This edition of T.S. Eliot’s correspondence has so far reached only 1938 (he died in 1965), but there are already more than seven thousand pages of his letters in print, with hundreds more available on tseliot.com, and many thousands yet to come. Edited for the most part by John Haffenden, the edition builds on the collection made by the late Valerie Eliot and on many archives (especially those of Faber). Occasionally, there’s a page with only a couple of lines by Old Possum on it, and about fifty lines of small-print annotation, but the notes themselves contain a treasury of Eliotiana. There are a few very minor mistakes, but in scope, detail and quality of annotation this edition is utterly remarkable.
Eliot also wrote much non-epistolary prose, and the prize-winning online Project Muse edition of his Complete Prose, edited by a team led by Ronald Schuchard, is nearing completion. The finished work (so far six volumes are online) looks likely to offer a further eight thousand pages, and brings hundreds of long-lost pieces back into circulation in superbly annotated format. An edition of Eliot’s drama is also anticipated, which will sit on shelves already groaning with more than twelve thousand pages of the Criterion, the magazine Eliot edited from 1922 until 1939. Beside these prodigious gatherings, the poetry looks svelte. Yet the 2015 Faber edition of the Poems by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue itself runs to nearly two thousand densely annotated pages. This, too, is a breathtaking achievement.
Very few people will read through all these thousands of pages, and their publication risks making Eliot seem more daunting than ever. While this vast hoard offers scholars all sorts of opportunities, the problem for most common readers is to work out what that word ‘Eliot’ now means. Is ‘Eliot’ still the slim volume of poetry that can be slipped inside a coat pocket? Or does the name now unavoidably bring with it this vast body of letters, plays, poems and prose that can be transported only by fork-lift truck and accessed in full only via a computer in addition to a printed library?
Just what the name ‘Eliot’ conjures up has always been a problem. It was hard even for the man himself; he rather liked to escape, as well as to investigate, aspects of his own identity. This new, eighth volume of letters (1100 pages covering three years) tells us that in June 1936, on his first visit to the Somerset village of East Coker, he asked the landlady of the New Inn about booking a room: ‘She seemed impressed by my inquiry,’ he wrote a few days later, ‘and asked if I was not a cousin of Colonel Heneage.’ Colonel Walker Heneage of Coker Court, the local manor house, part-Tudor, part-Georgian, belonged to the family that owned the New Inn and some surrounding land; in thinking he might be the colonel’s cousin, the landlady was placing Eliot in terms of social class – down from London, he seemed just the sort of chap who might be related to the local toffs. Eliot, who had come to see the village from which one of his ancestors – Andrew Eliot – may have set off for America in the 17th century, was indeed seeking to find a kinship with this still somewhat feudal community. Yet the next sentence of his letter makes it clear he was unsettled to find that the ‘cousin of mine’ in East Coker was not Colonel Heneage but another, American Eliot who had sponsored a new stained-glass window in the village church – Eliot thought it ‘the only ugliness’ in East Coker.
It’s easy to smirk at Eliot – that self-proclaimed ‘classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion’, descended from over two hundred years of Americans and himself a US citizen until his 39th year – being mistaken for the cousin of an English country squire. At times, often with a gleam of self-mockery, he confessed to social snobbery, indeed rather relished it: ‘One does feel a Swell leaving by sleeping car & walking up and down the station platform in a dinner jacket.’ This and other aspects of the man revealed in these letters will irritate some readers, and could annoy even his most staunch supporters in the 1930s. Few were more unwavering in their support than his brother Henry, yet even he complained the previous year that ‘sometimes you remind me of a gentleman in full evening dress and white gloves attempting to put something right with the kitchen plumbing without soiling his attire.’ It comes as no surprise when the great man announces that ‘Edimbourg is nearer to being my spiritual home than is Glasgow.’ Yet one of the many strengths of this magnificent edition is that, rather than simply confirming assumptions about Eliot, it also unsettles them. We see him holidaying in a caravan, weeping at a performance of Chekhov’s Three Sisters and defending lesbian fiction. Eliot isn’t a scintillating letter-writer like Keats or Stevenson, but sometimes readers are led back to the poetry from fresh angles – and not least from the ‘cousin of Colonel Heneage’ angle.
It’s typical that he remembered Colonel Heneage’s name, because Eliot, so aware of his own family name and lineage, was a connoisseur of unusual names. To make names resonate in poetry, not by simply dropping them in but by deploying them with acoustic finesse, is a signal gift. William Dunbar’s ‘Lament for the Makars’ is the greatest poem of naming that emanates from the Anglophone family of languages – and readers of this volume of letters will note Eliot’s enthusiasm for Dunbar – but Eliot’s fine sense of naming in poetry owes more to 19th-century precedents. Robert Browning, who called one of his lippiest poems not ‘Filippo Lippi’ (the name by which the artist was usually known) but ‘Fra Lippo Lippi’, had the name-gift, and some of his finest poems bear the names of their speakers. Eliot owed more to Browning than he let on. The poet on whose work he lectured most frequently during his professorial year in America in 1932-33 was not Browning, or even Dante, but Edward Lear. Lear’s genius for names – from the Quangle Wangle to the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò – had captivated Eliot from childhood, and he had imitated Lear in his pencil-written magazine of 1899, the Fireside. The ten-year-old Eliot had made up distinctive names of his own: Mr and Mrs Bondholder Billion, Mosly Wrags and Dimey Novles. Later, Eliot made his name with a name – Prufrock – pinched from a Missouri furniture company. His theft shows the genius of his ear: if the word could be pronounced ‘Proof Rock’, how different it would be; but the subtleties of English demand that it be uttered as ‘Pru Frock’, a name its bearer can never escape.
Prufrock and Other Observations has several poems named after names – ‘Aunt Helen’, ‘Cousin Nancy’, ‘Mr Apollinax’. It depends on what you count as individual poems (are the 1930s ‘Landscapes’ five individual works?), but the titles of roughly half the poems Eliot chose to publish in book form during his lifetime contain names of people or places. Some are so familiar they are taken for granted, such as Prufrock (a name from St Louis), Sweeney (ditto), or Macavity (from his schooldays at Milton Academy in Massachusetts); others are less often commented on: ‘Cuscuscaraway’, ‘Usk’, ‘Bustopher Jones’. Though it may be possible to think of books by other poets which feature more poems named after people or places (Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology is one), I doubt if there’s another major poet who had such a sustained talent for names and for using them as titles. Though he never made use of it afterwards – not even for a walk-on part alongside ‘Col. the Hon. Gerald Piper’ in The Family Reunion – his noting of Colonel Heneage’s name is characteristic.
‘I daresay that I found some obscure attraction in the name,’ he wrote of Burnt Norton, which he used as the title for the first of his Four Quartets. He visited the little-known manor house in the Cotswolds in 1934 (a year after he had returned from being Norton professor at Harvard) and heard in the word ‘Norton’ an echo of that job, and even of his family – he was appointed as Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry. From childhood onwards, Eliot was fascinated not just by names in general, but by his own. Murder in the Cathedral, the 1935 play which, throughout the period covered by this volume of letters, yields a healthy income from royalties, has a protagonist, Archbishop Thomas Becket, who shares his first name with Eliot. In 1934 the name-loving Eliot went to some trouble to import to the Faber offices in Russell Square a nameplate that had belonged to one of his grandfathers – ‘T. Stearns’ – and had it ‘put up on the door of my room’. His visit to East Coker two years later was a pilgrimage to an English site firmly associated with the family name.
Other people were also interested in the name: ‘T.S. Eliot – it’s a Scottish name,’ Hugh MacDiarmid writes in A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, and Eliot grew tolerantly fed up with Scots who told him this. The day after April Fools’ Day in 1936 he had ‘to interview’ (the term he used for professional encounters) ‘an elderly Scottish gentleman’ who had brought a manuscript about Shakespeare for him to see because ‘your name is Eliot’ and because the old gentleman’s ‘mother was an Elliot of Galloway’: ‘I heard you lecture to the Shakespeare Association, and I said, that man is a true El(l)iot – he is obviously hot tempered, obstinate, and determined to disagree with everybody.’ Though Eliot politely told him that his ‘people’ came ‘from the West Country’, his Scottish visitor told him in no uncertain terms that this was because the Norman Michel de Aliot, right-hand man of William the Conqueror, had obtained ‘a number of manors in Northamptonshire, and from there the El(l)iots spread into Devonshire and Galloway.’ He went on to ask, ‘Do you mind the Elliot marching song?’ to which T.S. replied, ‘Yes’, and misquoted: ‘My name it is little Jock Elliot/And wha maun meddle wi’ me?’
All this may sound daft, but, as Ricks and McCue point out in their edition of the Poems, this misquoted ‘Elliot Marching Song’ fairly soon found its way into ‘The Marching Song of the Pollicle Dogs’, a poem written to the Scottish tune of ‘The Elliots of Minto’, which forms a less regarded canine companion to Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. More seriously, it was just such onomastic ancestor-hunting that had led Eliot, conscious that there was a copy ‘in the British Museum’, to remind his brother of the ‘Genealogy of the Eliot Family by Walter Graeme Eliot of New York’ – a Who’s Who of Eliots of which their father had possessed ‘two copies’. He then expounded on various Eliots, reminding Henry that ‘Our people, you remember, went to [East] Coker, near Yeovil in Somerset.’ This preoccupation with the family name brought him, a few months after meeting his elderly Scotsman, to Andrew Eliot’s home village of East Coker. The poem of that title incorporates a passage about ‘The association of man and woman/In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie –/A dignified and commodious sacrament.’ These words draw on The Governour by another ancestral namesake, the early 16th-century Sir Thomas Elyot, though by that time for Eliot, who had separated from his wife, Vivien, in 1933, they carried a lash of irony.
The names that mattered most in Eliot’s early poems were the names of people. Yet as his work developed, particularly in his non-feline poems, place names come to be more and more prominent. Most obviously, the ‘Landscapes’ poems of the 1930s, all set outside England and titled individually ‘New Hampshire’, ‘Virginia’, ‘Usk’, ‘Rannoch, by Glencoe’ and ‘Cape Ann’, prepare the way for the much better-known English and American-titled poems collected as Four Quartets: ‘Burnt Norton’, ‘East Coker’, ‘The Dry Salvages’ and ‘Little Gidding’. These four poems contain almost no personal names (‘Adam’, ‘Krishna’ and ‘Arjuna’ are the exceptions), but include several place names and each has a place name at its head. It is hard, however, for informed modern readers to approach these works without people’s names coming to mind: Emily Hale, the old flame with whom Eliot visited Burnt Norton, Andrew Eliot, Sir Thomas Elyot, or Nicholas Ferrar who in 1626 established the religious community at Little Gidding in Cambridgeshire; but these names are suppressed within the poems, ghosting them. The insistent names are place names. The people, like the dancers of ‘East Coker’, have been subsumed into the land, and personal names give way to ancient communal place names that do duty for tradition. No Norton professor now; just Burnt Norton. No Eliot, even, but East Coker.
When Volume VIII of the Letters begins, Eliot is a celibate man of 47 who is still struggling over ‘Burnt Norton’ – ‘I can’t get the last four lines right.’ He is planning, too, a book which he styles ‘Mr Eliot’s Book of Pollicle Dogs & Jellicle Cats’, and is sending his godson and namesake Tom Faber a verse letter containing a new poem, ‘The Naming of Cats’. ‘A Cat’, this work explains, must have ‘three different names’. Used to being waited on, Eliot cites ‘the name the servants use daily’ as the first and everyday name; the second is a more ‘peculiar’ identifier (‘Such as Munkustrap, Quaxo, or Capricopat’); but the third is the most fascinating:
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover –
But but but
But the Cat himself knows, and will never confess.
When you notice a Cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in intense contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name.
Not his everyday name,
Not his personal name,
But just his ineffable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.
The addressee of this verse letter has three different names (Thomas Erle Faber), and so does the Thomas Stearns Eliot who signs himself ‘Uncle Tom’ at the end. Sometimes awkwardly, Eliot liked to play on the name ‘Uncle Tom’, christening both Eliot House (where he lodged in style at Harvard) and the rather less grand building at Pike’s Farm, Surrey, where he lodged later in 1933, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’. Yet this verse letter goes beyond that sort of wordplay. Written by a man who was (as these letters make clear) accustomed to going to ‘confess’ each week, and who regularly engaged in ‘intense contemplation’, this passage on names and naming reinforces the importance of names not only to his business life but also to his religious and poetic imagination – that part where the effable and the ineffable intersect as Eliot mounts what he calls ‘a raid on the inarticulate’ in ‘East Coker’, or where he contemplates what he called in Ash Wednesday ‘The Word without a word, the Word within’. The ‘deep and inscrutable singular Name’ – emblematised as the invisible, unspoken name of the cat – remains his goal, one glimpsed in his lighter as well as in his more serious poems.
You have to sieve Eliot’s letters carefully to find much that leads directly to his inner life. Though he typed some of his own letters and handwrote a few, most of his correspondence was business correspondence, a good deal of it dictated to secretaries. As Anne Ridler, his secretary for much of this period, recalled in a fine memoir, ‘In dictation he was measured but fluent: as with his normal speech, the sentences were perfectly formed – there might be a pause, but no humming and haaa-ing. Sometimes, his extempore criticism in a letter was so interesting that I found it hard to remember that my business was to take it down, not to listen or comment.’ A sentence Ridler remembered taking down from dictation on 21 April 1937 is contained in this volume of the Letters, and hints simultaneously at Eliot’s capaciously complex, subtle intelligence, at his fluency in dictation, and (as Ricks and McCue have pointed out) at the way matter in the letters connects with matter in the poetry:
I mean that one ought to be able to look at what you have set down out of the margins of one’s eye, the part in which the rods and cones are less worn, just as one can count more of the Pleiades on a clear night when one is not looking directly at them.
This is a periphrastical way of putting it …
‘East Coker’, with its ‘stars … constellated’ and its ‘way of putting it – not very satisfactory:/A periphrastic study’, was published three years later. Imagine being able to dictate that sentence about ‘rods and cones’. Its shape and detail indicates the punctiliousness with language which made Eliot not only a great publisher, editor and critic, but a great poet.
Occasionally Emily Hale is named in these letters, though almost all of Eliot’s voluminous and unpublished correspondence with her, running to more than a thousand items, remains inaccessible at Princeton, according to her stipulation, until next year. Yet even his infrequent references to her are revealing. When, writing to her aunt Edith, he names ‘our dear Emily’, he seems to hint at the way the relationship had moved, on his side at any rate, away from sexual longing towards a mutually protective, sometimes fussy companionship.
The way Eliot names himself is much more complicated than the way he names Emily. He signs himself variously in these letters: ‘Mr Possum’, ‘T.S.E.’, ‘T.S. Eliot’, ‘Tom’, ‘Herlock Sholmes’, ‘Uncle Tom’, ‘TP’ (short for ‘Tom Possum’ or ‘The Possum’), ‘T’, leaves a deliberate blank, ‘Possum’, ‘possum’, ‘Tp’, ‘Secretary’, ‘Tom Eliot’, ‘T.S.’, ‘Th. Eliot/of Somerset’, ‘TP’, ‘the man in white spats’, ‘Tom S.’, ‘uncle tom’, ‘annoyed’, ‘O. Possum’, ‘T. Possum’, and ‘O Possum’ and, while masquerading as other Faber colleagues in spoof reports on his own book, ‘R. de la M.’, ‘A.P.’ and ‘H.R.’ – hardly a shocking number of self-presentations over 1100 pages, but suggestive of a certain fluidity of identity.
Taking ‘The Naming of Cats’ as a template, most of these names can also be grouped in ‘three different’ categories. There is the ‘everyday’ name: Thomas, T.S. Eliot and variants thereof. Then there is the ‘peculiar’ name of the creature – ‘Possum’ and its many variants. Lastly, there is the mysterious ‘ineffable’ blank – the deliberately empty space to which, nonetheless, names can be linked. At one level this blank, signalling an invisible but insistent presence, hints at the divine and at Eliot’s religious faith. Such preoccupations are evident from his numerous letters to priests, monks and ministers, and from the many mentions of religious retreats, conferences, ecclesiastical journals and visits to confession. Yet the blank name, the vacant space, is also a joke, an allusion to another obsession Eliot shared with several of his friends: the most famous character created by Arthur Conan Doyle.
Writing to his crony John Hayward, Eliot begins a deliberately unsigned 1936 letter:
The shades are closing in on your old friend, and soon, I fear, there will be nothing left but the closing chapter of the Reichenbach Falls.
Portraying himself as pursued and persecuted, Eliot presents one version of his life: his correspondence makes clear that he was beleaguered by would-be authors, struggling authors, demandingly successful authors, or by people wanting explanations of his work, or him on their committees, or at their dining tables, or in their lecture halls, or at their school prize-givings or birthday parties, or as a contributor to their book/magazine/radio programme/conference, or as a signatory to their cause, or simply as the person to tally up the collection after church. Yet Eliot’s jokey epistolary presentation of himself as Sherlock Holmes isn’t only a device to convey the magnitude of his caseload, but, like his epistolary signatures, signals, with schoolboyish glee, his love of disguise:
Well, John, if you do not hear of your old friend for some time, say for several years, do not be too concerned. If you read of the remarkable explorations of a Norwegian named Sigerson in Tibet, it may not occur to you that you are receiving news of your friend. I may look in at Mecca, and pay a short visit to the Khalifa at Khartoum. I shall be in touch with the Foreign Office. I may spend some months at Montpellier (which is in the south of France) in a research into the coal-tar derivatives. But you may be sure that I shall never rest until my old adversary is laid by the heels.
Very sincerely yours,
P.S. I sign in this way, as this letter may be intercepted.
This letter comes from the Eliot who was an amateur actor in his student days (when he fell in love with the amateur actress Emily Hale) and who, by the 1930s, had become, on a grander scale, a man of the theatre. It reveals the Eliot who rather enjoyed being mistaken for other people (‘a cousin of Colonel Heneage’) and liked to act many parts. His roles included ‘T.S.’ and ‘Old Possum’, but also cameo parts as his colleagues Richard de la Mare, Alan Pringle and Herbert Read. However, as the name ‘Herlock Sholmes’ indicates, he knew he was not always the master of disguise; nor, at times, was he as elusive as he sought to be. The other letter to Hayward in this volume that is signed not with a name but with a blank space concludes:
You may communicate with me at this address, by addressing your letters to ‘White Cargo’ c/o the Licensee, the Bell, Hampton-on-Thames. And I may rely upon your not revealing my whereabouts to Miss C.B. or Madame de M.
P.S. I think it is better not to sign my name.
White Cargo was the title of a popular play, put on in the early 1920s in the West End and on Broadway, about a wife who tries to kill her husband (he is the ‘white cargo’). Posing here as a man hiding from women, the nameless sender of the letter – White Cargo/Holmes/Eliot – gives away one of his deepest anxieties. Throughout the mid-1930s he was in hiding from Vivien, who would not accept that he had left her and continually sought opportunities to confront him.
Eliot went to considerable lengths to keep his private address secret. He lived in some seclusion in housing associated with St Stephen’s Church in Kensington; he had no telephone (Vivien had kept his name in the telephone directory alongside the number of the flat where she had lived with him), and he habitually used stationery with his business address at Faber & Faber, 24 Russell Square. Vivien wrote to him there, but he communicated with her only through lawyers. His secretaries were carefully briefed on what to do if Mrs Eliot called at the office. Brigid O’Donovan, his secretary in 1935 and 1936, who ‘fell in love with him’, recalled that when Vivien arrived in the foyer ‘I would go down and explain that it was not possible for Mrs Eliot to see her husband, and that he was well.’ O’Donovan remembered Vivien as
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.
Vivien believed her husband’s treatment of her was cruel, and it is easy to understand why; yet, after sticking with her and supporting her financially for 17 years, during which they both experienced periods of breakdown, he felt unable to go on living with her, and none of their mutual friends or their doctors seems to have advised them to stay together, while many (including Virginia Woolf, Hope Mirrlees and Ottoline Morrell) seem to have supported their separation. Remembering that Vivien radiated ‘absolute terror’ and was herself ‘terrifying’, Mirrlees recalled how, while Eliot and his wife still lived together, ‘at the end of an hour, when she used to come and see me, I was absolutely exhausted, sucked dry; and I felt to myself, poor Tom this is enough.’
By the mid-1930s, though Eliot was reluctant to accept that Vivien suffered from mental illness serious enough to merit long-term confinement, c0nfinement was emerging as a clear possibility. His solution was to make financial provision for her, liaising closely with her brother and with her mother, but to avoid direct contact. To a degree, Vivien tried to make a life of her own. She took music lessons. She saw some friends, but spent a lot of time shut in her flat, fearful of persecution. She became a fascist, and sometimes appeared in public in Blackshirt uniform, hoping that Tom too might come to support Oswald Mosley (he did not). She invited her estranged husband to an art exhibition; she wrote to Faber, offering an illustration for his poem ‘Marina’. He did not respond.
On 28 July 1936, she caught up with him. He blurts out the fact in a letter to Dorothy Pound, who knew them both:
I am rather shaky at the moment, because I ran into my late wife in Wigmore Street an hour ago, and had to take to my heels: only people who have been ‘wanted’ know the sort of life I lead. If I could afford to live anywhere but London I would. Only I mustn’t have any address from which I cannot decamp quickly.
This is the darker side of the Eliot who could joke about being as elusive as Holmes, and could sign himself with a blank instead of a name. What is most shocking is his phrase ‘my late wife’. Vivien was not his former wife; they were still married. The phrase also implies a dead woman rather than a living one.
More than a decade earlier, ten years after he married Vivien in 1915, Eliot wrote to John Middleton Murry:
In the last ten years – gradually, but deliberately – I have made myself into a machine. I have done it deliberately – in order to endure, in order not to feel – but it has killed V… . I have deliberately killed my senses – I have deliberately died – in order to go on with the outward form of living – This I did in 1915. What will happen if I live again? ‘I am I’ but with what feelings, with what results to others – Have I the right to be I – But the dilemma – to kill another person by being dead, or to kill them by being alive? Is it best to make oneself a machine, and kill them by not giving nourishment, or to be alive, and kill them by wanting something that one cannot get from that person? Does it happen that two persons’ lives are absolutely hostile? Is it true that sometimes one can only live by another’s dying? … Must I kill her or kill myself? I have tried to kill myself – but only to make the machine which kills her. Can I exorcise this desire for what I cannot have, for someone I cannot see, and give to her, life, and save my soul? I feel now that one cannot help another by ruining one’s own soul – I have done that – can one help another and save it?
Does she want to die? Can I save myself and her by recognising that she is more important than I?
These words were published in Volume II of Eliot’s Letters with a note (probably by the co-editor, Hugh Haughton) identifying the desired person whom Eliot ‘cannot see’ as Emily Hale – a convincing identification. This letter’s obsessive focus on killing his own senses in order to endure explains a lot about Eliot’s apparently unstoppable stamina, evident in volume after volume as he goes on working like a Trojan despite collapses, threats and all sorts of difficulties; it is also responsible for his fear that his behaviour has ‘killed V’.
The nightmarish scenario of the man who has killed a woman is to the fore in Sweeney Agonistes and in Eliot’s 1939 play The Family Reunion, where Harry, the harried husband, fears he has ‘pushed’ his wife in a way that has led to her death. This volume contains some argument over the use of that verb ‘push’, but Eliot was determined to retain it in the play, and to leave ‘in doubt’ the answer to the question, ‘did Harry kill his wife or not?’ The protagonist, he maintained, ‘is really expiating the crime of having wanted to kill his wife’. Only after he has been visited by ‘the Furies’ does he come to understand his ‘Way of Liberation’.
The Orestes-like Eliot clearly felt hunted – stalked – in the mid-1930s, and in need of expiation for what could seem a marital crime. Shaping the book whose eventual title would incorporate his own best-known nickname – Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats – offered both relief and a different kind of release. Like ‘Marina’, this volume comes from the Eliot who, unlike Vivien (who was determined not to have ‘any children in my life … since I was a little girl of about twelve’), had longed for offspring. Many of the Cats poems (along with a few canine hangers-on) were sent in letters to his godchildren, although the book’s best-known and most elusive character, Macavity, is both ‘a monster of depravity’ and a potential murderer (‘another Peke’s been stifled’), as well as being, in the poem’s final wink towards the world of Sherlock Holmes, ‘the Napoleon of Crime’. If the plays that appeared under his name present versions of some of their author’s murderous psychodramas, the Cats poems draw sparks of sometimes sinister energy both from his private struggles and his wish to escape them.
During the summer of 1938 when The Family Reunion and Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats were at a late stage, and a few days after Michael Roberts had commented to him that ‘Macavity is the feline analogue of the late Professor Moriarty’, Eliot was holidaying at Chipping Campden in Gloucestershire along with Emily Hale’s relatives, and probably Emily herself. There he received a letter dated 14 July from his brother-in-law, Maurice Haigh-Wood, telling him that ‘V. was found wandering in the streets at 5 o’clock this morning & was taken in to Marylebone Police Station.’ Maurice had been able to get her released, but ‘the Inspector at the Police Station told me that she had talked in a very confused & unintelligible manner & appeared to have various illusions, & if it had not been possible to get hold of me or someone to take charge of her, he would have felt obliged to place her under mental observation.’ Vivien was now ‘in a deplorable condition’; she was asking if her husband ‘had been beheaded’, and her doctor felt ‘the time has come when V. must go either to Malmaison [a sanatorium near Paris where she had spent earlier periods of crisis] or to some home.’ Eliot, who paid various medical bills for her, was encouraged by his lawyer, by the doctors involved and by Vivien’s brother to agree to the ‘certification’ that would place her in an asylum. Among the physicians consulted was Dr Bernard Hart of the Maudsley Hospital, author of The Psychology of Insanity. By 9 August Eliot, apparently still in Chipping Campden, sent Haigh-Wood a short, lawyerly letter to say that ‘so far as my authority is concerned and so far as my authorisation is necessary, I give you my authority to apply for certification of your sister, Mrs T.S. Eliot, if Dr Bernard Hart thinks advisable, or to take any steps leading thereto which he thinks advisable, which may require my authorisation as well as yours.’ The formal way Eliot names his wife is at once legally correct and disconcerting. A few days after receiving Haigh-Wood’s letter saying the police had taken Vivien to the station, Eliot had inscribed ‘an early TS of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats “for Miss Emily Hale,/this not quite final text./from Old Possum./18.vii.38”’.
Seeking refuge in ‘Old Possum’ when ‘Eliot’ got too much for him, he was, as ever, protecting the family name. In maintaining that The Family Reunion had ‘nothing to do with the Eliot family, nor are there any characters which could possibly be supposed to resemble any Eliots’, he pursued an awkward yet resolute course. His Eliotic fastidiousness, particularly with language, continued. In the early 1930s, riffing on Edward Lear, he had recognised and mocked it in one of several poems that deploy his own name:
How unpleasant to meet Mr Eliot!
With his features of clerical cut,
And his brow so grim
And his mouth so prim
And his conversation, so nicely
Restricted to What Precisely
And If and Perhaps and But.
Some may find Eliot’s fastidiousness too much. It shows itself in innocent gestures: Ridler remembered that ‘Eliot, who did not take sugar, would carefully remove the teaspoon from his saucer before it became slopped with tea.’ But it also manifests itself in more disturbing ways. Always conscious of those who might seek to stain the name of Eliot by deploying it in support of causes he felt unable to champion, in December 1938 he refused to sign a letter protesting against antisemitism. ‘I am naturally sympathetic with any protest against maltreatment of Jews, whether abroad or in this country,’ he wrote, but then went on, in his characteristically meticulous, measured and somewhat de haut en bas style to elaborate on his reasons for not signing. Haffenden supplies a lengthy account of materials about ‘the tragic sufferings of the Jews today’ to which Eliot refers. He spoke out against political persecution in The Rock and Murder in the Cathedral. Yet most people would wish that, instead of engaging in fastidious argument, he had simply lent his name to that letter of protest. Days earlier he had heard about the fate of one victim of antisemitism, the composer Richard Fuchs, for whom, characteristically, he had attempted to do a good turn. Fuchs (who was later released, though not thanks to Eliot) had been ‘imprisoned at Dachau’.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.