The second Mrs Eliot

I was so surprised when I read today that TS Eliot’s wife is still alive. But Valerie Eliot was only 30 years old when he married her. He was 68 himself. Phew, she was not even half his age. And it was she who pursued him working as his secretary for eight years before he married her in 1957, 10 years after the death of his first wife, Vivien. She did not have him long. He died eight years later in 1965.

The story is told in The Guardian by Karen Christensen, who worked on the first volume of Eliot’s letters. She has an axe to grind. She hoped to publish letters from Eliot’s later life after she came out with the first volume in 1988. But she can’t. She writes:

The Eliot letters still linger in the flat in Kensington, and it’s said that it is unlikely that more will be published during Valerie Eliot’s lifetime because there are vital gaps, letters of Eliot’s that must be found before the work can be finished. I’m not only puzzled but impatient, because the letters in the second volume were the most moving of all the hundreds I worked on.

She adds:

Valerie Eliot, née Fletcher, who in middle age resembled Margaret Thatcher, was not a conventionally pretty girl, but in letters written in the weeks after their secret marriage in January 1957, Eliot was rhapsodic about his new wife’s charm and beauty. She would say, “Tom liked bright frocks.” Photos from the 50s show her in unflattering colours and styles much too old for her. But Eliot was enchanted. He loved the fact that her new initials were EVE (Esmé Valerie Eliot) and had them engraved on a silver dressing table set as a wedding gift. He went through her books, crossing out Fletcher and writing in Eliot.

She could hardly have been less like Vivien. Vivien was wild, fragile, intense, tragic. Valerie was solid, strong, and matter-of-fact. This made her confidence in talking about poetry quite startling to me, but hers was a deep and individual sensitivity, an instinctive conviction that poetry was of supreme importance.

She goes on to say:

Valerie Eliot has been editing her late husband’s correspondence for three decades. When I worked for her, I often wondered if she would be able to let go of any of the letters, and was breathless with relief when the first volume went off. Despite her continued protestations that she needs to fill in this or that gap in the collection (for several months when I worked for her it was missing letters to Scofield Thayer), and the scrupulousness of her editing, her reluctance to publish the next volume of letters cannot simply be a matter of scholarship.

Perhaps there is an element of overprotectiveness…

Eliot scholars would of course like to know every last detail about him, warts and all. But his poems haunt us even if we don’t know everything about his personal life. There is a difference between scholars and readers. We as readers can be mesmerised by words while scholars want to find out what lies behind those words.

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