Vivien and Vivienne, fluctuate through the years), to her doctor from the hospital where she is "resting" in January 1926. It ends on 27 December 1927 with Eliot's rejection of a book proposed to Faber, where he was working as an editor, and a comment about the end of the Monthly Criterion (previously the quarterly The Criterion), which he also edited.

That passage of two years marks a move in his life from the personal and the domestic to the public and professional, and towards a newfound confidence and ease. The bank job is long gone and Eliot, one senses, is far happier conversing with fellow writers on literary subjects. His health also improves when his troubled wife is absent. The first two volumes of Eliot's letters are so full of the illnesses he and Vivien suffer, it's a wonder any poetry was written at all. Vivien, who is in and out of various sanatoriums, admits to John Middleton Murry that she has a fear of being alone. She can't be with "Tom", and she can't be without him. It is a situation which will, alas, only get worse.

But without her to care for constantly, Eliot can be sensitive to others, such as the fellow writers whose work for the Monthly Criterion he must reject. Nevertheless, spats still ensue – Robert Graves writes in a fury about a bad review, and Richard Aldington wants another critic banned. Eliot engages in theological discussion with Middleton Murry (the American-born Eliot will become both an Anglican and a British citizen during this period), and hints at how he copes with Vivien and the appeal of religion: "I have found my own love for a woman enhanced, intensified and purified by meditation on the Virgin."

He also shares some rather contradictory thoughts on biography. "I do not want a biography, if it is ever written – and I hope it won't – to have anything private in it. I don't like reading other people's private correspondence in print, and I do not want other people to read mine," he writes to his mother in April 1927. But in August he writes to Geoffrey Faber about a biography of Swift, "I do think Swift's sexual life ought to be studied carefully and sympathetically" – though he demurs, "I don't know that I should recommend putting it into one's book". He tells one reviewer that he doesn't like it when people write the same review for different publications, while telling another that he doesn't mind if they do.

Do these minor contradictions matter? I think that they make Eliot more human in this volume, which can seem too public, too professional. There's a deliciousness, of course, to reading letters to literary stars such as F Scott Fitzgerald and W B Yeats, and it's also fascinating to see correspondence with those writers of the period who are now barely read, including Middleton Murry, Aldington and Frances Gregg. A modest, kindly, yet assured Eliot emerges from this volume. He is holding back, after years of emotional difficulties and trauma, but one doesn't sense repression; simply relief that he can hold back at all. He will need that ability more in the years to come.

Lesley McDowell's 'Between the Sheets: Nine 20th Century Women Writers and their Famous Literary Partnerships' is published by Duckworth (£9.99)

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