18 May 1931: ‘I sometimes have a fear lest I may be, or become, to you, merely the writer of letters, and that if [you] saw me again, you might not be able to identify absolutely the man you saw before you with the author of the letters.’

13 Oct. 1942: ‘I fear the ruling passion of the academic mind, especially when seated in a chair of English Literature – the craving to publicise and edit with annotations.’

On 7 June 1957 T. S. Eliot wrote to Mary Middleton Murry, who had returned to him the letters he had sent to her husband, John Middleton Murry (the author and cultural critic): ‘Some I shall keep, if only to show the world, eventually, the confidence and affection which subsisted between us; others, concerned with my domestic affairs, I may prefer to destroy.’ He went on: ‘I think no honest man should be apprehensive at the thought that the world should know the whole truth about him. But alas! it never does, and always enough is known for the unknown to be misinterpreted.’

Eliot relished reading the lives and letters of writers. He helped towards the publication of collections of letters by writers including Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Lawrence Durrell, the German literary scholar Ernst Robert Curtius, Irving Babbitt, and Dylan Thomas. He was keen to facilitate the publication in 1954 of a cache of James Joyce correspondence known as the ‘Martha Fleischmann letters’ – these suggest that Joyce was briefly tempted by the notion of an amitié amoureuse with a young woman in Zurich in 1918–19 – to which Joyce’s son Giorgio was resistant. Eliot was opposed to censorship or suppression. ‘I am afraid I fail to see his point of view as reasonable,’ he wrote of Giorgio to the scholar Stuart Gilbert. ‘The letters seem to me to do his father great credit and to show no kind of infidelity or lack of respect to Mrs Joyce. In fact, to anyone who reads them with an unbiased mind, they hardly seem like love letters in the ordinary sense at all.’ And Eliot went out of his way to press his point in a further letter: ‘Indeed, it never occurred to me from the moment when I first … read the letters, that the correspondence could give the slightest suggestion of scandal. On the contrary, I thought it made James Joyce appear in a most sympathetic light and cast no discredit on anyone; and I entirely agree with the view … that as the existence of the letters is already known, there would be more whispers of unpleasant gossip if they were suppressed than if they were published.’

This is what he is reported to have said in a lecture, ‘English Poets as Letter Writers’, delivered at Yale University in February 1933:

Letter-writing permits us to forget ourselves and to express the worthwhile things that come spontaneously. It can be a provocation of and a consolation for solitude. Our minds should be left to wander when writing a letter, and a good letter will focus the reader’s attention on what the letter is getting at, rather than the letter itself.

The reconstructed lecture continues, presumably with a wink in the direction of Emily Hale:

An ideal correspondence, according to Mr Eliot, will be with a person of the opposite sex, but not a person with whom the writer is in love – for love letters are monotonous. The recipient of the letter should be a mature friend, sufficiently understanding so that a good deal need not be said, but not to the point where the letters will be obscure to others. There should be sufficient sentiment to release the writer’s mind to speak freely, without fear of betrayal, for the greatest pleasure derived from letter-writing is being indiscreet. The two correspondents should have interests in common and should be able to be brutally frank.

Eliot fully appreciated the major paradox of letters written by writers (letters as literary compositions) – the attractions and temptations of expressing oneself freely and frankly to a friend, but also the likelihood of being read by others beyond that friend:

The desire to write a letter, to put down what you don’t want anybody else to see but the person you are writing to, but which yet you do not want to be destroyed, but perhaps hope may be preserved for complete strangers to read, is ineradicable. We want to confess ourselves in writing to a few friends, and we do not always want to feel that no one but those friends will ever read what we have written.1

Notwithstanding those remarks, for at least the first fifty years of his life, he was resolute in his desire to suppress his own letters. He spoke out categorically on a number of occasions, to the effect that he would like to destroy all of the letters from his earlier life. For example, in a letter to his brother, from May 1930 – Henry had just returned the letters that TSE had written to their late mother – Eliot wrote:

I am glad to have the letters to make ashes of. I should never have wanted to read them again, with all the folly and selfishness; and I don’t want anyone else ever to read them and possibly print them; and if I could destroy every letter I have written in my life I would do so before I die. I should like to leave as little biography as possible. So that’s done and done with.

In a later year, 1938 (when he was just short of fifty years of age), he asked a friend – John Hayward – to be his literary executor in these terms:

The functions would be chiefly negative. I have had to write at one time or another a lot of junk in periodicals the greater portion of which ought never to be reprinted. If any of this came to light, you would have to decide; but I wouldn’t expect you to collect it yourself; you could take it in general that what I have not published in books by the time of my death I don’t consider worth publishing. F. & F. [Faber & Faber] might be tempted, and your job would be to say no. And I don’t want any biography written, or any letters printed that I wrote prior to 1933, or any letters at all of any intimacy to anybody. In fact, I have a mania for posthumous privacy. So again, your job would be to discourage any attempt to make books of me or about me, and to suppress everything suppressable [sic]. And I would leave instructions with the will, to this effect.

It is especially interesting that he stipulates the suppression of his letters ‘prior to 1933’, because that is the date at which he separated from his first wife Vivien/Vivienne. It is equally interesting to know that he was intelligent and aware enough to acknowledge that circumstances, perspectives and judgements change quickly – earlier in that very letter to Hayward he specified:

I always count on making a new will every five years: I don’t expect a will to stand good until I die full of years at 95, like my Uncle Tom. So that is the only period ever in question. A will is in case I am knocked (as the saying is) arse over tea-kettle by a Buss [sic], or some other unexpected calamity cuts me down like a flower … In my circumstances, a will can only be a temporary one.

In the event, by the time of his death in 1965 he had changed his mind and was prepared to entrust his second wife, Valerie Eliot, with the task of selecting and preparing an edition of his letters; and – to the best of my knowledge – he placed no conditions or restrictions upon her. Nothing need be censored or suppressed. Indeed, his opposition to censorship dated back a long way: even in 1943 he made this known, in a letter to the widow of his quondam university teacher Irving Babbitt: ‘I have more than once had the experience of seeing a very interesting collection gradually sterilised by the reservations of various parties concerned as to what they did not want published.’

However, contrary to his inveterate aversion to the idea that his letters might be published one day, he was sanguine about the thought that his letters to Emily Hale would be preserved for posterity, and even possibly published at some time. He set out his constant thoughts on the question with this largesse, in a letter written to her as early as 6 July 1932:

As for my letters, they are your property, and their fate must be decided by you. I confess to a feeling of regret (not rising from vanity) if these poor testimonies of the most important matter in my life should perish altogether, though they obviously should be withheld from the public for a good many years – even apart from ourselves, there are, I think, and will continue to be, from time to time, references to quite outside people which could not discreetly or kindly appear during their lifetimes. But you may entrust them to [Professor Willard Thorp, a friend at Princeton University], or to any person who has your confidence and whom you trust, providing (I suggest) that that person makes suitable provision for their disposition in the event of his or her sudden demise. I wonder if they would say ‘what dull letters he wrote!’ or ‘why did he never let himself go, in his correspondence?’

(His echo of the idiom of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ was altogether knowing: a joke at his own expense.) He reiterated on 29 July 1932, ‘You are, of course, to do exactly what pleases you best with what is your own property: either course, to entrust them to Margaret [Thorp] or to send them to Geoffrey (not Gerald!) Faber to add to my collection of papers for the Bodleian.’

Hale and Eliot’s Relationship

In accordance with an agreement between Emily Hale and Princeton University Library, Eliot’s letters to Hale became available to readers in January 2020, fifty years after the deaths of both Eliot and of Hale. Hale had died in October 1969, but the authorities at Princeton had been made to realise at an early stage that they would need a few weeks in order to be able to review and present in the most efficient and workable fashion possible the enormous number of letters available. Hale preserved for many years some 1,131 letters from Eliot, together with a number of photographs taken by Eliot and sent as accompaniments in the letters. Eliot had acquired a box camera in the 1930s and took it with him on a few trips around the UK: to the Faber holiday home in Wales, to Scotland, to Surrey, and to East Coker in Somerset. But he was not a gifted photographer, and some of his pictures are of negligible value. A few, however, preserve moments of fun and games at the homes of his friends: most notably, a delightful snap of the poet himself playing in Geoffrey Faber’s swimming pool with an inflatable seal that he had purchased for use by the Faber children. A fond, diligent, ever-attentive godfather, he was observant of birthdays, holidays and special days including Confirmation Day (a Bible had to be afforded to the child at Confirmation) and Christmas Day; and he worked out at an early stage that it was the best fun to give children toys which can also be enjoyed by grown-ups (or, rather, overgrown boys). Other items preserved by Hale included several letters from third parties, some of them from famous literary figures such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Eliot’s motive in shuffling off such letters – he did not care whether she kept them or got rid of them, he told her – must have been complex. On one level, he seemed to wish to share his everyday life and contacts with her; to show her the variety and curiosity of the ways in which other notables (even though by no means all of them were notable) addressed him, consulted him, and wanted him to know their thoughts, plans and interests. He was also demonstrating to her just how indifferent he was to letters from others – however famous, important or urgent their correspondence appeared to be – having told her at an early moment that he was hoarding her letters in a special box. He intended to treasure all of her letters to him, whereas all others he would squander – though one may be sure that he had answered those letters before disposing of them.

Eliot and Hale had almost certainly come across one another in childhood, in 1903, but they became more closely acquainted in 1912 through a mutual friend, Eliot’s cousin Eleanor Hinkley.2 He was delighted to participate in various theatricals organised at the Hinkley home in Boston, and he accompanied Hale and a number of other friends to the opera – with tickets supplied by Hale’s uncle Philip Hale, an esteemed professional music critic. Finding himself smitten by Hale, with whom he had so much obviously in common – they came from the same echelon of Boston society and had family connections, and they observed the same social codes and expectations – Eliot believed too that he was quite in love with her. Shortly before he departed for Europe in 1914, to pursue his graduate studies at Marburg in Germany and at Merton College, Oxford, he plucked up the considerable courage required – he was shy and totally lacking in experience of establishing a romantic relationship with a woman – to tell her that his heart was hers. However, even though she liked him, she was taken aback by this development and made it known to him that she did not share his feelings. Eliot felt cast down by the sorry knowledge that he had no career or regular income, and could not offer to share his life with her – and indeed to support her. In 1914, as he believed, it was not enough to tell the girl that he was madly in love with her: he had to offer her a future.

Over the ensuing years – during which he had precipitately married Vivien Haigh-Wood in London in June 1915 – Eliot and Hale kept in touch by way of occasional correspondence (now lost). Later still, probably in 1923 (the year is uncertain) – in circumstances that are not known – they met up in Eccleston Square in London. The full details of that encounter, during which Eliot seems to have told Hale he still loved her, are not known; but the relationship does not appear to have developed – there are no surviving letters from the next few years. Still later, in 1930, when she was again visiting London, he invited her to take ‘tea’ at his home, with his wife. Eliot told Hale afterwards (3 October) that he found the occasion ‘a great strain … at the time’ – though he was pleased to report that Vivien had been infatuated (his word) with their guest. The following correspondence takes off from there.

‘I am not sorry for loving and adoring you, for it has given me the very best that I have had in my life,’ he told her on 3 October 1930.

It has, in the end, helped me to the Church and to the struggles of the spiritual life, and in the midst of agony a deep peace & resignation springs – ‘not as the world giveth’ – but the peace of God. Of course there were many concurrent paths leading me to the Altar – but I doubt whether I should have arrived but for you […] And now there is no need to explain ‘Ash Wednesday ’ to you. No one else will ever understand it.

To say the least, the compliment was impossibly riddling: the poet was claiming that his feelings for Hale had helped to guide him to the Church of England, and to face up to ‘the struggles of the spiritual life’. It must have felt baffling to his relatively recent correspondent, abruptly to be told that in effect she had inspired Ash Wednesday, his great recent poem of spiritual puzzling and striving. For many readers, the poem is beautifully incantatory, but it is also an obscurely learned hymn to the Virgin Mary – a petition to the ‘Lady’ who is most patently beseeched in the poem. But Eliot was at the same time choosing (as he told Hale) to address Hale as the supernal being in question. He was postulating a love for her that reached beyond the human, and so expecting her to be what she was not.

Exactly a month later, he requested of her – perhaps significantly on All Souls Day (3 November 1930) –

I want to ask you please, to re-read the hyacinth lines in <Part I.> The Waste Land, and the lines toward the very end beginning ‘friend, blood shaking my heart’ (where we of course means privately of course I) 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.’

Hale’s response to such a telegraphic instruction is not known, but it must have struck her as unfathomably gnomic. In addition, Eliot’s mother had died the previous year, 1929, and now in this same letter, the poet advised Hale: ‘You will take some of her place for me too. I loved her very much, and felt much sympathy with her, and like to think that you and she are somewhat alike.’ He was placing an imponderable burden of emotional and symbolic significance on Emily’s shoulders: apotheosising her as the living emblem of the Virgin Mary and of his own mother. In some sense, therefore, it has to be acknowledged that Hale represented in Eliot’s idealising imaginings much more than she could possibly equal in her own life and being – and nor should she have been expected to live up to such a transcendental status. It was Eliot’s style of mind to place the beloved on this not altogether comfortable pedestal: it was more than courtly love, for he imagined Emily as close kin to Dante’s Beatrice.

From Emily’s point of view, there is no evidence that she ever identified herself as Eliot’s ‘Lady’ in Ash Wednesday; nor indeed as the ‘hyacinth girl’ [sic]. The reference, the symbolic equivalence, may well have been lost on her. (For what it is worth – which may indeed be little – the multitude of Eliot’s letters to his Lady never again make mention of hyacinths: numerous other flowers are touched upon, and endowed with significance, including sweet peas and roses, but never hyacinths. On the other hand, he does often address her, in the earlier letters, as ‘Lady’ – ‘Dear Lady’, ‘Dearest Lady’, ‘My Dear Lady’, ‘Dear Lady Emily’ – though that honorific appellation is replaced in later years by greetings which are less suggestive of deific obeisance: ‘Dearest Emily’, ‘My darling’, My dear Girl’, ‘My beloved Woman’.)

Hale made it known to Eliot only in the summer of 1935 – after nearly five years of amatory-epistolary dedication on his part – that she returned the love he bestowed upon her. It gave her great joy to feel that she was finally in love with him. But – since there was so much absence to cope with – she lived in the USA, he in the UK – their understandings of the state of being in love may well have stood always considerably apart: their terms of reference were often at odds. It is relevant to note that, even a few months after their ‘love’ had at last become mutual, Eliot was writing to a friend, Bonamy Dobrée (on 6 April 1936), in these terms:

The doctrine that in order to arrive at the love of God one must divest oneself of the love of created beings was thus expressed by St John of the Cross, you know [T]he doctrine is fundamentally true, I believe. Or to put your belief in your way, that only through the love of created beings can we approach the love of God, that I do believe to be UNTRUE. Whether we mean by that domestic and friendly affections, or a more comprehensive love of the ‘neighbour’, of humanity in general. I don’t think that ordinary human affections are capable of leading us to the love of God, but rather that the love of God is capable of informing, intensifying and elevating our human affections, which otherwise may have little to distinguish them from the ‘natural’ affections of animals.

It was a curious doctrine to emphasise – in effect, a disvaluing of ‘the “natural” affections’ – just at the moment when his loved one had come to feel that she reciprocated the love he had expressed for her for the last five years. Indeed, again and again in these letters, Eliot addresses his beloved in such terms, and there is no reason to feel that she was not thrilled by the beauty of his compliments – his exaltation of her as the most wonderful person he could think of loving – even though, from his point of view, the real point of the most profound human love was as a means of pursuing access to divine love. Emily for her part devoutly believed in ordinary human affections. Even as late as May 1945 she urged him, in Emersonian vein, to find ‘the beautiful, the divine in this life’ (quoted back to her by Eliot in his letter of 28 May 1945). Thus their terms of reference did not coincide; perhaps never could.

During the war years, Eliot became increasingly dismayed by Hale’s apparent inability to comprehend the qualities and deeper implications of his poetry. In his statement (1960), he would say: ‘From 1947 on, I realised more and more how little Emily Hale and I had in common. I had already observed that she was not a lover of poetry, certainly that she was not much interested in my poetry; I had already been worried by what seemed to me evidence of insensitiveness and bad taste.’ In the early months of the war he had sent her copies of both ‘East Coker’ (published in March 1940) and ‘Dry Salvages’ (February 1941), but it is apparent that in a letter of response dating from April 1941 she had insensitively remarked primarily upon what she took to be the negative views enunciated in those poems. Eliot’s deepest strivings for meaning and redemption she criticised for being lacking in ‘cheerfulness’ and ‘sunniness’. (That was her choice of terms.) His prayerful meditations, she must have construed as depressing maunderings. He replied on 22 April 1941, with evident pain:

It is difficult to reply to your comment on my poetry. Cheerfulness about the affairs of this world (‘sunniness’ in fact) is one thing and serenity is another: the latter is difficult to gain and difficult to maintain. Certainly I am not hopeful about this world: and whatever happens in the immediate future, I am not hopeful about the prospects of civilisation for a long time to come; and I do not see any prospect of greater spiritual light in this evil time when the peoples are being judged. But I hope that it is not altogether my own weakness of spirit which prevents any of the light of eternity flickering through my verse. I should myself have thought, you see, that the last two poems were the most serene – in contrast to ‘cheerful’, which I have never been – of all that I have written, with the exception of the Family Reunion.

He was reminding her, in that final reference, that she had been of some help to him in shaping and editing his second full play, in the garden at Stamford House, Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire (an attractive town house rented for summer vacations by her uncle and aunt, Dr and Mrs John Carroll Perkins), during their happy days together there in 1938. Since she had extensive and successful experience of directing and performing in plays on the amateur stage – she was applauded for her strong stage presence and for her powerful, richly modulated voice – he was then happy for her to be his dramaturg. Eliot was manifestly distressed by the obtuseness of her response to the recent poetry that he yearned for her to appreciate. It was not her fault, but he seemed to take it as indicating a growing incompatibility. In a slightly earlier letter, possibly dating from March 1941, it seems that she had carelessly enquired why he had not yet written a poem – implicitly a love poem – about ‘the Cotswolds’: she was using that metonym to suggest everything that had passed between them when they were in Chipping Campden. Their summer encounters, conversations and ramblings in Gloucestershire represented memories of unalloyed happiness in one another’s company. He answered her on 2 March 1941: ‘I wondered at your implying that I had never written a poem about the Cotswolds, because of [sc. if] ‘Burnt Norton’ is not about the Cotswolds, what is it about? in the way of local setting, that is. Perhaps you forgot Burnt Norton, or perhaps you consider it geographically out of the area – but certainly not out of it emotionally.’ His terms were curt with hurt. How could she not perceive that ‘Burnt Norton’ was – as he saw it – a memorial to a deeply special shared occasion, the day they had ventured together into the grounds – with all their magical alleys, rose gardens and dry pools – of the deserted Burnt Norton House?

Nor would she let go of the question: why had he not written her a love poem set in the Cotswolds, she evidently asked again? His next reply, dated 11 May 1943, gave her short shrift: ‘You complain of never having had a Cotswold poem for yourself; but what else, please, is “Burnt Norton”?’

The contretemps was to become increasingly aggravating for Eliot, who wrote again to Hale on 3 April 1945:

I am much interested by your finding my poetry expressive of ‘futility’, especially because I cannot understand this at all! I should have thought that it might be said of what I wrote up to 1926, but that it was increasingly inapplicable to everything since. Both my plays, surely, are hopeful ones: you can’t call them tragedies. It is true that I have not yet written any poem around the theme of the Resurrection; but surely the Pentecostal theme of ‘Little Gidding’ ends with the Christian hope. It is true that I think of this life as yielding no permanent satisfaction, and of this world as a temporary abode on the way to the future state of salvation or the reverse: but that is surely orthodox enough. It is true that I am not naturally of a sanguine disposition, and I have enough Calvinism left in me to understand the delusions of Cowper: but I do think that I have made some progress towards the Christian virtue of hope, by (to some extent) hard work! I should like to be clearer as to what represents, for you, the opposite of futility?

In 1955 she was to remind him yet again, as she had often done, that she was always hoping for a special poem by way of a birthday gift: a poem addressed simply to her, or designed for her. He responded on 10 November that year:

As for the poem, my dear! Yes, I remember very well indeed your previous wish – and I must confess that at the time I was a little hurt – because it seems to me that the poems among my published work in which you are involved, are so much more serious a tribute than anything that could be done as vers d’occasion that I thought, well, for Emily I am a good prose writer but of no great interest as a poet. Perhaps that was an exaggeration.

It remained a painful mystery to him why she failed to appreciate poems such as ‘Ash Wednesday’ and ‘Burnt Norton’ in which she was ‘involved’: they were infused with his feelings about her.

Regrettably, even unto the end, Emily remained apparently unheeding of – unresponsive to – the meaning and implications of such poems. When her friend Margaret Thorp pressed her, in 1963, to add to her ‘commentary’ accompanying the letters at Princeton some remarks about those poems by Eliot which related to herself, Emily told Willard Thorp, on 24 August 1963, with a sorry blankness: ‘Later I shall try to write out what M[argaret] suggested – tho’ there is mighty little of me in any poetry!’ She still failed to register the profound personal import of what Eliot had composed with her in mind: the very poems that he felt were so deeply inspired by her, and so related to her.

In addition, by the late 1930s, and again during the years of the war, Eliot found himself challenged by Emily’s frequent mentions of the possibility that he ought to get divorced from his estranged wife Vivien. In the letters, on a number of occasions, he makes it absolutely clear to her that his Anglican faith debarred him from the possibility of getting a divorce. She did not respect his position on the issue – she evidently urged him that if divorce was not an option, he could surely get the marriage annulled? Also, he was appalled by her determination to partake of Holy Communion when she happened to attend Mass in a Christian church, when she was far from being a confirmed Christian – baptised in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – but a Unitarian who professed no faith in a revealed Godhead. He found it an affront to his deepest religious convictions – it amounted to an insult to Eliot himself, when he had gone out of his way, several times over, to tell her that he found it offensive when she flouted the rulings of his church. In short, he had been losing trust in her – especially during the early 1940s – because she deliberately elected not to respect the faith which was the pillar of Eliot’s mature being. Emily, for her part, was never quite to appreciate the misery she caused Eliot when she sought to assert her own choice – as she had every right to do – over his principles.

Vivien Eliot, who had been cared for in a London asylum since 1938, died on 22 January 1947, at the age of fifty-eight, having suffered a heart attack. It was a wholly unexpected event, and Eliot was shattered by the news. It had been several years since he and Emily Hale had reached an understanding that they would get married in the event of the death of his wife: and so all of a sudden he was forced to face – as he had never been obliged to face before – the fact that he had either to honour that compact or to excuse himself, wretchedly, self-abasingly, from his undertaking. In a sequence of letters from the beginning of February 1947, he confessed to Hale the upheaval – the abyss of appallingly conflicted emotions – he was now experiencing. His sense of honourable obligation to Hale came up starkly against a resurgence of convoluted negative feelings; as he told her, for instance, on 3 February:

I do not feel that there is anyone to whom I can explain the disturbance that has taken place in me: and to anyone who might conclude that it was due to a recrudescence of any past affection or passion [for Vivien] I should not wish to speak of it at all. It is rather the contrary – indeed, completely the contrary: what has surged up in me is the suffering of the past, the bad conscience, and the horror, with an intense dislike of sex in any form. I cannot, at this moment, face or think of any future except just going on.

Through weeks and weeks of turbulent self-inquisition, he confronted the horrible history of his personal life since his reckless marriage to Vivien Haigh-Wood in 1915; now, he struggled to tell Hale that he ‘recoiled violently from the prospect of marriage, when I came to realise it as possible; and that, wrestle with it as I might […] this stubborn feeling would not be expelled, that I cannot, cannot, start life again, and adapt myself (which means not merely one moment, but a perpetual adaptation for the rest of life) to any other person. I do not think that I could survive it, as a person.’ His sense of honour was so acute, even absolute – just as his commitment to the doctrines of the Christian Church was an absolute – that he knew his undertaking to marry Emily as and when he was able to do so was a true betrothal. In an earlier year, he had told his brother of his promise to Emily, and Henry (who thought Emily Hale a bad match for his brother) had expressed outrage. For Eliot, if Emily had declined to release him from his undertaking, there was no other way to meet the situation than either to honour his word or to do something desperate.

To her complete credit, Emily Hale was nothing but ‘kind and patient and sympathetic’ (Eliot’s words) when faced with the devastating decision with which Eliot now presented her – against all the trust and faith that she had cherished in her heart for so many years. In the summer of 1947 Eliot visited the USA once again, and he talked the issue over with her for many hours at the seaside home of an old friend of Emily’s. On 7 August 1947 she would write to another friend, Lorraine Havens:

I am going to tell you, dear friend, that what I confided to you long ago of a mutual affection he and I have had for each other has come to a strange impasse whether permanent or not, I do not know. Tom’s wife died last winter very suddenly. I supposed he would then feel free to marry me as I believed he always intended to do. But such proves not to be the case. We met privately two or three times to try to sift the situation as thoroughly as possible – he loves me – I believe that wholly – but apparently not in the way usual to men less gifted i.e. with complete love thro’ a married relationship. I have not completely given up hope that he may yet recover from this – to me – abnormal reaction, but on the other hand I cannot allow myself to hold on to anything so delicately uncertain.

It was a deep, lasting hurt to her: sadly, she was never to comprehend his true soul, and never understood why all her hopes and plans had come to nothing in this way.

Ten years later, on 19 January 1957 – the 68-year-old Eliot took his long-term personal secretary, the 30-year-old Valerie Fletcher (who had worked with him since 1949), to be his second wife. Given the considerable age gap between the poet and his young wife, and aware that his secret, sudden decision to get married could serve to mock or undercut everything he had told Hale, Eliot tended to be defensive about the fresh direction of his life. Any implied criticism of Eliot, or even a reasonable question about the circumstances that he took to be less than respectful of his new life, alienated and angered him: he leapt to erect barriers, to shun alarmed old friends.

The Eliot–Hale Correspondence

When – at the age of forty-two – Eliot had first launched himself into the series of letters of intensive courtship that make up the bulk of this collection, he was prompt to declare his love for Emily, and to reaffirm that he had loved her since their first encounters and conversations in youth. After just a few weeks of this initial wooing, between late 1930 and early 1931, he suddenly, and startlingly, declared to her that it was his earnest wish to conserve all of her letters to him. Eliot told Emily in 1930–1 that he was proposing to advise his literary executor (it was to be Geoffrey Faber at this time) that the contents of the ‘locked tin box’ he would be entrusting to him were ‘to be given to the Bodleian Library, not to be opened for 60 years’ – sixty years after Eliot’s demise. He told Hale too, on 8 December 1930: ‘I do not worry much about posthumous reputation; but whatever I have left by that time I want to share with you. Please, I am dearly attached to this notion [of preserving her letters for posterity]; but I want your permission.’ To say the least, the message was opaque, and Hale – who was not in love with him at this time: they had just become reacquainted over the last few weeks – must have felt baffled by the curious implications of his desire to ‘share’ his ‘posthumous reputation’ with her: he was offering her an odd immortality.

However, he was to tell her, many years later – on 18 September 1963 – sixteen years after he had foreclosed the possibility of the two of them getting married:

I have the greatest dislike to revealing my private affairs to the public now or at any time merely because of my importance in the world of letters whatever that may be. I have indeed no desire to give information about my private life to the scholars and biographers who have nothing better to do than pry into the biographies of men of letters, and I am afraid that in the same spirit I have destroyed your letters to myself. The thought that posterity may be interested in my work naturally gives me some pleasure but not the thought of posterity being interested in my private life.

He wrote to her just so, categorically, but she did not receive his letter on the subject. Apparently, he had not felt sure of her address in September 1963, and had accordingly posted this stern missive to the address of his cousin Eleanor Hinkley (a friend of Emily’s) – but it is apparent that it never got to Hale. Almost four months later, she informed her friend Willard Thorp (4 January 1964): ‘I have almost a suspicion that my letters have been destroyed!’

Even a few days after Eliot’s death, Hale revealed in a letter to Margaret Thorp (dated 11 January 1965) that she still understood that her own letters were thenceforth to be housed in the Bodleian Library at Oxford:

W[illard Thorp] and Bill Dix will probably surmise that my appeal for change of terms to the publishing of the letters – or the presenting of them to the public – was never answered because Tom was too ill physically and so weak that any such re-awakening of old days – too exhausting.

But I don’t know what terms will be made public or not of my letters in the Oxford library.

Sadly, the situation seems all too redolent of a tragic novel by Thomas Hardy. However, Emily did learn in the weeks following Eliot’s death that her letters had in truth been burned. It was to her credit that she responded to this obviously arresting news in a gracious, generous fashion. She told Thorp on 27 November 1965:

This changing of T.S.E.’s mind about my letters shows how terribly secretive he was about our ‘affair’ and I am more grateful than hurt – which I think I am a little that friendship through difficult years as well as love – is thus wiped out for the record. But on the whole, gratitude is uppermost as he probably meant to protect me, not himself or Valerie alone. Who can say?

Eliot’s abrupt decision in 1963 to destroy Hale’s side of the correspondence looks, at first glance, to be an act of spitefulness: an elimination of her dreams and desires, aspirations and anxieties, as they had been expressed as part of the long-ongoing dialogue with Eliot himself. Yet there can be little doubt, also, that if he had been given the opportunity, he would have done away at the very same moment with the letters he had sent her.

His unease over the letters he had sent to Hale became a vexed issue in 1956. Until that point, it was his understanding that they had reached a joint understanding that both sides of their correspondence might be preserved in the archives: her letters to him in the Bodleian Library, his in whichever archive she placed confidence in – but also that such provisions were to figure in their respective wills, to be enacted by their executors. Accordingly, Eliot felt all the more aggrieved when in 1956 Hale informed him that she had decided to donate his side of the correspondence into the care of Princeton University Library – and she duly consigned them there on the instant. It struck him forcibly that this premature step on her part would unavoidably permit and even invite other readers – archivists and cataloguers, and perhaps others – to peruse the many pages of his personal words: his love letters. He wrote in his sealed final statement, dating from November 1960:

During the course of my correspondence with Emily Hale, between 1932 and 1947, I liked to think that my letters to her would be preserved and made public after we were dead – fifty years after. I was however, disagreeably surprised when she informed me that she was handing the letters over to Princeton University during our lifetime – actually in the year 1956. She took this step, it is true, before she knew that I was going to get married.3 Nevertheless, it seemed to me that her disposing of the letters in that way at that time threw some light upon the kind of interest which she took, or had come to take, in these letters. The Aspern Papers in reverse.’

He felt confirmed in his suspicions when the capable and distinguished University Librarian at Princeton, William S. Dix, formally acknowledged receipt of the package of Eliot’s letters with a note to Hale on 19 November 1956: ‘Please accept my very warm thanks on behalf of the Library for the magnificent T. S. Eliot correspondence which you are presenting to Princeton. As I gain a progressively clearer idea of its bulk and richness I grow more and more happy at the prospect of having it in our possession.’ Incautiously, Hale – who had developed a good opinion of Dix’s professionalism and discretion – copied Dix’s letter to Eliot. And so quite naturally, Eliot deduced that the ‘clearer idea’ of the richness of the cache of letters that Dix was gathering in all innocence meant that he must have been turning over the pages and reading at least a few of them. Dix’s assurance that the letters would only be accessible for ‘Library staff for curatorial purposes’ did not satisfy Eliot. (For perhaps obvious reasons, Eliot was never to be informed that a few days later, on 4 December 1956, an associate librarian named Lawrence Heyl would invite Emily Driscoll, a New York dealer in autographs and manuscripts, to make an appraisal for tax purposes: she proposed to assess the first batch on 14 December 1956.) Within a few days, Hale was relaying to Eliot what she called the ‘strong’ opinion of Willard Thorp and William Dix that the fifty-year embargo was surely too much: ten years would do, or else an early release date for the least confidential portion of the batch. Moreover, she said, she endorsed their wish for an early opening of at least some of the letters – which was decidedly insensitive of her, given that, over a number of years, Eliot had repeatedly insisted on a fifty-year embargo.

His increasing irritation with her decision to hand his letters over to Princeton and the alarming intimations that ensued, along with Emily’s seemingly ready willingness to second the impertinent suggestions of Thorp and Dix that at least some portions of the cache should be opened at an early date – Eliot understandably suspected that Emily was being manipulated by those two men, for their own ends – grew to a point of exasperation when she sent him this letter on 12 September 1963:

Closely connected to the disposition of the Princeton letters are my letters to you which long ago you planned to place in the Bodleian at Oxford. The question has also been asked in Princeton if these two collections should not be under the same roof – and I assure you the Princeton Library Building is one of the finest in its care of all such collections physically and appreciatively so to speak. It would seem to me if you are still preserving my letters, that your consent to placing them in this country would be the only correct practical solution don’t you think?

… I think you will be aware that for me to consider my life as important because of its relationship to you – a noted world figure – is very difficult. I must as now act impersonally for the sake of the future in raising these questions, equally difficult for both of us but wholly professionally and historically correct. I do hope you will accept what is thrust upon us – shall we say – because you are you.

The proposition added such insult to injury, Eliot felt – and indeed the second paragraph showed that she was now objectifying him, seeing him ‘impersonally’ as a ‘noted world figure’4 – that it worked to incite his decision to destroy her letters.

Final Words

The crucial preamble to his ultimate statement on the letters to Hale, dated 25 November 1960 – which was first published online on 2 January 2020 – makes clear Eliot’s apprehension of premature disclosure:

I feel no assurance that complete privacy will be preserved up to that date [fifty years after the death of both Hale and Eliot himself]; and if the letters themselves, or any of them, or any excerpts or quotations from any of them, or Miss Hale’s ‘commentary’, are disclosed before that time, or if it transpires that any individual or individuals has or have been given access to any of the letters before that date, then I wish the enclosed statement to be made public at the same time.

He was adamant that the embargo should be enforced.

He came to fear that Hale could at any time change her mind and make the letters available to third parties – who might proceed unchecked to publish a paraphrase or other report of the contents. His final statement on the matter – reprinted in full in this website – could appear to be abruptly dismissive. Yet one possible mitigating factor is that he expected to be able to trust that his short-winded and impatient final evaluation of their relationship would be read only a long time after the death of both parties: in fact, exactly fifty years on. But what we have to reckon with is his regrettable and even reprehensible state of mind at the time of writing, which not only articulated a depreciation of her intellectual–critical abilities – ‘Emily Hale would have killed the poet in me; Vivienne nearly was the death of me, but she kept the poet alive’ – but seemed also to seek to disavow all of the love he had long professed for her: ‘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.’ Much of the rest of Eliot’s valedictory testimony is unsparing; and so the question is: why did Eliot write in such a fierce way about someone who had undeniably played a deeply important role in his life? One aspect of an answer could likely be that even if he trusted that Hale herself would never have to read his harsh words, he had set a trap for her and for those she purported to trust (Dix and the Thorps) – that is to say, if she allowed his letters to be read by anyone before the lapse of fifty years, the trap would be sprung: these words would be published.

He notes too, for the record: ‘I might mention … that I never at any time had any sexual relations with Emily Hale.’ Some early readers of these letters took the view that this bald sentence was gratuitous; but it is important to realise that he knew what he would be charged with when the letters were finally opened to scrutiny. Moreover, whatever the degree of physical attraction they shared – each always respecting the other, they did not speak openly of desire other than by restrained hints: he mentions at most his happiness in stroking her hair or her foot, a sweet embrace or a kiss – neither thought of having sex at any time before they should be wed. From his point of view, to seek to bed the woman – to have premarital sex – would have been to violate her moral and social integrity. This element of his final statement may be construed more justly as a reaffirmation of his respect.

In his statement’s opening paragraph Eliot explicitly admits that he is neither blameless nor innocent: ‘In my experience, there is much for which one cannot find words even in the confessional; much which springs from weakness, irresolution and timidity, from petty self-centredness rather than from inclination towards evil or cruelty, from error rather than ill-nature.’

Surviving Letters by Emily Hale

Emily Hale’s appreciable decency shines out between the lines of Eliot’s letters. Phrases from her letters are occasionally cited by Eliot in his replies to her – we have very little else from which to try to reconstruct the fuller context of what she might have said and meant. Yet there is, among all the letters by Eliot that she deposited at Princeton, a good long extract from a superbly clear-headed, honest letter that she sent him on 26 April 1945; it is so difficult to extrapolate from such a subtle, kind, probing letter that I must give it here in full (Emily must have been pleased enough with this letter to have chosen to insert this typed copy among the letters from Eliot to her):

What I want most of all in this letter, to say – is to re-align relations between us once again, after now nearly six years separation. Changes of personality naturally take place constantly – influenced by all manner of inner and outer conditions – and we both have changed, I am sure, since we parted in 1939. You have lived under the terrific pressure of war and its attendant stresses outwardly and inwardly. To you, poet and unusual man that you are, the results must be incalculable in effect. I have also lived thro’ diverse new personal experiences and attendant adjustments. Naturally, some of these are tied to my relations with you – present and past. After my illness, I wanted most strongly to feel that I could marry you and so wrote you. As your answer told me again, that was impossible under existing conditions. I wondered whether I might not be happy with someone else instead, and whether our love for each other would remain always a rare thing to hold close, but of a nature to be unfulfilled; and whether it would be wronging that relation to live beyond and above it, or through it, perhaps to something less unusual, but more normal. (There was no one actually asking me). Unconsciously, this had been in my mind and heart for these two years past – and I felt it only honest to give you suggestions of my bewilderment. Since you may have sensed this, but have never referred to any possible change in me or you, and since your letters are usually so very undemonstrative and impersonal, it is hard for me to tell from them just what you consider yourself to me, or myself to you. As the possibility of a cessation of war in Europe draws closer – not a return to normal, – such cessation would bring changes of all sorts into the open, so to speak. Do you still feel that if you were free, you wish to marry me? That you would love me as you have these many years, I do not doubt, but that love is so far apart from other great facts and truths of life, that in these five to six years, I have no way of knowing whether you are as you were or not. I now wish to say that if you do wish to marry me ever, I shall keep myself always waiting and ready for you. But I would rather the truth from you, in case you feel differently, and I should understand, and still want to try to be what I could, to you – to try to carry the unusual, very complimentary, rather grave responsibility you have placed upon me – and which, I have always consented to accept since 1934 [sc. 1935] – when we came together in those thrilling London days.

Astutely, she had intuited that Eliot was indeed becoming distanced from her, that he was growing accustomed – throughout the war he had lived a busy, strained, distracted life in London and its environs – to a different life that did not include her. It took two or three attempts for him to reply to Hale’s acute central question, and his answer when it came, on 28 May 1945, was necessarily and honestly circumstantial: instead of reaffirming his passionate commitment to her, as she must have wished, he turned her question back and presented it as a problem for her to answer for herself:

I am not aware of any fundamental change in my feelings, except the change which takes place in everybody according to their time of life. I do not repudiate the past, and that [sc. the] fact that it was not a relationship such as the world understands, or indeed such as the world believes possible, preserves it uncontaminated – though I must add that I should have preferred and should still prefer the reality – so that it could be both lawful and permanent.

If I laid, as you say, a ‘responsibility’ upon you, I do not want to feel that you regard it as an obligation. In plain words, I should never want to marry anyone else: that would be for me as impossible a change of personality as abandoning my Christian beliefs and principles. But there is nothing more to look forward to or hope for than what has been […]

It was actually a straight answer – as straight as he could offer without being unkind – but unfortunately, she found herself unable fully to heed it and act on his permission.

The letters from Eliot to Hale now housed at Princeton end in 1957. Fortunately, however, a significant number of additional letters has been found at Eliot’s home in London and they are now preserved at the Eliot Archive – they include a few letters that were torn up and badly taped together again (the circumstances cannot be known for certain) – and all are included in this publication. The hope is that readers may be able to gather the best possible understanding of the full story, including letters that were written up until Hale’s death in 1969. Hale’s handwriting can be extremely difficult to decipher, but every effort has been made to present a readable text – albeit with a handful of ellipses, and with a very few inferences and guesses in square brackets.

For most of the time between 1930 and 1956, Eliot and Hale were in absentia: the time they spent in one another’s company in all those years adds up to little more than a few weeks. This means that for all intents and purposes their letters were the relationship. All of the surviving documentation of that relationship is presented here.

John Haffenden

1.‘English Poets as Letter Writers’, CProse 4, 847.

2.There is some evidence to suggest they were acquainted from a much earlier year, as children; but a serious relationship began only in 1912.

3.Eliot was to marry Valerie Fletcher in January 1957.

4.See too TSE to EH, 27 October 1956 (her birthday): ‘But what do you mean by saying that long ago I made you feel the necessity of regarding me as a Public Figure? I certainly hope that I do not see myself as a Public Figure!’