The emotional wasteland

The Letters of TS Eliot, Volume 4: 1928-1929, edited by Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden, Faber, RRP£40, 826 pages

The first volume of TS Eliot’s letters was published in 1988 and issued in significantly expanded form in 2009. What did it tell us about the author of The Waste Land? Mainly that he was forever caught up in the most humdrum matters. His correspondence was businesslike, pious and dignified, with just an occasional hint of frivolity. It was also minutely concerned with his finances.

Since then the impression has been consolidated: Eliot was philosophically minded, stately and occasionally haughty, and yet an expert networker. From time to time he flirted with the possibility of an academic career. He allowed just a few friends to see his more playful aspects – among them a taste for the “minor pleasures of drunkenness and adultery”.

In this fourth volume Eliot’s second wife Valerie, who died in November 2012, is once again named as co-editor, alongside John Haffenden. In the 47 years between Eliot’s death (in January 1965) and hers, Valerie zealously protected his legacy. These letters are a testament to his industry, courtesy and lucidity, and the names of the recipients are evidence of his deep involvement in the most august literary circles: EM Forster, GK Chesterton, WH Auden, Arnold Bennett, James Joyce.

Eliot often wrote several letters a day, and he destroyed some of his most intimate correspondence, so what we have here is at once a copious record and an incomplete one. The three most recent volumes span the period from 1923 to 1929. With another 35 years of Eliot’s life to go, one can’t help wondering how vast the entire collection will be (15,000 pages perhaps?) and how much longer it will take. His dispatches to Emily Hale – an old friend seen by some as his secret muse – cannot be released by Princeton University Library until 2020. They represent an important cache (“1,131 letters and related enclosures”) and a potentially appetising one.

From the letters we do have we gather that most of Eliot’s life was taken up with matters other than poetry. In October 1929 he writes of “growing tired”, and it’s not hard to see why. Among his concerns at this time was sustaining his magazine, The Criterion, which had a circulation below a thousand and had lately lost the patronage of Lady Rothermere. He was also busy at the publisher Faber & Faber, where he was a director. There were meetings to organise, other writers to cultivate or pacify, commercial decisions to make. All the while he was churning out reviews, lectures, talks for the radio and “anything that turns up”.

Only here and there do we get a glimpse of the practising poet. This period yielded a handful of new efforts. Unexpectedly, he tells one correspondent that it is his habit to correct work in progress by reading it aloud, “with the accompaniment of a small drum”. On reflection, this feels like an ingenious way of brushing off a bothersome admirer, not an illumination of his own methods.

His first wife Vivienne was a constant source of anxiety. In February 1928 she returned from a long stay at a French psychiatric hospital; Eliot wrote that this “may be not a bad thing” – a rare foray into italics. In private, Vivienne had trouble with neuralgia, her teeth and her liver. In public her powdered, scented appearance only served to heighten her air of morbidity.

Vivienne’s letters are included to give a sense of Eliot’s unravelling domestic life. They contain extreme statements (“If you hear of me being murdered, don’t be surprised!”) as well as more workaday notes, such as a worry about having “rough hands”. She describes herself as “frightfully lonely” – italics are for her a more common mode – and the prospect of her getting behind the wheel of her Morris Minor (“a very small car, a minimal car”) must always have filled Eliot with dread. He found relief in prayer – “nothing could be too ascetic, too violent, for my own needs”.

As Eliot wrestles with his faith, marriage and work, trivialities abound: he asks for a friend to be sent a few samples of toothpaste, alerts another to a job opportunity at a Swedish university, and mentions suffering from “something like influenza” (a heavy cold?). The tone is drier than that of the previous volume, where Eliot was more inclined to begin a letter thus: “Being now at my office and perfectly sober, I find that I had already made a very boring engagement for Friday lunch.”

In this volume, moments of flippancy or levity are scarce; it’s a treat of sorts when he reminds the heiress Nancy Cunard of “the suggestion I once made to you that you should breed blue Bedlingtons”. One wishes for more of this expressiveness, even if not for the blue terriers. And while of course this volume is valuable for scholars of Eliot’s work and of the period in which he lived, its wider appeal is questionable.

Henry Hitchings is the author of ‘Sorry! The English and their Manners’ (John Murray)

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