The Letters of TS Eliot Volume 3: 1927-27, Ed Valerie
Yours faithfully, kindly and with modesty, Tom
Sunday 24 June 2012
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)
Film More romcom than S&M
Review: The Imitation Gamefilm
Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars
TVNetflix gets cryptic
TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth
Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Lee Evans announces retirement from comedy on The Jonathan Ross Show
- 2 Pirelli calendar 2015: The problem with 'plus-size' models like Candice Huffine
- 3 These grandmas smoking weed for the first time are wonderful
- 4 Woman opens professional cuddling shop – gets 10,000 customers in first week
- 5 Angelina Jolie confuses everyone with 'ay up me duck' East Midland's greeting to Derby actor Jack O'Connell at awards show
'Good morning, that's a nice TNETENNBA': Countdown hero wears IT Crowd t-shirt on-air
Lee Evans announces retirement from comedy on The Jonathan Ross Show
Willow and Jaden Smith talk duality of apples, holographic realities and the melancholia of the ocean in incredible New York Times interview
I'm A Celebrity 2014: Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie confirmed to enter jungle
Drawn Blank: Bob Dylan exhibition showcases the musician's bold and vibrant paintings
G20 summit: Enter Putin. Accompanied by four warships. To the sound of mockery
'Muslims pre-date Columbus in discovering America,' says Turkish president Erdogan
David Cameron 'compares Vladimir Putin’s Russia to Nazi Germany' ahead of tense meeting
Former Tory PM Sir John Major says 'we would not have an NHS without migrants'
France 'blocks' Russian sailors from boarding a warship
G20 summit: David Cameron warns Vladimir Putin that Russia's relationship with the West is at a 'fork in the road' over Ukraine