Book Review

The Love of a Ghost for a Ghost

On January 2, 2020, as a pandemic was about to create a new wasteland of the world, a collection of 1,131 letters from T. S. Eliot to his longtime friend Emily Hale opened for research at the Princeton University Library. The letters, in 14 boxes sealed with steel bands, had been housed in a crate for over 60 years, labeled with a Post-it note that read “Eliot/Hale, sealed until 2020.”
For Eliot scholar and biographer Lyndall Gordon it was the end of a long wait—48 years to be exact. Gordon recounts that as a student in New York, she went to discuss Eliot with the chair of the English Department at Princeton. “A. Walton Litz told me of Emily Hale and the priceless gift sequestered in the Firestone Library.” Litz hinted to Gordon about a mystery in Eliot’s life. To Gordon’s amazement, the dignified professor confessed to a “lawless fantasy . . . if he knew he was dying, he said, it would be his last pleasure to steal into the archives, break open the boxes and read the Eliot-Hale letters.” “Then and there,” Gordon writes, she “vowed to live to the day when the letters would be released.”
What happened next as the scholars commenced reading the letters, so long anticipated, so tantalizingly embargoed, was a surprise worthy of a plot turn in an epistolary novel. A message from a curator at Harvard dropped into Gordon’s inbox. It was a four-page statement that Eliot had written in 1960 containing instructions that it be released on the same day the letters were to be made public (or as Eliot had feared, leaked). In the statement, Eliot essentially disavowed his feelings for Emily Hale and implied that she had saved his letters out of revenge. In director Susanna White’s recent BBC documentary T. S. Eliot: Into “The Waste Land,” Gordon herself refers to the statement as “the bombshell.” It is impossible to know exactly why T. S. Eliot rewrote the record of their relationship, but no matter what his motivations, the letters to Hale tell a very different story.
Lyndall Gordon has written three previous biographical studies of T. S. Eliot. Throughout her scholarship, Gordon’s focus has been to follow the confessional element in Eliot’s work by measuring the poetry against the life. The more that is known of Eliot’s life, the clearer it has become that the impersonal façade of his poetry masks an often quite literal reworking of personal experience.
In The Hyacinth Girl: T. S. Eliot’s Hidden Muse,[1] Gordon continues and expands this endeavor, combing the Hale archive to uncover further connections between the poet’s life and work. In the process, Gordon does not shy away from the misogyny, racism and anti-Semitism that run through Eliot’s life and work (as no biographer writing today really could). She proceeds with a deep respect for the poetry and curiosity about the complicated psychology that motivates and explains Eliot’s behavior, looking beneath the surface erudition of the work to find the confessional core, always seeking connections that show how experience resonates in the work.
Gordon explores the intimacy and detachment that characterized Eliot’s relationship with Emily Hale, the real woman as well as the idealized muse. And while Hale may be the heroine of the story, Gordon also sheds new light on three other crucial relationships: Eliot’s first marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, his deep friendship with war-time activist Mary Trevelyan and, finally, his second marriage to the much younger, deeply devoted Valerie Fletcher. Among these four women, only Hale has remained—until now—“the Lady of silences.”
Emily Hale and T. S. Eliot met as teenagers in Boston. Their paths crossed again in 1913 while Eliot was a graduate student at Harvard. Hale, a trained singer and aspiring thespian, made a striking impression on him. Just before Eliot left for Germany, he declared his love for her but did not propose marriage. In 1915, Eliot published “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and married an Englishwoman, Vivienne Haigh-Wood. News of the marriage came as a complete surprise to his family and friends, including Emily Hale, with whom he had been corresponding regularly and to whom he sent flowers for special occasions while she, meanwhile, was trying to decide if she could learn to care for him when he returned from Europe.
Eliot seems to have realized that he was still in love with Emily Hale shortly after his marriage to Vivienne. Beginning as far back as 1922, during the composition and publication of The Waste Land, the marriage, always troubled, frayed under multiple pressures: breakdowns, betrayals, financial woes and Eliot’s conversion to Anglo-Catholicism. The couple lived separately until 1938, when her brother, with Eliot’s consent, had Vivienne committed to a mental institution.
As Eliot’s marriage unraveled, Emily Hale became his muse and confidante. After reconnecting in London, Eliot sent the first of a torrent of love letters, and their epistolary romance, punctuated by encounters on both sides of the Atlantic, began in earnest. In her biographical preface to the archives, Hale writes, “From this meeting in London until the early 30’s I was the confidante by letters of all which was pent up in this gifted, emotional, groping personality.”
Gordon has long believed these letters would reveal that Hale was an animating force in Eliot’s poetry from the earliest work. The very first love letter, handwritten just after Hale sailed back to America in 1930, proves her right. In it he discloses Hale’s part in his faith journey and struggle for purity of spirit. He reaffirms his love for her, going so far as to say that he might never have arrived at “the Altar [of his conversion]” but for her. He will never need to explain Ash Wednesday—published earlier that year—to Hale, as “no one else will ever understand it.” Hale did not respond right away, but when she finally did, saying she wished to make him “perfectly happy,” Eliot immediately wrote a second letter expressing his joy (a “supernatural ecstasy”), confirming his love as “the one great thing” in his life and promising an intense and deep devotion. Gordon writes:

Most tellingly, the letter ends with the revelations we already know about specific lines and poems she had inspired. It is here that he asks her to “re-read the hyacinth lines in the Waste Land Part I, and the lines toward the very end beginning ‘friend, blood shaking my heart [/ The awful daring of a moment’s surrender / Which an age of prudence can never retract / By this and this only I have existed . . .]’ and compare them with Pipit on the one hand and Ash Wednesday on the other, and see if they do not convince you that my love for you has steadily grown into something finer and finer. And I shall always write primarily for you.

Other letters refer to Burnt Norton as “our” poem. Words, images, and phrases from their exchanges and encounters filtered into the poems and plays. Gordon’s meticulous analysis proves how germane Eliot’s love for Emily Hale was to the “efflorescence” of his art.
Eliot’s letters to Hale were passionate and incessant. He repeatedly confessed his love, addressing her as “Lady” (calling to mind Dante and Beatrice), referring to her as his “Dove,” and still later as “riperaspberrymouth,” rapturously describing their kisses and referring to her perfect nose and her “dear dear feet.” Despite his ardor, it appears that Eliot preferred the idealized, epistolary Emily even as she yearned for a more conventional relationship. Hale continually raised the issue of marriage, but Eliot refused to divorce Vivienne, even after they had separated and she had been institutionalized. The question of Eliot’s marriage—a non-negotiable obstacle to action for him—seems to have depleted Hale, leading to breakdowns and poor health. When he felt her retreating, his letters pulled her back. Their long affair was as Gordon describes it a “dance of possession and withdrawal.”
It is hard not to wonder, as year rolls into year, why she did not walk away. According to Gordon, “There’s no easy answer. A habitual bond between two people, however fraught, is hard to break, as Eliot had found with Vivienne. Perhaps, at forty-five, she did want his love, even on his shifting terms.” Without her letters we can never really know why she relied so long on a promise of happiness deferred.
From 1939 until the end of the war, Eliot and Hale had what Gordon describes as a “pact” which sustained them through the separation of the war years. In the only letter among the thousand sent that she copied for herself to keep, Hale describes the “very complimentary, rather grave responsibility you have placed upon me—and which I have always consented to accept—since 1934—when we came together in those thrilling London days.” According to Gordon, Hale’s “high-minded nature and ambitions as a performer” suggest a further reason that she continued to accept Eliot’s terms for their relationship: “to play an everlasting role in lines like ‘The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree,’ when the finale to Four Quartets brings together these scenes they had inhabited.” Eliot refers in letters to “our” love poem; “our” communion; “our” Quartets; and, full of future promise, “our” next play. Perhaps this intimate connection to the work and proximity to his growing poetic fame were enough to sustain her through the burden of all that Eliot projected upon her. And despite the impediments presented by his faith and his marriage, both Eliot and Hale seem to have harbored hope for a future together.
How even to begin to fathom the depth of Emily Hale’s disappointment when, after Vivienne’s death in 1947, Eliot informed her that he could never remarry despite being finally free to act? Eliot and Hale met in person between May and June 1947, presumably to hash things out, but after this time the relationship underwent what Hale refers to as “the change.” One imagines that she must have been furious and distraught, but she seems to have acquiesced with remarkable speed to his change of terms. From then on, her correspondence was that of a dear old friend. Her letters, matter-of-fact and quotidian, showed that she clearly understood he was not the person she had thought.
The Eliot-Hale letters have another story to tell beyond the relationship between them: a story Gordon explores throughout The Hyacinth Girl in what she calls “the posterity plan.” Emily Hale kept all Eliot’s letters and donated them to Princeton University. Eliot kept only twenty-five of Hale’s letters, beginning in 1947, when their complicated relationship underwent “the change.” Gordon believes that Eliot kept these letters precisely because they were not love letters. “To anyone who did not know of the hundreds of earlier letters they would appear tame, which was the intention: to erase what had been . . .”
Yet as early as 1930, Eliot presented the following question to Hale: if his name is to last two generations beyond their lifetimes, what should be done with their letters? Options were considered, including instructions for burning the letters he kept in a locked tin box, but he preferred they be deposited in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, to be opened sixty years posthumously. Eliot wished to archive Hale’s letters, “the only documents in my possession which cast any light on my life and work.” Gordon indicates that Eliot believed the future must know “how very great is, will be and always was, my debt to you.” Eliot was to change his mind, burning all of Hale’s letters written between 1930 and 1947. And, as if burning the letters were not enough, he wrote the posthumous disavowal to be read upon the archive’s release, claiming that his love for Emily Hale was that of “a hallucinated man,” “the love of a ghost for a ghost.”
Emily Hale refused to be eradicated from Eliot’s life and work. She braved his disapproval by creating her own “posterity plan” with the help of her friends Willard and Margaret Thorp. Hale announced her decision to send all Eliot’s letters to Princeton University in Thorp’s custody, thereby washing “the shores of the literary future beyond our imaginings.” Gordon writes that Hale, by these actions, “divests herself of the ghostly role, the invisibility imposed upon her. She has decided that what her life has been must become visible to the future . . . [she] grants herself permission to enter a public arena and take control.”
Hale was not the only woman whose close relationship with Eliot led to hopes of marriage. In 1938, Eliot struck up a friendship with Mary Trevelyan, a beloved mentor to foreign students at the University of London. Gordon refers to Mary as a “guardian.” When it came to his work, Mary was the basis for the character of Julia in The Cocktail Party—“a party guest given to insistent interruption which turns out to be the social disguise of an angel.”
Eliot dined out with Mary, attended church regularly with her, enjoyed long drives together to the countryside. Trevelyan, according to Gordon, “brought out a domestic side to Eliot, which his readers would not have suspected. He liked to help cook their simple supper and take out the rubbish.” Mary Trevelyan believed she had grounds for thinking there was more than friendship between them. She proposed to Eliot three times, and all three times Eliot explained that marriage would be impossible for him. As with Hale, but in a very different context, Mary and Eliot’s twenty-year relationship was characterized by closeness followed by retreats. Despite his dependence on her for care and arrangements (he was physically debilitated with emphysema and heart palpitations), it appeared to Mary that Eliot became less emotionally engaged, melancholic and touchy.
Eliot was in the habit of compartmentalizing his emotional entanglements. Gordon notes that in Hale’s letters and in Trevelyan’s memoir, “each seems the prime attachment.” While Hale may have had her heart broken by Eliot a decade earlier, Mary Trevelyan, after a companionable sherry with Eliot on January 2, 1957, left for a short holiday in France and Switzerland. Her friendship with Eliot seemed unremarkable. She returned on January 9 to find a letter announcing that Eliot was to be married to his secretary, Valerie Fletcher, the very next day. By the time Mary Trevelyan read this news, Eliot and Fletcher were en route to their honeymoon.
Eliot was sixty-eight and Valerie Fletcher was thirty. But Fletcher had set her sights on Eliot much earlier, when as a schoolgirl of fourteen, she heard a reading of Eliot’s Journey of the Magi and vowed to become his disciple. After eight years as his secretary at Faber, they secretly engaged and were married on January 10, 1957. Once again, Eliot’s closest friends and family were stunned to learn of his marriage. Mary Trevelyan thought Eliot had lost his mind. John Hayward, his flatmate of long years, was told only two days before. He remained puzzled and hurt. Emily Hale undoubtedly reflected the opinion of many in the reaction she expressed to her close friend Margaret Thorp: “a great writer has behaved like a very usual human being: in his older years, found a very young and attractive woman to take care of him, putting aside all else.”
As with the other women in Eliot’s life, Gordon assigns a role to Fletcher: the disciple. Valerie dedicated herself completely to Eliot, providing sensual love and genuine happiness to the poet, nursing him tirelessly through his final illness until his death in 1965. After Eliot’s death, Valerie devoted herself to his legacy, annotating The Waste Land Manuscript, collecting his letters and guarding his reputation. Over her long widowhood she created a record of attainment in her own right, but to Eliot, she remained his anachronistic paragon of perfect womanhood: one who “professes no inconvenient needs or ambitions of her own, other than togetherness.”
With Valerie Fletcher, Eliot finally found perfect happiness. Without begrudging the poet his joy, or minimizing Fletcher’s devoted love, it is difficult not to be appalled at the apparent ease with which Eliot used and discarded the women (and friends) who loved him but no longer served an artistic purpose or filled an emotional need. Yet none of the women appear to have confronted Eliot, and there seems to be no indictment of his behavior in any letter or diary entry. Gordon herself resists either pity or outrage, suggesting that to do so would be overly reductive, robbing the women of agency over their choices. She is a resolutely compassionate and respectful chronicler of the complications, entanglements and particularities of each relationship. Gordon allows the record to show his manipulations, his selfishness and shortcomings—and within these pages there is plenty of rope, as the saying goes, for readers to come to their own assessment.
In November of 1960, Eliot, in the fourth year of his second marriage learned of Emily Hale’s biographical introduction to the Princeton bequest. He then wrote a “testimony” recasting his decades-long relationship with Emily Hale, which Gordon quotes at length:

Emily Hale would have killed the poet in me; Vivienne nearly was the death of me, but she kept the poet alive. In retrospect, the nightmare agony of my seventeen years with Vivienne seems to me preferable to the dull misery of the mediocre teacher of philosophy which would have been the alternative.
[When Vivienne died] I suddenly realised that I was not in love with Emily Hale. Gradually I came to see that I had been in love only with a memory, with the memory of the experience of having been in love with her in my youth . . . I might mention at this point that I never at any time had any sexual relations with Emily Hale.

What none of the characters in this story could have envisioned— certainly not T. S. Eliot—was the future landscape into which this “bombshell” detonated. After the feminist revolution of the 1970s and the #MeToo movement, Eliot’s effort at posthumous gaslighting was bound to backfire. Gordon believes that in order to validate his newfound love with Valerie Fletcher and protect her in the future, Eliot felt required to invalidate his past with Emily Hale. Even attributing this motive of gallantry to Eliot cannot mitigate the cruelty of his attempted erasure of Emily Hale. Eliot’s characterization of Hale stands in invidious contrast with the dignity and fairness of her own clear-eyed statement, in which she takes responsibility for her choices and acknowledges the sorrows and the joys of their complicated relationship.
October 15, 2022 marked the centenary of the publication of The Waste Land. This anniversary makes The Hyacinth Girl not only a valuable but timely addition to Eliot scholarship. Lyndall Gordon shows how each of these four women had a transformative effect on Eliot: Vivienne, flamboyant and edgy, turned him into an English poet, recognizing his genius early and urging him away from a career in academia; Emily Hale, his confidante and muse, shared his greatest creative years and inspired his most enduring work; Mary Trevelyan offered him practical help and daily companionship in life and worship; while devoted young Valerie Fletcher turned an ailing man into an eager lover and, after his death, became the protector of his legacy and papers. Gordon has shed new light on each of these relationships with insight and sympathy, never losing sight of the poet at the center of the story. Foremost is Emily Hale, not the ghost loved by a ghost, but the living woman who inhabited Eliot’s most enduring poem as the hyacinth girl. Finally, Eliot’s Lady of silences speaks, and, ironically, it is through his own letters that her true story can be known.
[1] THE HYACINTH GIRL: T. S. Eliot’s Hidden Muse, by Lyndall Gordon. W. W. Norton & Company. $35.00.