My Novel Centered on the Eliot-Hale Letters. Now, We Can Read Them
Martha Cooley on a Decades-Old Mystery
It’s finally happened: over a thousand letters written between 1930 and 1956 by T. S. Eliot to Emily Hale, and sequestered until January 2, of this year, have been made available to researchers. Princeton University has untied the copper bands around the wooden boxes and let the letters loose.
Until now, the actual nature of the Eliot-Hale relationship has been a murky and alluring mystery. Eliot aficionados have long awaited the chance to see what was going on between the great Modernist poet and a woman about whom nobody knows much. They’ll know more shortly, for sure. Or think they will.
I too have been waiting for this moment—for 22 years, as it happens. My first novel, The Archivist, which Little, Brown published in 1998, puts that stash of letters at its center. The novel’s narrator is the archivist (wholly my invention) in charge of the letters’ safeguarding. An older man who keeps his own counsel, he’s thrown off track when a young woman, a poet, expresses keen interest in reading the letters, though not for the reasons he expects. Her parents—Jews who managed to flee Germany and the Holocaust—converted to Christianity without telling her about their past. Seeking to make sense of this life-altering decision, their daughter hopes to learn from the Hale letters something about another conversion, Eliot’s, from Unitarianism to Anglicanism. The young woman’s startling request dredges up memories and emotions the archivist has managed til now to tamp down.
My novel is not directly concerned with the Eliot-Hale relationship, though it does bear upon my characters’ inner lives. Regardless, it’s fascinating to see that the way things unfold in The Archivist is nothing like the way they’ve begun unfolding in the public imagination, now that Eliot’s official statement (written in 1960) about his bond with Hale has been released in tandem with the letters’ unveiling.
Eliot really didn’t want those letters out there. His three-page statement is quite a document, at once angry and ardent, shame-filled and testy, high-minded and petty. In essence, it is a repudiation of his experience of having loved Hale. And it contains assertions and revelations that have set tongues wagging. (Prurient readers will likely be disappointed by this one-sentence paragraph, which appears near the end: “I might mention at this point that I never at any time had any sexual relations with Emily Hale.” Behind the consummately polite “I might mention” sits, it seems, Eliot’s profound frustration at having been smoked out of his lair.)
Unsurprisingly, the poet’s statement to the public has already prompted judgments, pronouncements, and diatribes. Once the letters themselves have been widely read, there’ll be more—plus insults and counter-insults. Take your typical New York Review of Books dust-up in that review’s Letters section, multiply its level of competition and acrimony by a hundred, and you’ve got what’s coming down the pike: a major literary and armchair-psychological slug-fest.
Jump on in, if you like. Or sit on the sidelines and applaud the best take-down or defense. Or you might do something else: read or re-read Eliot’s poems, especially “The Waste Land” and “Four Quartets” but also “Prufrock” and “Ash Wednesday,” to name my own favorites. Read them and be glad for what the current fracas cannot really undo: the force of his work.
It was my English grandmother Nell who, when I was 15, recited for me (from memory and without much ado, yet in a tone that made me sit up and listen) a pair of lines that led me to the rest of Eliot’s work: Teach us to care and not to care / Teach us to sit still. I borrowed and read all of Nell’s copies of his books, read Eliot in college, read him on my own thereafter, and continue to read him now and then when I need a memory refresher, although plenty of his lines are permanently sound-tracked within me in Nell’s voice. Eliot is the poet who opened poetry’s doors for me, the one who first showed me that a poem could be, as the poet Donald Hall has put it, “the unsayable said.”
I didn’t set out to write a first novel dealing with poetry, madness, Christians and Jews, jazz, and guilt—oh, and the Hale letters. In fact, I didn’t set out to write a novel at all. When I started, I thought I was penning a short story prompted by a bit of literary-cultural news. I’d come upon a brief article about the letters, and wondered who this Emily Hale was, and why Eliot hadn’t wanted either side of their correspondence to become public—since in addition to trying to talk Hale out of leaving his letters to Princeton, he also told a colleague to destroy Hale’s letters to him after his death.
My curiosity piqued, I then read a masterful two-volume biography of Eliot written by the English literary scholar and biographer Lyndall Gordon. She was the first to shed significant light on Hale’s role in the poet’s life, and her biography paints an admirably nuanced portrait of the poet, his inner world, and the circumstances that led him to communicate with Hale for as long as he did. Gordon is particularly good at revealing and exploring the substrates of religious feeling (and attendant inner conflict) underlying so much of Eliot’s poetry. An act of empathic imagination as well as sharp literary scholarship, Gordon’s biography does the additional service of depicting Emily Hale as a multifaceted woman, not merely a foil for the famous poet.Between the work and the life of a literary artist lies an inscrutable territory of the heart; neither the writer nor the reader can hope to map it.
Having thus learned a bit about Hale, I kept imagining how tempted the actual archivist must be by the thought that she or he might smuggle home a few Eliot letters each night, read them, and return them, and no one would be the wiser. Thus began my initial character sketch—of a man conflicted, professionally and personally. Soon, however, I had to inquire into why he was so protective of those particular letters, and why the poet who wrote them was so vital to him. This in turn led me to imagine someone else keen on the letters, a woman who would complicate the archivist’s efforts at self-containment. And yet another character arrived: the archivist’s deceased wife, a deeply troubled woman who understood a great deal about poetry, denial, and the wages of self-protection. Thus I had what I needed to proceed: sharply competing interests and desires along with unanswered, urgent questions about the past—with Eliot-Hale in the background of the narrative, and bits of the poems threaded through it.
In an obvious sense, Eliot’s just-released statement blows my characterizations and plot to the wind. That’s no problem for me or my book, which doesn’t claim to be historical fiction. It’s strange nonetheless to watch as Eliot’s letters to Hale—key pieces of a puzzle that has taken up space in my imagination for decades—are suddenly dropped onto the public game table, along with an accompanying statement that abrogates their contents.
Of course this puzzle can never be pieced together without Hale’s letters to Eliot. We will never know why the poet wanted to silence Hale by ordering the destruction of her letters to him, or why she wanted to ensure he couldn’t silence whatever of himself he’d expressed in his letters to her. One might of course look at all this as an exercising of power, with each party doing what s/he can to control the narrative. But such effort can’t go the full distance, and would in any case be pointless: Words, after speech, reach / into the silence. Those lines from “Burnt Norton” hit the mark. Of whatever transpired between T.S. Eliot and Emily Hale, silence owns the better part.
I take pleasure in wondering what it’ll be like to read the unveiled letters. Still, I find myself thinking mainly of Eliot’s poems. Between the work and the life of a literary artist lies an inscrutable territory of the heart; neither the writer nor the reader can hope to map it. It goes without saying that I’m not the fictional archivist I created, but he and I share this much: a wish to be spared the grasping at straws that the release of the letters is bound to kick off. Sure, it’s grand fun to parse a one-sided correspondence, pretending it will shed clear light on…on what, exactly? Another line from Eliot’s “Burnt Norton” comes to mind as I contemplate the time and energy that will go into this activity: Distracted from distraction by distraction.
A few years after making her gift to Princeton, Hale wrote a statement of her own. Unlike Eliot’s, hers has not appeared in full in most news accounts about the letters; whether it will receive the same attention remains to be seen. But what little of it I’ve been able to read suggests that after the end of the affair, Hale was rather more even-handed than he. Eliot was convinced that he would’ve suffered if they’d married; about Hale’s possible suffering he had nothing to say. In contrast, while admitting that Eliot’s decision not to marry her caused her “shock and sorrow,” Hale asserted this: “Perhaps [his] vision saved both of us from great unhappiness—I cannot ever know.”
Nor can we. All I know is that Emily Hale would make a splendid central protagonist in a story or novel. For that matter, so would the colleague Eliot tapped to destroy Hale’s letters, whoever he or she may be. I hereby throw down the gauntlet.