From Eliot Among the Women

In September 1932, Eliot returned to America after seventeen years of unhappy marriage in London. He was to take up the Charles Eliot Norton professorship at Harvard, and he hoped his stay in Boston would be the start of a permanent separation from his English wife, Vivienne. Since 1930, he had renewed contact with his first love, Emily Hale, an actor and drama teacher living in Boston. Since October 1930, they had corresponded intensively but had maintained a physical distance. The expressiveness of his early letters to her reveals a poet who is unlike the Eliot who has long been familiar to readers as a reserved figure. Encouraged by him, Hale left Boston, just before Eliot arrived, to take up a speech and drama post at Scripps College in Claremont, California. The following excerpt follows their friction and intimacy over the spring and summer of 1932 before they change places. It draws on the 1,131 letters from Eliot to Emily Hale which were released in January 2020 after a fifty-year embargo.[1]
Scripps was a new institution, the only Western college for women, founded five years earlier. Miss Hale took heart to be wanted there to hone speech and build up drama. The lure was a post with professional standing as Assistant Professor of Oral English. She was also to preside over Toll Hall, where the students lived.

Though she knew no one in Claremont, she had one special contact via her childhood friend, Margaret Farrand Thorp. “Peggy,” as she signed letters to Emily Hale, had a distinguished aunt, Beatrix Farrand, whose husband Max Farrand was the first director of The Huntington, the library, art museum and botanical gardens in San Marino, not far from Scripps. Beatrix Farrand was a landscape gardener, known for her work at the White House and Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, the Morgan Library in New York and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden on Mount Desert Island in Maine. As a woman, she was the first of her kind, and as a niece of Edith Wharton and past friend of Henry James, she belonged to the very elite of American society. Farrand was primed to take to Emily Hale as “vivacious and ornamental” and to welcome her to her home, the director’s house.

Emily Hale confided in Margaret about Eliot, whom the Thorps were seeing in London, following Hale’s introduction. Eliot let Hale know how impressed he was with Margaret’s intellectual superiority and how much respect he was gaining for Willard Thorp’s acuteness. (The Thorps were to play a central role later in persuading Emily Hale to donate her huge cache of Eliot letters to Princeton University.) Margaret and Emily had a pact: they would confide freely every fortnight or so and then burn each other’s letters—though some survive amongst the Thorp Papers at Princeton. Eliot knew that Hale confided fully in Margaret Thorp and suspected that she confided also in her aunt and uncle. He was a little uneasy at the prospect of meeting the Revd. John Carroll Perkins and his wife “Aunt Edith” in Boston. Eliot pressed Hale about what she might have said and also whether she confided in another of her friends, his Boston cousin, Eleanor Hinkley. He was relieved to hear that she had not. He confided in no one, he told her.

To Eliot she expressed her fear of loneliness as a single woman among strangers and her worry to be moving three thousand miles away from her mother in a Boston asylum. Drawing on his handling of his troubled wife, Eliot’s advice was to distance herself emotionally and speak to doctors rather than the patient. He recommended prayers for her mother instead of upsetting visits. When Emily, as he called her, felt wrung by her mother’s undeserved fate, he sensed rebellion against God. To her, the situation called for empathy, not the sermon Eliot delivered. Still, he was concerned about her loneliness out West and offered to give her a dog. He fancied a Blue Bedlington terrier, a fighter bound to growl at strangers and offensive people. This breed of dog (looking rather like Eliot himself) would serve as his substi­tute, an intimate companion, who would do everything for her that he himself, were he a dog, would do. When Emily said no to the dog-substitute, Eliot capitulates: there is no alternative but to bring himself. In this way he commits himself to a visit in person at the end of the year.

There came a point when Emily stopped tiptoeing in her letters. In May 1932, she surprised Eliot with an idea for his visit.

Should they take a holiday together? They would of course conduct themselves as the moral beings they were.

He had no doubt of her; it was his own self-control he distrusted.

Would the strain be too much for him, she asked?

Not if he could arrange a safety net. If instincts should get the better of him, could he be free to leave suddenly, without causing a problem? He had to be frank with her. Age had not diminished his desires. If anything, they had intensified by concentrating solely on her.

To soothe anxiety, she redefined her idea as an outing. She planned to have a car and offered a Western tour. Might he like that?

Yes, he would. She thought of Yosemite National Park and didn’t put him off by owning what an expedition that would be. He did not know where Yosemite was nor what to expect. His nervousness now fixed on rattlesnakes and cougars.

Her next initiative was a follow-up to intimating a change in herself, for she had come to depend upon God. This was bound to please. Eliot knew she was not a regular churchgoer and, as a Unitarian, averse to what she regarded as superstition. As a convert to the Trinity, Eliot deplored Unitarianism as no more than a code of conduct. Though Hale had been baptised, as she told him, he couldn’t call her a Christian and dearly wished her to move towards his way of thinking, while she wished him to rediscover the faith into which they were born. Both in her own character and as a Unitarian she practiced humanity towards fellow-beings, from whom Eliot tended to withdraw into the citadel of himself. Privately he leant towards solitude. There was this latent—sometimes not so latent—conflict, and Hale’s next two moves were attempts to close the gap.

Her uncle, who was the minister in Boston’s historic King’s Chapel, would invite Eliot to deliver an address to his Unitarian congregation, and Hale had a topic ready: “The Influence of the Bible upon English Literature.” Eliot agreed, and the leaflet of King’s Chapel that she sent gave him a sense of a more formal and beautiful ritual than the Unitarian ritual of his childhood in St. Louis. But then Emily chanced it too far. Might they go on a retreat together? She had in mind the Unitarians’ newly set up retreat, Senexet, in Woodstock, Connecticut.

Again, Eliot was taken aback. It astonished him to hear that Unitarians accepted people on retreat together. To him, a retreat meant shedding others and praying on his own. His other objection was sectarian: it would be improper, he argued, for an Anglican to join in non-Anglican practice. The Anglican faithful, he told Emily, would disapprove. But the strictness came from himself. He often called for his adoptive church, born of a via media and mild in its minimal demands, to be more strenuous, more exclusive. Emily Hale took a less dogmatic approach to faith. There was this conflict, and yet their attachment led them to restore their bond time and again.

Eliot’s forbidding manner combined with his dominance in the world of letters meant that few dared criticize him. Emily Hale cared enough to speak the truth and criticized the verbiage that accompanied hesitation in Eliot’s radio broadcasts. Given her high standard of public speaking, she advised him to talk less slowly—she meant ponderously. When he sent her his preface to Bubu de Montparnasse, the French novel about prostitution that had appealed to him as a young man in Paris, she expressed her distaste for the book. He felt snubbed, he teased with exclamation marks. In fact he rather enjoyed Hale’s directness (as he’d once enjoyed Virginia Woolf’s daring to laugh in his white marble face and rewarded her with an answering twinkle). He readily concedes Hale’s protests over his strangeness and slowness to mature and the time he spends in frivolous society. Not, after all, the “Lady of silences,” as he had imagined her, like Dante’s Beatrice, in his purgatorial poem, Ash Wednesday, published in 1930, just before Hale’s summer in England when he’d invited her home for tea.

Beatrice would not have cut her hair, as Hale did in prepara­tion for an up-to-date appearance at Scripps. She ignored Eliot’s mutter at how barbarous cutting was and what a waste of her hair (as she had ignored adverse muttering over her stage makeup in her role as a Chinese woman). She liked the thirties look with fashionably waved short hair. As far as Eliot was concerned, whenever his poems entertain a possibility of love, long hair comes into play, going back to the hair over a girl’s arms in “La Figlia Che Piange” (1912): “Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair—.” In The Waste Land, a speaker dreams of a girl’s wet hair after staying late in a garden, and in Ash Wednesday, there’s the sweetness of “brown hair over the mouth blown.” Long hair used to arouse desire, most blatantly in The Scarlet Letter where Hester Prynne, meeting her one-time lover, the minister, in the woods, takes off the sober Puritan cap and shakes down her hair. Eliot is pure Arthur Dimmesdale with his guilty passion, leaving the woman he has loved to face her hard lot alone. Hawthorne (a favourite of Eliot’s) forecasts him with uncanny accuracy, and not only the secretive Dimmesdale with his hand hiding his heart, but also the life-denying gloom of a minister who looks at the world through the mesh of a black veil that separates him from others, including a woman whom he might have married. And then too the licence of Young Goodman Brown, who goes wild one night in the woods, the result of a warped nature for which neither he nor any other can sufficiently atone. One of Eliot’s closest English friends, Lady Ottoline Morrell, observes in her journal how alien Eliot appeared: a “lonely isolated figure,” removed “from the ordinary world” and with “a temperamental Dislike of Life . . . a very, very odd survival of some Calvinist Ancestor.”

Running parallel with Hale’s moves are Eliot’s countermoves. The letters convey unison rather than an outright clash that might have driven them apart. Both understand feeling for each other as a necessary comfort, come what may. Yet Eliot’s counter-course is so plainly in place that it takes a certain resolve in Hale to be constructive rather than cave in or walk away. Some will admire her spirit; others will think her a fool to hold on. But to read the letters is to see, and not just to see but to feel, the tug of Eliot’s eloquence, the beam of his regard, the naked genius when he spells out incipient thoughts for future work, so much so that it’s easy to share Hale’s hopes of a happier outcome. Readers during the first weeks after the letters were released left the archives at the end of each day exhausted emotionally from tugs that went different ways. The difficulty Emily Hale faced was undoubtedly the mixed message.

What she was up against were, in short, warnings. These were most explicit each Lent and Easter. In April 1932, Eliot said he had gained so much that he could not give up his journey towards what he termed “reality”: as he put it in the Quartets, “human kind / Cannot bear very much reality.” The real thing lay beyond life, and he could no longer accept the kind of love that would mean giving that up. If he were to rank his two narratives, the supernatural did come first. Desire was evil, he believed, and talking to Hale more frankly than to anyone, he explained how difficult it was to fight this evil when he woke in the morning. When she notes his diminished expressiveness in the spring and summer of 1932, he explains this as a strategy, inseparable from unsatisfied desire. His typewriter stumbles, he crosses out and picks up the thought again with more deliberation, putting companionship before passion, then dependence, reverence and a protective instinct. He decides to label his feeling for her “respect.” True enough, though only one strand. He was not so earnest that he did not sometimes fix on her bathing costume and wavy hair.

With age, he said, came firmer values, above all the sacrifice of personal desires. Unstated is his expectation that she will go along with the sacrifice for a greater good. The word evokes the sacrifice of Jesus and also the public narrative in which a woman consents to be a sacrifice: Stravinsky’s ballet, Sacre du Printemps, and, still in the future, Eliot’s sacrificed missionary, Celia, in his play, The Cocktail Party. Sacrifice was a role Emily Hale declined to play between 1932 and 1934. She did this through her work in the theater. Her letters relayed successes to Eliot without (he complains) telling him anything much. In April 1932 she was in a Footlight play for an amateur dramatic club active since 1877 and based at Eliot Hall, Eliot Street, in Jamaica Plains, a part of Boston. In May she was performing as an aristocratic lady of eighty-five. That it had something to do with Sir Walter Scott and his popular poem, The Lady of the Lake, was all she would say. Eliot calls her a secretive minx for not divulging the title of the play, and pleads continually and in vain for photos of her perfor­mances. These she withheld, having learnt to avoid his habit of disparagement. He might say that her role demeaned her patrician character or that a play was poor or how thoroughly he detested Shaw or Noel Coward or whoever the playwright might be. At Scripps, in 1934, when she did mention directing Comus, to mark the tercentenary of Milton’s masque (staged in 1634), Eliot’s condescension took another tack. It would be too difficult to stage it, he warned. Her actors’ enthusiasm and a glowing review proved him wrong.

During the month preceding Emily’s departure for Scripps and Eliot’s for Boston, his letters revert once more to his lone journey. On 26 July he’s dreaming of a monastery with visits—alone—to friends, the latter in order to maintain a semblance of normality. In August, he tries to wean Hale away from what told against him, her standing by what’s natural (herself) versus what’s unnatural (Eliot). He recommends her to see, as he does, the natural in relation to the supernatural, rather than in relation to an unnatural situation that provoked resentment.

At the same time, he wanted her to restore his authentic self, to be Emily’s Tom (as he ends one letter), stripped of disguise. It was his wish, he said, to have no reserves whatever, and he would depend on her to help him give up on reticence. This hope prompted his declarations to her, so that they were not only love-letters or warnings or sermons but intended as revelations of what he was—what she alone was to see. Sometimes, exasperated by his shifts and demands, she complained of self-absorbed letters when they became a diary of his doings. Just before he sailed for the States, she detects a change of personality in a photograph he sent. This man looks alarmingly like a crook.

He was amused and did not disagree. Might she see him as the third-rate actor he supposed he was?

It happened that one other person saw him. It was a horrible man, a Russian with Bloomsbury connections, Dmitry Petrovich Svatopolk-Mirsky, known as Prince Mirsky, who published a piece on Eliot’s “deep phobia of life.” Eliot thought it brilliant and sent it on to Emily Hale by way of unmasking. The “phobia” can’t have endeared him to her, nevertheless she had to know. We have to admire his candor.

Mirsky commended Eliot’s “aggressive” obscurity as a weapon to defend himself against a populace not meant to understand the secrets he talks of in his poems. The obscurity is superficial. Mirsky waves away the allusions superimposed on a simple drama taking place in elisions and silence. The “phobia of life” turns into “biological defeatism” and requires religion to be contra mundum—“a purity free from vitality.”

Where then, Hale might ask, does love figure? Was love an alternative to the poetry of death, something it had fallen to her to bring out: love as a focus for the poet’s backward yearning for a world in which his own people had lived and helped to form? There were times, he told her, when his memories of New England seemed to him more real than old England, and now with the prospect of being away from England, the whole of his life there could become a dream.

We may wonder how far Hale took in Eliot’s oblique leaning towards a rare kind of love consistent with the poetry of death: the posthumous affair. Hearing in 1932 that she had a set of Henry James, Eliot urged his private taste for posthumous love played out in some strange tales. In “The Altar of the Dead” a woman devotes herself to lighting candles on a shrine for a dead man who occupies all her life and attention. And in “The Friends of the Friends” a woman and a man, made for each other, do not meet during their lifetimes. Instead the man is bonded to the ghost of his soulmate. In his insistent distancing of Emily Hale between 1930 and 1934, Eliot was not simply too frightened or refined for the contact he desired; there’s an intriguing fantasy of lovers parted physically in life who will quicken together after their deaths.
[1] First published excerpt from Eliot Among the Women to be published by W. W. Norton (New York) and Virago (London) in 2022.