Eliot revealed as defender of lesbian fiction

New exhibition shows the austere poet as a pioneering publisher and father figure to younger writers

Paul Bignell
Sunday 30 August 2009 00:00 BST

TS Eliot's reputation as one of the past century's most austere and solemn poets will be blown apart by a major new exhibition opening next month casting him in a far softer light: as a champion of lesbian fiction and compassionate father figure to struggling writers.

Letters written by Eliot when he was a publisher at Faber & Faber reveal for the first time how he risked the wrath of the British authorities to bring out Nightwood, one of the first lesbian novels ever written. Previously unseen correspondence to be displayed at the British Library shows that Eliot thought the 1936 book, by Djuna Barnes, was "the last big thing to be done in our time".

Later diary excerpts from Ted Hughes in the 1960s refer to the poet as "the Guru-in-chief", describing the older Eliot as a "father figure". Eliot's letters to his three-year-old godson, descriptions of his role as a fire warden during the Blitz and stories about his wartime problems with paper and ink shortages all paint a striking new image of a man with a benevolent, compassionate side.

Rachel Foss, the British Library's curator of modern literary manuscripts, said: "There is this interpretation of Eliot as this severe, rather grim author of The Wasteland. But this exhibition shows there was another side to him: that he was tremendously warm and generous in his relationships and that this was reciprocated by others."

Eliot backed Nightwood, which was set in the 1920s and depicted the tumultuous relationship between its two female protagonists, despite its rejection by other publishers on the grounds of obscenity. Eliot was such a fan of Barnes's writing that he said he found it difficult not to imitate her style after reading it.

To avoid falling foul of strict censorship laws, Eliot changed a number of the novel's references to lesbian sex as well as to religion. Despite this, he confessed to Geoffrey Faber, founder of the publishing house, that he believed himself an unreliable judge when it came to matters of censorship. "I am perpetually being shocked by what doesn't shock other people and not being shocked [by what does]," he wrote in a letter to Mr Faber in 1936.

Two unseen journal entries from Hughes reveal the younger poet's admiration for Eliot. Hughes was just starting out on his career when he wrote the accounts. One entry, revealed for the first time here in The Independent on Sunday, was written on the day after Eliot's death in April 1965. It demonstrated how profoundly the loss of his mentor had affected Hughes.

"T S Eliot died yesterday, like a crack over the head exactly followed by a headache. Heavy after-effects. I've tangled him into my thoughts as the Guru-in-chief and dreamed of him so purely and unambiguously. But this will have consequences for me. At once I felt windswept and safe. At the same time I realised that everything will be different. He was in my mind constantly like a father figure... He being my publisher simply sealed his paternity. How often I thought of going to ask for his blessing," wrote Hughes.

'In a Bloomsbury Square: T S Eliot the Publisher' opens at the British Library on 14 September

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