That's no dragon, that's his wife

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The Independent Online
THROUGH the dark press of poets and people in the Chelsea Arts Club came a startlingly vivid figure, blonde-haired, pale-skinned, in pink and pearls and black suede, gilt-trimmed shoes.

Surely this figure had strayed into the wrong work of art? No melancholy lilac girl this, no shadowy figure of fugitive resentments. This woman looked as though she belonged in an Alan Bennett play, full of life, earthy sense of humour. But no. 'That's her]' said someone in the crowd. The woman whose name was the last word the poet T S Eliot spoke, who made his last years young and happy: Valerie Eliot, his second wife. Mrs Eliot is now 66, but she is still at her husband's work. On Thursday night she was about to present the prize of pounds 5,000 to the first winner of the new T S Eliot Prize for poetry, run by the Poetry Book Society, which her husband co-founded with Stephen Spender 40 years ago. She is his literary executor. She is still a director of her husband's publisher, Faber & Faber. Indeed, there are those who seem to think Mrs Eliot is over-protective of her husband's work, who see this fiery-coloured figure as a flame-breathing dragon guarding the treasure of Eliot's work.

Now this 'dragon' moved to present the cheque. 'The winner,' said the poet Peter Porter, 'is Ciaran Carson]' Mrs Eliot smiled, a blend of radiance and calm, familiar from photographs of her with the poet in the early Sixties. Mr Carson, gripping a leather-bound copy of his latest volume, First Language, published by the Gallery Press, took the microphone. 'One of my first poets was T S Eliot,' he said, adding moments later: 'I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for T S Eliot.' Mrs Eliot smiled again. Groucho Marx described her in 1964 as 'a good- looking, middle-aged blonde whose eyes seemed to fill up with adoration every time she looked at her husband'. They still do, when people talk about him.

She lives in the Kensington flat he took her to as a bride. 'I've been in the same flat since '57,' she said. Every week large amounts of post arrive containing queries about her husband from students engaged on PhD theses. 'Keeps me going,' said Mrs Eliot, who seemed rather pleased by this. She is also continually engaged in editing his letters, the second volume of which is soon to go to press. 'I've four more on the dining-room table, so I can't have anyone to dinner,' she said. 'Tom wasn't like James Joyce. He didn't keep his laundry list in triplicate. I said, 'Tom, you've got to allow your letters to be published'. Finally he laughed and said, 'I give in. But you've got to do the editing'. I didn't expect that, but I'm glad. I do my own research. I work at weekends. It's fun. It's very exciting to recover him in this way.'

It sounds as much a vocation as a love affair, does Valerie Fletcher's association with the poet. When she was a 14-year-old Leeds schoolgirl, daughter of a manager in an insurance firm, she was overwhelmed by a recording of an Eliot poem. She told her headmistress she was going to be his secretary. By the age of 22 she was. At 30, in 1957 - when Eliot was 68, reader - she married him.

Straightforward, affectionate, efficient, giving, even jolly, it is easy to guess what a deliverance Valerie Fletcher may have seemed to T S Eliot after the neurotic demands of his first wife, Vivien, who ended up in an asylum. A new film, starring Miranda Richardson and Willem Dafoe, due out in the spring, focuses on this tragic relationship. The second Mrs Eliot will have nothing to do with it, probably because she believes it will be unfair to the poet. 'No comment,' she said, turning away slightly. 'No point.' So I asked her if it was true that she was a dragon guarder of her husband's works, and she became suddenly emphatic. 'No, it's not true. If you saw my files - I give permission to quote from his work all the time. Tom forbade a biography in his will. He said: 'I want people to read my work. I don't want people to read my biography'.'

The flame colours in Valerie Eliot's frock glowed. 'To start saying 'That wicked widow . . .' I don't mind, but we've got to stick to his wishes. That's my job.' I mentioned Peter Ackroyd, whose unofficial biography of T S Eliot was published in 1984. Mrs Eliot said she thought in the book itself he'd done a decent job. But he'd known at the start that he wouldn't, any more than all the other unofficial biographers, receive permission to quote from the works. 'To start bleating later,' said Mrs Eliot, chin high, 'that's contemptible.' Mr Ackroyd thinks one of the qualities that attracted T S Eliot to her was her protectiveness. The poet himself, in his happiest poem, dedicated to her, said not only that he owed to her his sense of leaping delight, but that they thought the same thoughts without need of speech.

Dinner was about to begin. Poets were being ushered towards it, the crowd was breaking up. Ciaran Carson leant against a wall in the corridor and said that when he was a boy, a postman's son from the Falls Road in Belfast, he had shocked his teacher by saying T S Eliot was his favourite poet.

Valerie Eliot was wearing a charm bracelet her husband had had made for her at Garrard. From it dangled a practical cat, a hidden portrait, and tiny book covers, representing each of his works. The chosen keeper of his wishes, Valerie Eliot stood high on her heels and began to repeat Kipling's appeal ('Tom used to quote it'):

. . . for the little, little span

The dead are borne in mind,

Seek not to question other than

The books I leave behind.

(Photograph omitted)