Brigid O’Donovan

Brigid O’Donovan started as TSE’s secretary in Jan. 1935. TSE was to write this reference for her – addressed to the Clerk of the County Council, Hertford – on 8 Mar. 1940:

Miss O’Donovan was my secretary here for several years – I do not recall the exact length of time, but that could be obtained – and also assisted me in editing the Criterion, a quarterly review. In this capacity she had to interview many visitors, including a good number of people whom I did not wish to see, and always, so far as I know, handled them with both firmness and tact. She made a very good impression upon those who came in contact with her, as several people mentioned to me privately. As she left me, not in order to look for a more highly paid job, but to find one which would give more scope to her energies and initiative, I should certainly suppose that her first motive in applying for any post was that the nature of the work attracted her, though I know that she has to earn her own living. She certainly did not suffer from illnesses when she was with me – … I should put her energy decidedly high.

Miss O’Donovan is decidedly a lady, and I believe her to have a high character, an alert social conscience and even a religious temperament. My relations with her were always most satisfactory and I have pleasure in recommending her for any post that she wishes to obtain.

See O’Donovan’s memoir ‘The Love Song of T. S. Eliot’, Confrontation (Long Island University, NY), Fall/Winter 1975, 3–8 – reported in the TLS, 23 Jan. 1976:

The secretary, who has never appeared in print before, is daughter of Gerald O’Donovan who was Rose Macaulay’s beloved friend; Rose introduced Brigid – her god-daughter – to Eliot at Faber and Faber in October 1934, and he gave her the job (he told Rose) on the strength of her big black hat.

‘Brigid O’Donovan worked for him … for twenty months. He was always soberly dressed with neat back and sides, and ‘never cross’, Apart from general publishing matters, his chief work was editing Criterion, which lost money: ‘I don’t know why Faber and Faber kept it on, but I think it was to please TSE and give him more work to do.’ Most of what went into Criterion ‘came from TSE’s friends’. He was an unmethodical and sporadic editor; most of the proofreading and production seems to have devolved on to Miss O’Donovan. She made an effort to get things on to a more orderly footing, but then realized that ‘TSE wouldn’t love it any more if it had to be done as regular work’.

The secretaries were responsible for letters rejecting manuscripts from unknown writers; the only rule was that they had to be three paragraphs long. Eliot – at this time working on Murder in the Cathedral – was also writing constantly to his friends, and dictated to Miss O’Donovan ‘quite personal letters’ (though of course, as she says, she does not know what letters she did not type). Another duty was to cope with Mrs (Vivienne) Eliot, from whom he was separated, and who would turn up at the office to see him without warning: ‘I would go down and explain that it was not possible for Mrs Eliot to see her husband, and that he was well. Mrs Eliot, I now understand, suffered from schizophrenia, but at the time I had no idea what was the matter. She was a slight, pathetic, worried figure, badly dressed and very unhappy, her hands screwing up her handkerchief as she wept.

‘Meanwhile Eliot slipped out of the building, and on return would be on edge for the rest of the day.’

Miss O’Donovan’s own relationship with him was always strained, for ‘from the start I fell in love with him’. He kept his distance. But she was made of sterner stuff than Prufrock, and after nearly two years of agonized love she took the opportunity of his absence in America to hand in her notice.

O’Donovan added in her memoir (p. 6): ‘[Mr Eliot] usually had some amusing and sarcastic comment to make about every incident or individual who came our way, not excluding members of the firm. Nevertheless, he was a warmhearted and affectionate man, and everyone was very fond of him … When it came to teasing [Geoffrey] Faber it was hard to say whether [Frank] Morley or TSE led the field, but they both gave it considerable thought and preparation.’

Anne Ridler, ‘Confidential Clerk’ (letter), TLS, 6 Feb. 1976:

I have not seen Confrontation but to judge from the account given in your Commentary (January 23), the picture drawn by Brigid O’Donovan of T. S. Eliot’s work at Faber and Faber is a distorted one. To correct it, I refer your readers to the article on Eliot as a publisher, contributed by his colleague F. V. Morley to the symposium edited by Richard March and Tambimuttu (London, 1948), where he says: ‘Conscientious, scrupulous, careful, attentive: one or other of those uncommon epithets is needed to describe Eliot as publisher.’ As to the Criterion, I took over the job of secretary from Brigid O’Donovan, and it is true that in those later years of its existence the impetus of its early period had slackened, and the times were not propitious; but it is quite untrue to suggest that it was kept on ‘to please TSE and give him more work to do’. As to proof-reading, it was always understood that this was the secretary’s job: why on earth should the editor have been expected to do it?

Ridler to Valerie Eliot, 27 Jan. 1976: ‘I must say that Brigid gave absolutely no sign to the naked eye of languishing for love, but of course that’s nothing to go by!’ (EVE).