Epistula a fratre Thoma ad Gregem Latine Loquentium die 13 mensis Novembris anno MXII missa
Frater Thomas sodalibus, salutem
Constat Thomam Eliot (1888-1965) praestantissimum fuisse inter poetas anglice scribentes saeculo vicesimo. Qui bis uxorem duxit. Primo iuvenis Viviananam Heigh-Wood festinato infelicique connubio sibi coniunxit. Ipsa non iam penes se aliquos post annos facta in asylo pro hominibus insanis usque ad mortem anno 1947 conclusa est. Ipse et indole et experientia homo perquam tristis redditus vultum et vitam severissimum atque austerissimum ubique praebebat.
Interim contigit ut quaedam puella quattuordecim annorum, Valeria nomine, ab Eboraci comitatu oriunda, alumna in schola phonodisci ope forte auscultaret illud Thomae Eliot poema recitatum cui titulus Magorum iter et nescio quo tacta afflatu, eodem temporis momento constituerit vitam ac vires huic viro, sibi penitus ignoto, dedicare. Quod miro modo effectum est. Valeria enim scholam relictura, a summa magistra interrogata quod iam factura esset, 'Secretaria Thomae Eliot ero', respondit. Quae primum artes necessarias didicit, deinde occasione tandem aliquando reperta, munus cupitum apud domum editoriam Faber & Faber consecuta est.
Spes iam omnino rata? Minime vero. Cursum quasi honorum femina persequitur. Neque autem amicissimam patroni sui se mox praestat ne animum viri gravem obscurumque affectionis intempestivae taedeat. Sed labore cauto quieto fideli magni maioris maximi apud patronum sensim redditur. Lapis, ut aiunt, guttis cavatur! Narrant Valeriam quodam die in corbe epistulari alias inter litteras machina mechanica scribendas epistolium a patrono exaratum invenisse quo matrimonium proposuerit. Gaudens nimirum consensit. Illa tum temporis (1957) unum et triginta, ille octo et sexaginta annos natus erat.
Necessarii poetae eum post nuptias vix agnoverunt. Vultus enim tam diu torvus et atrox iam in hilaritatem frequens solutus. Diurnariis quaerentibus quae incepta in animo haberet, 'In arte saltandi', inquit, 'institui cogito'. Quam animi mutationem non omnes sane probabant. Aldous enim Huxley - scriptor libri c.t. Mundus novus et mirabilis - censuit Eliot uxore insulsum redditum. Ipse flocci faciebat. Par impar sua societate valde contenti perfruebatur.
Octo felicitatis anni poetae magno a Providentia clementi concessi sunt. Anno enim salutis 1965 a nostra luce migravit. Ipsa nudius quartus.
Valerie Eliot Valerie Eliot, who has died aged 86, married the poet TS Eliot in 1957, when he was 68, and by sheer uncomplicated adoration achieved the miraculous feat of making him happy.
Over the previous four decades Eliot’s life had appeared irrevocably blighted by his marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood. For a few weeks in 1915 Vivienne had appeared to him as a delightful, talented and engaging flirt; the knot had hardly been tied, however, when Eliot recast her as the cross to which his life had been bound.
From this matrimonial disillusion sprang much of his best poetry — not least, perhaps, the sexual disgust so evident in The Waste Land and other poems. At times Eliot seemed consumed by horror at predator-women: “The sleek Brazilian jaguar / Does not in its arboreal gloom / Distil so rank a feline smell / As Grishkin in a drawing-room.”
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Vivienne became increasingly neurotic, hypochondriacal and mad. Eliot separated from her in 1933; five years later she was consigned to a mental hospital.
But misery had for so long seized Eliot’s being that he could not now shake himself free. His conversion to a gloomy Anglicanism in 1927 had only reinforced the mould. “Very yellow and glum,” Harold Nicolson noted of him in 1932. “Perfect manners. He looks like a sacerdotal lawyer — dyspeptic, ascetic, eclectic.” After Vivienne had been committed Eliot was more than ever wracked by guilt, by the rending pain of re-enactment “Of all that you have done, and been; the shame / Of motives late revealed, and the awareness / Of things ill done and done to others’ harm / Which once you took for exercise of virtue.”
Nor did Eliot find release after Vivienne’s death in 1947. Two women — his old Harvard flame Emily Hale and his forthright English companion Mary Trevelyan — awaited a proposal. Indeed, Mary Trevelyan more than once proposed to him, but to no avail.
“He is a man in prison, a prison largely of his own making,” concluded Mary Trevelyan in 1950. Eliot was then living at 19 Carlyle Mansions, in Chelsea, with John Hayward, a critic afflicted by muscular dystrophy, who kept pity at bay with a barbed tongue.
Eliot himself was subject to anger. “I have noticed of late his [Eliot’s] immense indignation with anyone who disagrees with him,” Mary Trevelyan wrote to Hayward in 1955. “It is indeed a terrible strain on any human being to feel he is a Classic in his lifetime.” The Classic remained impenetrable, alike as the formally dressed public figure, and as the lodger who disappeared behind the door of his room in Hayward’s flat. In the mid-1950s, moreover, his health declined — he suffered from emphysema — and he became increasingly preoccupied by death.
__ It seemed hardly possible that this remote, fastidious and tortured
intellectual might be returned to humanity. In fact, Eliot’s saviour had
already appeared in the shape of a Yorkshire girl. And if her qualities, in
line with her handsome looks, were essentially practical and down-to-earth,
there was something almost mystical in the call that she heard, and in the
unswerving faith with which she followed.
Esmé Valerie Fletcher was born on August 17 1926, the daughter of James
Fletcher of Headingley, Leeds, a manager of the State Assurance Company.
(The future playwright Alan Bennett, son of the local butcher, used to make
deliveries to the Fletcher house.) Beyond insurance, James Fletcher was
interested in porcelain, and concerned with both the Leeds Art Collection
Fund and Leeds Library.
Valerie was sent to school at Queen Anne’s, Caversham, near Reading, where the
ethos was sporting rather than intellectual. At the age of 14, however, she
was visited by a sudden illumination when she heard a recording of John
Gielgud reading Eliot’s Journey of the Magi. Thereafter her obsession with
the poet became a family joke.
The headmistress of Queen Anne’s may also have smiled wryly when Valerie
Fletcher told her, on leaving, that she was determined to become TS Eliot’s
secretary. For six months she worked at the Brotherton Library of the
University of Leeds, and then as private secretary to the novelist Charles
Morgan. But her aim, as she artlessly phrased it, was always “to get to
Tom”; and in August 1950 she duly succeeded in becoming his secretary at
Faber & Faber.
The essential prerequisite of Valerie Eliot’s final triumph was that she knew
better than to alarm her formidable employer with uncontrolled and gushing
admiration. Mary Trevelyan called Eliot “the Pope of Russell Square” on
account of the fawning respect with which he was treated at Faber & Faber;
such was his fear of women, however, that he would duck into the lavatory
rather than risk having to leave the building with a secretary. For years,
therefore, Valerie Fletcher’s office hours were consecrated simply to
earning a formidable reputation for efficiency.
“I can’t get to know her at all,” Eliot complained to Mary Trevelyan as late
as 1955, “she shuts up like a clam.” After their marriage he would
acknowledge that for a long time he was not even sure that she liked him. He
had no notion that, outside the office, the discreet secretary was building
up a collection of his works that rivalled his own. In whatever way the
breakthrough was made, once Eliot had discerned Valerie Fletcher’s
unconditional love he did not hesitate.
It is said that he proposed by slipping a note into a batch of letters which
he gave her for typing. Only after Valerie had accepted did he wryly demand:
“Do you know my Christian name?” Still, though, Eliot maintained absolute
secrecy, while Valerie Fletcher wore a finger stall to disguise her
engagement ring. The sharp-eyed John Haywood, who never cared for her, had
his suspicions, but still fell short in his speculations. “There’s something
more to that flower of the Yorkshire marshes than meets the eye,” he
remarked in May 1956. “The perfect secretary has begun to see herself as the
lady with the lamp.”
“I don’t give Miss Fletcher anything,” Eliot rather naughtily informed Mary
Trevelyan in December 1956. “I don’t think it is suitable to give one’s
secretary presents.” The two old friends continued to meet regularly until,
on January 9 1957, Mary Trevelyan received Eliot’s note telling her that he
was going to marry Miss Fletcher the next day. Her understandably stunned
letters of congratulation prompted an angry reply from the poet, who accused
her of “gross impertinence”. They never met again.
TS Eliot duly married Valerie Fletcher at 6.15am on January 10 1957 in St
Barnabas, Addison Road. Apart from Valerie’s parents, and one of her
friends, no one was present. St Barnabas had been chosen in preference to St
Stephen’s, Gloucester Road, his habitual place of worship. Eliot was
intrigued to learn that the French poet Jules Laforgue, whose work had been
an important early influence on his own, had also been married there.
When the new-marrieds returned from their honeymoon in Menton, the change in
Eliot was startling. “You look as if, like Dante, you’d passed into
Paradise,” someone told him. “Exactly,” he replied. “I’m the luckiest man in
the world,” he would say, “I do not deserve such happiness.” If Valerie had
to endure the disdain of some of Eliot’s circle, she rejoiced that through
unstinting devotion all her intuitions were justified.
“He obviously needed to have a happy marriage,” she observed after her
husband’s death in 1965. “There was a little boy in him that had never been
released.” At parties the Eliots would hold hands and gaze at each other
like lovesick teenagers, in defiance of the 38 years that lay between them.
Such public felicity was rather more than some could stomach. “Tom Eliot is
now curiously dull,” remarked Aldous Huxley.
Certainly, after the first performance of his play The Elder Statesman in
1958, Eliot wrote no more poetry. The dedication to Valerie would be his
last verse, unremarkable as art, startlingly frank from such an ancient
fossil. The sentiment could not be further removed from the aura of Grishkin
in her drawing-room: “To whom I owe the leaping delight / That quickens my
senses in our wakingtime / And the rhythm that governs the repose of our
sleepingtime, / The breathing in unison / Of lovers whose bodies smell of
each other / Who think the same thoughts without need of speech / And babble
the same speech without need of meaning.”
Eliot said he felt younger at 70 than he had at 60. There was a rekindled
spark in his eye, and a new openness of manner. “I’m thinking of taking
dancing lessons again,” he told reporters. “He felt he had paid too much to
be a poet, that he had suffered too much,” Valerie later explained.
Notwithstanding the new radiance in Eliot, his health remained delicate,
necessitating winter trips to the Caribbean — generally tied in with visits
to New York. Eliot relished far more, however, their annual visits to
Valerie’s mother in Leeds. He got on well with Mrs Fletcher, who noted his
The centre of the Eliots’ content, though, was their ground-floor flat in
Kensington Court Gardens. Occasionally, there would be notable visitors,
such as Igor Stravinsky or (more surprisingly) Groucho Marx; generally, they
passed the evenings alone together, listening to the gramophone or reading
to each other. In the afternoons they would walk in Kensington Gardens,
Valerie gently chivvying her husband along.
At all times she remained his guardian and protector. In the bitter cold of
January 1963, when Eliot was forced to spend five weeks on oxygen in the
Brompton Hospital, she was constantly with him. “Hurrah, hurrah, hurrah,” he
cried out as he was wheeled back into the flat, where Valerie’s “coddling”
(as he called it) won him nearly two more years.
Eliot died on January 4 1965. His widow lived on with her memories of him in
the Kensington flat, never slackening in either her devotion or her
custodial mission. Scholars would invariably be fobbed off with polite,
formal and uninformative replies; and even as respectable a biographer as
Peter Ackroyd was given only minimal permission to quote from Eliot’s work.
Occasionally she would be stirred to rebut a calumny. Thus she produced a
letter to show that it was Vivienne Eliot’s brother, Maurice Haigh-Wood, and
not Eliot, who had signed the papers by which Vivienne was committed to
mental hospital. She also dismissed the notion that there was some
homosexual explanation for the failure of Eliot’s first marriage: “There was
nothing wrong with Tom, if that’s your implication... ” she told a
On the whole, though, Valerie Eliot preferred silence. “That dreadful play”
was all she would venture on Michael Hastings’s Tom and Viv (1984). She
became as elusive as Eliot himself had once been. A neighbour who laid claim
to her acquaintance on the ground that his three-year-old son could recite
one of the Sweeney poems by heart was swiftly disappointed. “Who would teach
a child to read Sweeney?” she sensibly demanded.
In 1971 Valerie Eliot published The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of
the Original Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound. This was an
admirably thorough work of scholarship, with an introduction which reflected
the depth and accuracy of her knowledge of Eliot’s youth.
She edited a volume of Eliot’s letters covering the years 1898-1922, and
co-edited three more — covering 1923-25, 1926-27 and, finally, 1928-29,
which comes out in 2013. She was a 50 per cent shareholder in Faber & Faber
and served as a non-executive director.
After 1981 the success of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, from Eliot’s Old
Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, brought Valerie Eliot great riches,
enabling her to create Old Possum’s Practical Trust, a charitable body which
has supported charities and institutions including Newnham College,
Cambridge, and the London Library. From 1993 she donated the prize money
(now £15,000) for the TS Eliot Prize for Poetry awarded by the Poetry Book
Society. Every year she would present the prizes, looking, some thought,
more and more like Lady Thatcher.
Valerie Eliot, born August 17 1926, died November 9 2012
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