The Secret Cruelty of T. S. Eliot

Before she died, Emily Hale donated love letters she had received from the author while his wife was ill. Now public, the writings reveal his quiet duplicity.

T. S. Eliot and Emily Hale in Dorset, Vermont, during the summer of 1946
Princeton University Library

“The question is not does love exist / But when she leaves, where she goes.” What’s that—something from Four Quartets? Actually it’s “Secrets,” by Van Halen. But how elegantly it expresses the problem. What happens to the love gone cold? All that madness, transport, froth, projection, communion—where does it go? With the source extinguished, do its beams still travel, like light from a snuffed-out star? Or does it dissipate entirely into unreality?

For a long time, T. S. Eliot was in love—chastely, unconsummatedly—with a woman who was not his wife, a woman named Emily Hale. Then, overnight as it seemed, he wasn’t. For 17 years, she in America and he in England, they had been maintaining an intense, and intensely sublimated, attachment. They wrote hundreds of letters. They saw each other infrequently, and behaved, when they did, with appalling propriety. And then, in 1947, it was over: “A mutual affection that he and I have had for each other,” she wrote to a friend, with typical restraint, after a visit from Eliot, “has come to a strange impasse.”

With hindsight (and the glibness of posterity) perhaps not so strange. Eliot’s first wife, the erratic Vivienne, had just died in a mental hospital at the age of 58. Their marriage had made him so miserable that he wrote The Waste Land, and he hadn’t seen her since 1935, but they never divorced—his brand of ascetic Anglicanism would not permit it. And with the shock of Vivienne’s death, the peculiar constellation of yearnings and prohibitions that had sustained his love for Emily Hale was dissolved. Thanatos took down Eros. Just like that. Ten years later, when Hale learned that Eliot had remarried, she broke down. “She went into the Massachusetts General Hospital,” writes Lyndall Gordon in T. S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life, “complaining of dizziness, and was investigated for a brain tumour, but the doctors found nothing.”

Hale kept Eliot’s letters (he destroyed hers) and gave them to Princeton, with instructions that they be made public 50 years after the death of whichever of the two of them lived longest. Eliot, when he learned of Hale’s bequest, wrote a statement—more of a rebuttal or repudiation, as it turned out—to be released simultaneously with the unsealing of the letters; he gave it to Harvard. Eliot died in 1965; Hale died in 1969. This past January, with scholars jostling and creaking and Eliot nerds agape, and very shortly after the release of the movie Cats, the two vaults popped open.

“I’m here for the T. S. Eliot letters,” I announce at each murmuring administrative checkpoint, each fresh onion layer of quietness, on the way into the reading room at Princeton’s Firestone Library. Each time, I am gently corrected: “The Hale papers? Okay, let’s see …” It takes three or four of these ever-so-mild reproofs, these polite assertions of the personhood of Emily Hale, before I understand what’s going on. Princeton is proud of these letters; Eliot’s Harvard statement—at best unchivalrous, at worst faintly homicidal—demeans them, and has cast a long, green, Eliotic shadow over their unsealing.

Dearest lady is how Eliot addresses Hale, or My dear lady. (Photo by Ashley Gamarello / Courtesy of Princeton University Library)

The Harvard statement is a horrible piece of writing, really. Pusillanimous, you might say, if you take the word back to its Latin root: pusillus animus, small soul. Declaring himself at the outset “disagreeably surprised” by Hale’s bequest to Princeton, Eliot proceeds to dissect his former feelings, and their object, like a patient etherized upon a table. “Upon the death of Vivienne in the winter of 1947, I suddenly realised that I was not in love with Emily Hale … I came to see that my love for Emily was the love of a ghost for a ghost, and that the letters I had been writing to her were the letters of an hallucinated man.” Had he married Hale, he writes, she “would have killed the poet in me.” “Insensitiveness” … “Bad taste” … Perhaps, he speculates, she was more in love with his reputation than with him. “I might mention that I never at any time had sexual relations.”

Well. Enough of that. The death ray of retrospect can shrivel anything. Let’s have a look at the letters themselves. Box 3, to be precise, of the 14 chronologically organized boxes at the Firestone. The year is 1932. The letters are mostly typed. Dearest lady is how Eliot addresses Hale, or My dear lady. “Believe that though I am rushed,” he writes on April 1, “I am not distracted from you in mood.” Early spring and late fall, he tells her on April 12, are the two seasons most “troubling to my equilibrium” and “reviving of memories one must subdue.” Or to put it another way: “April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire.”

The sensation of a letter from T. S. Eliot in your hands—dry and delicate and sort of immaculate, in a way that seems to partake of the nature of the man himself—is a strange one. And these are, by his standards, intimate letters. Deep down you feel vandalistic and prurient as you handle them. You feel like a hectic 21st-century slob. You read on. “V’s mental health” makes an ominous appearance, as does the “evil angel” that waits for Eliot when he wakes at 5 a.m. “I wish you would not refer to my humble little comments and counsels as ‘sermons,’” he writes in a letter from May 1932. Then he thanks Hale sincerely for her “clear criticism.” Responding to a suggestion that they (uh-oh) take a holiday together, he uses the phrase “two people in our position.” They must do nothing, he writes, “which could raise the slightest suspicion in any mind however vulgar.” The erotic temperature goes up a bit here: Yes, Eliot may have “resignation towards the unfulfilled,” but “age has not abated my passions.” (The next letter worries that he sounds “priggish.”) May 20, 1932: He hates driving, gets tired, dreads almost everything … He’s packing V’s medicines, grumble, grumble …  “What a stupid letter,” he writes in pen at the bottom. On June 24, he reports receiving a letter from James Joyce. On July 1, he writes that unless he gets to Mass at least twice a week, he feels “rather as I do when I have missed my bath.”

The point is, these letters are not hallucinations, or ghost-to-ghost communiqués. They are quite human, quite pressurized by life, and quite trusting of their recipient. What made Eliot disavow them so violently? God knows. His love for Emily Hale, while he felt it, had the force of a spiritual necessity. It helped him toward the church, he tells her in the first letter in the Hale collection. “I want to convince you,” he writes in the second, on All Souls’ Day, 1930, “that my love for you has been the one great thing all through my life.”

Emily Hale made her own statement, and included it with the letters. “A brief review,” as she describes it, “of my years of friendship with T.S. Eliot.” At the Firestone you can see a handwritten draft, in blue pen, in her looped and ladylike hand. The statement is formal, gentle, baffled, and quietly devastating in effect. She describes Eliot, rather brilliantly, as “this gifted, emotional and groping personality.” What came between them after Vivienne’s death was, she writes, “too personal, too obscurely emotional for me to understand.” There is a note of quiet defiance: “The memory of the years when we were most together and so happy are mine always.” And at the end of it, she turns squarely toward us, in our libraries, shabbily poking through the story. “I accepted conditions as they were offered under the unnatural code which surrounded us, so that perhaps more sophisticated persons than I will not be surprised to learn the truth about us.”